/ 1 June 2011

Niger’s Alphadi pushes African fashion to global scene

The West African country of Niger is better known for its poverty and at times its Tuareg rebellion — not for fashion.

But out of this dusty and arid nation on the edge of the Sahara desert has emerged Alphadi, a man as colourful as his creations — who is all out to push Africa’s fashion creativity to global prominence.

At his studio and up-market boutique in the capital city Niamey, clients and friends come and go. Everyone laughs, some get angry or lost in heated debates.

Alphadi is passionate about Africa, politics, development and discrimination, and strongly believes that fashion and arts are vehicles to spur the continent on to prosperity.

At 53 and of slim build, the cheerful Tuareg whose career spans nearly three decades is driven by seemingly endless energy.

His fusion of the Saharan desert experience and contemporary Western designs has his collections hitting the catwalks and runways from one fashion capital to another, from New York to Paris, via Dakar and Bamako.

His designs are inspired by centuries-old African handicrafts including those by the Hausa, the largest ethnic group in West Africa, and his native Tuareg.

Bad business
The Nomads couture collection features elegant and ultra feminine dresses in light silk or cotton print, some embroidered or woven with designs influenced by Alphadi’s native Tuareg savannah or natural lush vegetation.

Born to a father from Mali and a mother from Niger, Alphadi — whose real name is Sidahmed Seidnaly — created his label in 1984. He released his first couture line in 1985 at an international tourism show in Paris to great praise.

He now spends his time between Paris and Niamey.

Complexe Alphadi, which houses his offices, a workroom, a big prêt-à-porter boutique and a cafe, is located along the popular Vox Street in downtown Niamey. In the workroom, five designers toil away — one cuts a piece of pink fabric, another sews a cuff.

The Nomads collection is partly crafted here, as well as in Syria and Morocco. But last year’s political turmoil in this uranium-rich but deeply impoverished country weighed heavily on Alphadi’s business.

“I had over 120 employees, that was three years ago,” said the designer, who now counts no more than 30 workers in Niger.

A former French colony in West Africa, Niger has been marked by political instability and a series of coups since gaining independence from France in 1960.

‘Give Africa a chance to create’
The last coup in February 2010 put him on a “sabbatical”, Alphadi sadly joked. But the designer remains optimistic and banks on the return to a civilian democracy — in April, the junta handed power to a civilian, Mahamadou Issoufou, who won a March presidential vote — for a turnabout in fortunes.

Each encounter at his shop gives rise to a lively exchange with the uninhibited Alphadi.

The father of six says he is forging ahead with a “battle” to “give Africa a chance to create” both arts and jobs. But his humour gives way to anger and exasperation as he castigates African “politicians” who “relegate ‘artists’ into the background” and underestimate their abilities by awarding textile producing contracts to China at the expense of locals.

“You can do anything in Africa!” asserted Alphadi, sitting on a leather cushion in a corner of his shop.

“Oil! Diamonds! Uranium! I understand. But there are also creative artists. These are the poorest, the poorest who create, who make jewellery, embroidery,” he railed.

His own battles are many. Early on, he had to cope with rejection from his “very Islamic, deeply-rooted in religion” family of royal descent when his flare for fashion emerged early in adolescence.

“At the age of 14 I was knitting,” he recalled with amusement.

More recently, some Islamists in this predominately Muslim country shattered his shop window and threatened to kill him, unhappy with the way he dresses women.

“Helping the youths” is also a priority for the stylist who, every two years, offers young African designers the opportunity to showcase at his International Festival of African Fashion. — AFP