This week, Kwabena Gyane discusses the journey of Sarah Diouf and her fashion label, Tongoro.
Fashion has always been akin to storytelling: the array of fabrics and materials are a designer’s words. Stitching, from chain to multi-thread, are the conjunctions. Every piece is a distinct chapter, all coming together to show consumers the journey from sketch to show. For Sarah Diouf, “fashion is an amazing tool to tell stories, but it can be so much more when used as a catalyst for change”.
Launched in 2016, her fashion label, Tongoro, was already telling a story before its first pieces made their presence known to the world. Aptly named, ‘tongoro’ means ‘star’ in Sango, the native tongue of the Central African Republic and a nickname given to the creator by her mother.
As a designer, it’s imperative that the brand name holds a story, aiding in not only creating meaning behind the garments produced but establishing the overall tone of the brand. In the case of Diouf, culture serves as the story and the foundation.
While it may be based in the bustling capital of Senegal, Dakar, the conception of Tongoro occurred outside of the country. It was during Fashion Week in Paris that Diouf, showered with compliments on the clothes a Senegalese tailor had created for her, found the idea planting itself. With time and rigorous research but no “tangible information on African fashion”, starting from scratch was the only option available to her. At this point of her journey, Diouf faced a hurdle that was both ubiquitous and unique. Designers everywhere face the challenges of finding the right place in the fashion market for their work, but very few face this in addition to finding a global customer base for African fashion.
Tailorship plays a vital role in many African cultures. Fabric type, styles, and designs tell tales of the past and whisper ones to the future and Senegal is no different. Diouf describes craftsmanship as “the foundation of [her] brand”. She collaborates with local artisans when she discovered, after having several talks with them during her earlier trips to Senegal, that “outside the cultural festivities, there’s not…much work for [them]”
Unlike many European and American countries, these local tailors don’t go to fashion schools to learn and master their crafts, they are taught by their elders. They function as, according to Diouf, “cultural agents”, keeping the sartorial history of Africa alive. She wanted to foster these talents that were not being given the necessary resources to grow.
Tongoro is 100% made in Africa: to Diouf, this is essential to the brand’s sustainability. This supports the social and economic growth of tailors that aid in bringing her dream to life. As she succinctly puts it, “It’s the ability to create value through a commercial product without compromising, if not bettering, the wellbeing of the human resources required in the process”. The tailors don’t work for her, they work with her. It’s about creating connections to elevate those involved.
As a designer, finding untapped talent is always welcomed, but one must be willing to cultivate it in a manner that not only benefits oneself but those you collaborate with and share your vision.
“Tongoro is an African brand that dresses globally, and that will hopefully help the ‘Made In Africa’ label to become a gage of quality,” she says. Diouf, like many African-based designers, wants to change how the phrase ‘made in Africa’ is perceived by the fashion world – which still seems to attach “poor quality” to it. With the hopes of “[captivating] the global market…to try [Tongoro’s] goods once, to seduce them and convince them”, she employed the tactic of having pop-up stores in cities that would attract consumers who she could convert into online customers.
When asked why she uses ‘Made In Africa’ and not ‘Made In Senegal’, Diouf had this to say: “As an entrepreneur you have to have a vision that goes beyond your comfort zone – and with mine it’s continental, with Made in Africa there is no limit to my expansion, anywhere in Africa.”
With a wider scope in mind, a designer is bound to find themselves in areas they had previously not envisioned. It may be safer to be risk averse, but being open to changes can always present the opportunity to elevate a brand, especially an up-and-coming one.
In its second year, Tongoro experienced a situation many new brands rarely do: it received global exposure.
Beyonce wearing Tongoro caused sales to explode. Being part of both her professional and personal styles was testament to the brand’s quality. Diouf would go on to collaborate with her, creating looks for her Spirit music video released in 2019. The exposure did not stop there for the brand: Tongoro had fashion icons Naomi Campbell and Iman praising it.
This has clearly contributed to its commercial success, and although these opportunities may not present themselves to every new brand, it should not hinder any designer’s dreams of success as success can be achieved through different routes.
From the exaggerated sleeves of the Male playsuits to the mesmerising design of the Kizi dresses, Diouf always utilises the cultures that shaped her to tell stories that are meant to captivate the audience.
To her, “the goal is to make [Tongoro] affordable to most… luxury is an experience it’s not a price”. This statement holds truth when paired with what is said next: “When you think of luxury, the first name that should be put next to it, is Africa, it’s one of the only places left in the world where you can have a bespoke experience with pretty much anything and there is no price for that.”
Diouf’s success with Tongoro not only shows how African designers are now on the rise and are going to make a mark in the fashion industry, but her journey also highlights the trials and triumphs young designers face while navigating the fashion industry.
You can read more of Kwabena’s work at clippings.me/users/kwabenagyane, whereifoundmyeyes.com and @whereifoundmyeyes on Instagram.