/ 10 February 2023

Chanel in Senegal: Fashioning links with Africa

Chanel Senegal 1 1670512281
On the runway: Chanel’s show in the Senegalese capital Dakar, its first in Africa, was a three-day event which came after Dakar Fashion Week. It shone a spotlight on Senegal’s strong fashion identity.

‘They came here to tell a story, to collaborate, to learn, to share and to celebrate and it was executed so beautifully!’

Just over two months ago, Chanel staged its first Métiers d’art runway show on the African continent in the heart of Dakar, Senegal. Chanel’s signature tweed, beads and camellias mingled with the city’s cultural and sonic richness at the Ancien Palais de Justice.

When the fashion world first heard that Chanel was set to showcase in Dakar, many were sceptical about the fashion house’s intentions and the potential for virtue signalling. The cards were stacked against the event — the optics of a French brand staging a luxury fashion show in a sub-Saharan African country, which was under colonial French rule until the 1960s, seemed precarious. 

Chanel does not have a major presence in Africa, either. The closest things to a boutique on the continent are Chanel cosmetic counters, the tiny standalone makeup and fragrance stores in South Africa and the bottles of Chanel No. 5 dotting duty-free shelves in airports. 

There are few documented ties between Chanel and Senegal. In a recent interview, president of fashion at Chanel Bruno Pavlovsky could not say whether Coco Chanel herself ever dreamed of coming to Dakar.

But, the brand said: “The Dakar Collection is the result of meetings over the past three years between (Chanel designer) Virginie Viard and choreographers, directors, musicians and writers, all together with friends of the house who are the plural inspiration behind this journey.”

Instead of parading lace dresses and tweed suits down a runway for a few hours, Chanel in Dakar was a three-day festival that followed the 20th Dakar Fashion Week, giving space to Senegal’s existing fashion identity, which is tied to craftsmanship. Chanel consulted with the appropriate people, spotlighted Senegalese artistic talent and brought in folk from across Africa, including South African DJ and music producer DBN Gogo. 

“We’ve been thinking about it for three years. I wanted it to happen gently, over several days of deep, respectful dialoguing,” said Viard, creative director of the project.

Chanel’s tap on Africa’s broad spectrum of creatives was not an opportunistic shortcut to lure a new market, the show was a celebration of equals. This doesn’t mean it was representative of Africa as a whole, but that would be very hard to do for any continent.  

Chanel is not the only global brand touching down in Senegal and the continent. Earlier last year, Tommy Hilfiger opened its first store in Senegal’s newly renovated Sahm Mall. Kim Jones’s Dior Pre-Fall 2023 collection showed in Egypt and Yves Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello showed Spring 2023 Men’s in Morocco. Both shows were highly celebrated.

But this does lead to the question of whether we are too quick to judge an endeavour like Chanel’s without first critically examining all of its moving parts.

Dakar in Chanel

As much as Chanel was in Dakar, Dakar made itself known in Chanel. The show opened with a performance by Senegalese dance school École des Sables and the collection of collaborators included local celebrities, such as actress Rokhaya Niang, rapper Nix and musician Nomoucounda Cissoko.

The house’s effort to reframe holding a show in Africa proved a big step in the right direction, with collaborations between many West African and French creatives. 

Short films by Kourtrajmé film school students and stories told through the lens of Senegalese photographer Malick Bodian and Dazed editor in chief Ib Kamara made the show multi-dimensional.

In fashion today, when diversity, inclusivity and cultural sensitivity are just as important as the garments themselves, Chanel’s spotlight on Senegal’s creative universe drew strong connections between the brand and the location. The show would not have been complete without global ambassadors, such Naomi Campbell and Pharrell Williams, drawing the eyes of the world.  

Sixty-two models walked the show, but only 19 came from Africa, including 12 Senegalese. Despite Chanel’s efforts to highlight different types of craftsmanship, the clothes themselves seemed a justification to fly 850 guests to another exotic location — 500 were from Africa.

Chanel in Dakar

On the runway: Chanel’s show in the Senegalese capital Dakar, its first in Africa, was a three-day event which came after Dakar Fashion Week. It shone a spotlight on Senegal’s strong fashion identity.

One Senegalese designer, Diarra Bousso, shared her scepticism about Chanel coming to Dakar. But much to her surprise, she was forced to revise this view after learning how much Chanel put into Senegal. 

“They came here to tell a story, to collaborate, to learn, to share and to celebrate and it was executed so beautifully!” said Bousso.

She said the invitation included thoughtful elements: a gold necklace with the Chanel logo paired with an image of the African continent and a Chanel scarf, but the pièce de resistance was the Dakar book, which showed the scale of this collection.

“I discovered Chanel’s voyage in the Thies region where they learned about Senegal’s traditional tapestry and shared the story of our craftsmanship from the asset-based lens it deserves,” Bousso said.

She marvelled at the Dakar editorial, where Senegalese models are pictured at the Marché Sandaga wearing Chanel tweed jackets and typical Senegalese moussors (headwraps), bought at the street market.  

“The images, styled by Jenke Ahmed Tailly and photographed by Malick Bodian, were a beautiful marriage of two cultures where respect and celebration is the basis before any beauty can emanate.”

Chanel designer Viard gives subtle nods to Senegalese crafts in the collection. One look, worn by Brazil’s Mahany Pery, references Manjak weaving done by the small ethnic group, whose craft is slowly fading.

Looks worn by South Sudanese model Alaato Jazyper and Rwanda’s Christine Munezero show elements referencing pagne tissé, a weaving technique with patterns ranging from large geometric shapes to weaves that share an aesthetic with Chanel’s signature tweed.

However, do brands like Chanel have to do more than reflect what is already known to African citizens back to them? 

Although the show notes said it was inspired by the 1970s “pop-soul-funk-disco-punk decade”, instead of co-opting African prints and silhouettes, Chanel’s artisans, under the guidance of Viard, presented the same thing they do every show: pants and jackets. New York Times reporter Vanessa Friedman commented that it “seemed most suited for a tribe of dabbling-with-the-hippie bourgeoisie”.

The art of Métiers d’art

Chanel’s Métiers d’art, an annual collection that pays homage to the brand’s small specialist workshops, such as milliner Maison Michel; feather worker and flower-maker Lemarié; and its most renowned atelier, the embroidery house Lesage. This is not a typical fashion show. The Métiers d’art is similar in style to Chanel’s resort show where it flies celebrity ambassadors and VIP clients to a location to show decadent, demi-couture pieces. Previous years saw shows in Mumbai, Edinburgh, Dallas and Hamburg.

“This annual celebration of the house’s artisanal savoir-faire is always a conversation with its destination and this edition, Chanel’s first in sub-Saharan Africa, highlighted the Senegalese capital’s cultural riches across fashion, art, literature, cinema and music,” Chanel said.

Perhaps this pride in craft is what draws Chanel to Africa, where each region practises centuries-old handcrafts, such as beading, weaving, printmaking and feather work. Last month, Chanel launched la Galerie du 19M Dakar with the exhibition On the Thread, housed at Le Musée Théodore-Monod d’Art Africain.

“[On the Thread] was designed by an editorial committee made up of Senegalese creative personalities or experts in its artistic scene,” the gallery said in an Instagram post.

Le 19M refers to the building in Paris that houses 11 specialised ateliers, and 600 artisans, financed by Chanel. It perpetuates the craftsmanship of artisans and attracts the public to a space where skills and ideas are exchanged. It is about art and craft, more than Chanel.

Chanel’s relationship with West African weavers builds a legacy beyond a weekend away for its special guests of the Métiers d’art show. By staging a show in a country with its own fashion identity, tied to weaving, colour and gold, Chanel married its own embellished tweed aesthetic with Senegal’s. 

The show is said to be the start of an ongoing dialogue between Senegal and France on training and education and craftsmanship. Despite Paris’s reputation as the world’s fashion epicentre, Africa’s handcraft-infused fashion is just as intricate and impressive, but finds itself in haute couture’s shadow.

It is clear Chanel does not want to co-opt Senegalese culture. But the cultural exchange programme throughout this year makes you wonder what the point of all of this is if the brand isn’t planning to fund Senegalese weavers, like they do with European ateliers.

Showcasing the art of yesteryear through collections and dress-up holidays for brand ambassadors is one thing but Chanel has set a (long overdue) precedent for doing more than a one-hit wonder show in sub-Saharan Africa.