Imane Ayissi made history last Thursday by becoming the first black African designer to show his clothes on the Elite Paris haute couture catwalk.
“I’ve worked very hard to get to this point. It was my third time trying and it worked! It was a very touching moment,” he said of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode’s (FHCM) strict rules and regulations.
As widely known, only a few of the world’s most prestigious luxury labels including Dior, Chanel and Givenchy have a right to call their clothes haute couture, but Ayissi is the first designer from Sub-Saharan Africa to be invited to show an Haute Couture collection.
Both Saint Laurent and former FHCM chairman Didier Grumbach endorsed his candidacy and pushed for his profile to be accepted as part of this season’s calendar.
Cameroon-born Ayissi, 51, a dancer, performance artist, model and now couturier is a champion of traditional fabric and techniques from his homeland.
Ayissi said his mission is to show how hugely diverse African cultures are. “I am so proud that I can show my work and showcase real African fabrics and African heritage,” he told AFP.
According to Ayissi, who refuses to use West African wax prints due to colonial ties, “when we talk about African fashion, it’s always wax, which is a real pity because it’s killing our own African heritage.”
Ayissi told AFP he wanted to open up “a new path for Africa” and find an “alternative way of doing luxury fashion”.
Every one of his pieces is painstakingly handmade per the criteria of haute couture.
He uses local materials like the strip fabric kente woven by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which was originally worn only by nobles. He also uses African luxury tropes by using a Cameroonian tie-dye technique referred to as “Mon mari est capable” translated as “My husband can handle it”.
As the son of an African boxing champ, Jean-Baptiste Ayissi Ntsama, and the first Miss Cameroon following the country’s independence in 1960, Ayissi is making Africa proud by joining the fashion’s creme de la creme with his African skills.
He credits his mom for his love for fashion. “She’s so elegant, not only because of her fashion but the way she carries herself – she emanates strength and grace,” he told Vogue.
“Within the family, we had boxing and dancing clans, and a bit of modeling too, and mother loved all that,” the designer said. “I did a bit of boxing, it was obligatory, it was the family tradition, after all, then I started to dance,” he said.
Ayissi had relocated to the French capital to work as a dancer and model walking for the likes of Dior, Givenchy, and Lanvin until he started his own label in 2004.
For Spring/Summer 2020, the designer used raffia, threads from Burkina Faso and indigo dye from Cameroon coupled with fermented mud which has been described as infinitely more luxurious than the materials sounds.
To add sophistication to his African collection, Ayissi even used a highly sophisticated hand-woven material decorated with “obom”– the bark of a tropical tree.
His collection which shows his craftmanship has gotten him in the door of the extremely select haute couture club and brought him to an exalted position regarded as a rare rite of passage in Paris.
Haute couture shows only take place in Paris and the criteria to enter and remain in fashion’s elite club are strictly enforced by French law.