Compare: Did YSL Rip-off This African Designer?

Senegalese fashion designer, Sarah Diouf, pens an open letter after finding that a major fashion label had copied one of her designs.

What happens when someone's culture or artistic property is taken, repurposed, and used for someone else's gain? Well, it's called stealing.

We're seeing it happen more and more in the fashion industry, with major brands incorporating African-inspired styles in their collections without crediting the source, or just downright copying designs.

It can go as far as a major fashion line creating an exact replica of a designer's work and putting their own name on it.  That's what happened to Sarah Diouf, a Senegalese designer and founder of the fashion label Tongoro, who was disappointed to find one of her very own designs tagged with a YSL label during Paris Fashion Week.

Read Diouf's story, in her own words, below.

On Feb 28, YSL debuted their new Fall-Winter 17 collection in Paris, with a crowd bowing down to Anthony Vaccarello’s extravagant über-luxe aesthetic.

Two days later, I was receiving a text from my assistant, inviting me to peruse some of the looks details.

I couldn’t believe my eyes « But this is OUR bag…». Yep, no doubt. This is our bag.

A perfect replica of Tongoro’s MBURU bag : our signature accessory. And there is no chance they could have seen it elsewhere, because « Where else have you seen a 10x 60cm long baguette bag before? » Exactly.

I remember coming to my friends, editors, and any other person I would try to convince it was the next it-statement-accessory, getting laughed and looked at with perplex eyes. Again, « Where else have you seen a 10x 60cm long baguette bag before? »

We all know trends come and go, but when it comes to something that never came from anywhere else but yourself, you feel robbed from inside. And that’s a feeling I have never experienced before.

I think about all the times I scrolled over designer Aurora James posts complaining about how Zara stole her Brother Vellies designs, and thought « Wow… » thinking it only happens to others. Well, today I am the other.

Right after gathering my thoughts, I knew I couldn’t let this go. Because the purpose and the story behind what I do is bigger than an über-luxe aesthetic, and I won’t let anyone rob me from the only weapon that keeps me going and take a stand for a place some only look at for inspiration : my creativity.

Tongoro is a young Made in Africa brand I started last year to develop the textile production industry here at home, in Dakar, Senegal, and the MBURU bag is our signature piece as it represents an essential part of our culture and embodies the very essence of our dignity : the ability to wake, get out and fight for yourself.

Youth employment in Senegal is a real issue ; foreigners come here and see all these young guys on the streets trying to sell them anything, and it’s not that they're are not educated, but there aren’t enough job positions to fill. Yet you see them every morning, smiling, running, fighting for their dollar, selling cashews, toys, fruits or phone credit, because to hustle is to keep going despite the events.

MBURU means [bread] in wolof. The name of the bag is inspired by the #Dakar youth hustling spirit — who wakes up to earn their 'bread' every single day. The MBURU bag is an essentials keeper ; your phone, your cards and maybe some change (...) all you need to go out there and make it happen for yourself — with style.

It is so necessary for me to claim and reclaim every piece of culture and story I am fighting for the world to see.

My company is small, but my vision is large, and I am working way too hard to let this go.

Am I big enough to fight against a fashion institution like YSL? I may be not, but my voice is, and I have to use what I have to make a statement that won’t stay un-noticed.

Cultural appropriation at its best? For those who don’t understand, it’s like working on a project and getting an F and seeing somebody copy you and getting an A plus credit for your work.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

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Photo: Mídia NINJA

The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

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