PARIS — African fashion is experiencing a renaissance as a new generation of designers captures the imagination of luxury brands and consumers. But while the continent is rich in creativity, most brands have struggled to expand beyond their borders due to a lack of formal training.
This is the assessment of Sophie Nzinga Sy, a Senegalese designer who opened the Dakar Design Hub, a training center that offers courses to budding fashion entrepreneurs and local tailors.
Nzinga Sy launched her brand Sophie Zinga in 2012 after studying fashion design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York, after dropping out of her previous studies in economics at school.
“I opened my first store in 2013, I started trying to recruit from different design schools like you normally would and looking for factories that could develop my collections. And I had a very difficult time and it was like a wake up call for me,” she said.
“I literally couldn’t believe it because for me, Dakar is one of the fashion capitals [throughout] Africa, so I thought it would just be easier to find an assistant fashion designer or a pattern maker and it was really, really difficult. And the more I traveled across the continent, whether it was Ghana or Nigeria, I would talk to my colleagues and they would say the same thing,” she said.
“African fashion was talked about a lot, but I think the missing link was quality fashion education across the continent and especially in Senegal. And so in 2015, I started thinking.
“At first it was more just a fashion school that I thought I would start, and then as I went along and looked at the ecosystem and looked at all the different things that I had need support, I thought about having a hub that would just have different components and support younger generations,” recalled Nzinga Sy.
The campus, an hour from the Senegalese capital, was officially inaugurated a year ago and began offering classes in February. The school starts small, with 50 to 100 students expected in first grade, but eventually hopes to accommodate between 250 and 500 students per year.
“We have different target audiences. Our main target audience is our fashion entrepreneurs who basically have their own brands, already have a boutique or sell online but need tools to better understand what they are doing in terms of business but also looking at the elements fashion design that they never really had the chance to learn in school,” she says.
These courses last from two weeks to six months.
“Secondly, in 2024, we are going to launch degree programs, so we will be looking for high school graduates who are only interested in fashion design and want to study fashion.
“And then our third audience is tailors and professionals who work in the fashion industry, pattern makers and machine technicians who need to perfect what they already know in order to better serve entrepreneurs and perhaps- being to work for factories,” she explained. “We are slowly building our curriculum, which will lead us to higher education and not just to professional courses.”
Through word of mouth, Nzinga Sy recruited an international faculty made up of teachers from Senegal, the United States, Gambia, Canada and France. “It’s really been a great melting pot of different people who are very high level experts,” she said.
She noted that Patricia Blackburn, the fashion program director, has over 20 years of experience working in Hong Kong, the United States and Canada. “The idea is to really make sure that everything we do and teach, it really aligns with the global fashion landscape today,” she said.
Nzinga Sy also brings to the table her own experience as an entrepreneur. Between 2012 and 2017, the Sophie Zinga brand produced seasonal collections and held fashion shows in Milan, New York, Paris, Dubai, Lagos, Nigeria and Johannesburg, South Africa, in addition to Dakar.
“I believe I was the first to get into luxury ready-to-wear in Senegal,” she said. “The conclusion was that there was a certain niche in Senegal, across West Africa, of people who really, really wanted to buy luxury African fashion, but it was a very small niche.”
With outfits that ranged in price from $200 to $2,000, the brand used imported fabrics, an approach that ultimately seemed expensive and unsustainable to the designer. “And so it was, how do you redefine Senegalese luxury? And through that, I started thinking about a more contemporary brand that would speak more to the new African consumer,” she said.
She put the Sophie Zinga label on hiatus in 2017 and returned in 2019 with Baax, a more accessible label focused on sustainability.
Nzinga Sy presented her new collection on Saturday as part of Dakar Fashion Week and will present her designs at London Fashion Week for the first time in February as part of a showcase for African countries organized by the British Council. The organization, which specializes in international cultural and educational opportunities, also funded the Dakar Design Hub.
“I had a hard time finding the finances for it because in 2015, in Senegal, people didn’t take fashion or the creative industries too seriously and so it was really difficult to explain the project and I I had to go through different doors to get access to finance. Banks had no interest in financing something like this,” said Nzinga Sy.
She sold a house she owned as seed capital and eventually secured a $50,000 loan from the General Delegation for Rapid Entrepreneurship for Women and Youth, or DER, a government entrepreneurship institution that helps small and medium enterprises.
The German Agency for International Cooperation, known as GIZ, funded salaries, machinery and other costs, but Nzinga Sy is looking for additional partnerships. A team from Chanel, which is preparing to present its Métiers d’Art collection in Dakar on Tuesday, recently visited the premises.
“I always say that the Dakar Design Hub is a social project. This is not a project that will bring in money in the next few years. We’re trying to structure the industry through education in Senegal and so it’s really, really difficult, an ambitious feat. And so to do that, we really need more support in terms of human resources but also finance in general,” she said.
Thanks to existing donations, the school was able to offer free lessons, as well as start-up loans through a pitch competition.
“We are looking to form partnerships with different institutions, international fashion schools, but also foundations that would be interested in granting scholarships,” she said. “A lot of these students who are interested in fashion can’t afford tuition and so our next big step is to be able to roll this out in 2023.”
Nzinga Sy said her experience taught her the value of a fashionable formal education.
“I learned the basics I needed as a fashion designer to be able to launch my brand when I was 23,” she said. “Over a decade ago, African fashion was still hot and still new and I think just having Parsons on my resume was really helpful in navigating different spaces.”
Yvonne Watson, Acting Dean of Parsons, helped her develop the Dakar Design Hub program. “She was the dean of the program when I was in school, so we developed a great relationship,” Nzinga Sy said. However, she wants the institution to be autonomous.
“We’re really trying to build our credibility as Dakar Design Hub and as a fashion school and then later over the years I think it would be beneficial to have a name like Parsons or Central Saint Martins like exchange partner,” she said. said.
Nzinga Sy believes that partnership is key to unlocking the potential of the African continent and should benefit all parties.
“There is just this thirst for African fashion because of the creativity that has just been untapped and I think if we have to look inward and think about what a new fashion means for the global fashion industry fashion, we have to collaborate and we have to work together,” she said.
“Clearly, there is a huge consumer base in Africa that is not being tapped. Nearly a billion people live on the continent and so this is already a huge opportunity not only for African fashion designers but also for global fashion brands,” she concluded.