Sunday, June 17, 2012

Le Pagne and African-made fashion

Display at R.W. King, Douala
One of the first stops I made while in Douala was to buy pagne, African fabric, at R.W. King.
Since a couple of years, women's clothing made with pagne is popping up in Saks Fifth Avenue and other upscale retailers' ads, at corresponding prices, in the many hundreds of dollars: Suno and Edun; in France, Toubab Paris.* In Edun's case, it certainly helps that a celebrity (Bono) and his spouse, Ali Hewson--are behind it.
These trademarks have one thing in common: non-African founders, which is sad, as the same thing happens in all design fields, and often not only for Africans, but all "developing" countries: if the designer is African (or Indian, or even Chinese), she/he is ignored by major Western media or trade representatives (retailers, galleries). On the other hand, when finally Africa joins the rest of the economically wealthy world, and I am convinced the day will come, this will become be a moot point.
I often wore dresses made in pagne when I was living in Cameroon, and all the seamstresses in Douala are accustomed to making them. When I showed my spouse's cousin, who not only sews clothes, but also creates complete wedding environments (decor and dresses), the ads torn from the New York Times for Suno and Edun, she was flabbergasted at the prices!
Of course I had to have at least one dress made, although I wasn't ready to pay for Dutch "wax" at a much higher price point than Cameroon-made fabric. The "wax" holds out better to the strains of time, but not only is it expensive, the designs are better-suited to a specific African wardrobe than for a Western-style dress.
R.W. King was one of the outposts of the European "comptoirs coloniaux," trading outposts that have their roots all the way to the Phoenicians with Carthage, in North Africa. They were used to import fabrics and more to Sub-Saharan African countries, and exporting raw materials to Europe. It's such an old-fashioned business that I couldn't even find an R.W. King website.

My new dress by Schekina
I returned from Cameroon with my own dress, as yet unworn because of the cool rainy season we've had in the Northeastern United States. Below are a few more photos of the Douala traditional kabas and mini-kabas, easier to wear for daily life.

Links to explore

Earlier posts in Away From Africa written about clothing in Sub-Saharan Africa:

For more information about the history of Comptoirs, trade posts, pagne, and wax, in English and in French:

French Wikipedia: which includes a reference to the slave trade.

English Wikipedia: with a focus on Northern America.

Fah-Schyon blogs about  fashion in Africa topics.

About Wax and Bazin on the Toubab Paris blog:

* Toubab (or Toubob) is the word used in West Africa to name people of European descent. The first time I ever saw this word was in Alex Haley's Roots (the book)--my first introduction to Africa south of the Sahara, so long ago!


  1. The bulk of the Marni at H&M collection was made from African fabrics! Sure, the prices were not too high, but when the original Marni line is done from such fabrics with astronomic prices... Ah well - get my point? Interestingly I once wore my african shirt to the goodbye party of the Comme des Garcons guerilla store which makes such shirts and sells them at pretty high profit margin, the shop's manager said "oh how lovely to see you wearing one of our shirts for the closing party" to which I replied "no, this is the genuine article it cost me 2 bucks after discount."

    1. Now that you mention it, I seem to recall seeing something like pagne in a Made for Target special collection, also.
      There are more and more "copies of copies" in synthetic fabrics, instead of cotton... and pagne is by definition breathable cotton.
      2 dollars (appr. 1,000 FCFA)? You can't get it for that price in Cameroon!


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