Putting Africa’s Creativity on the World Map
Convinced that “culture is the fundamental starting point for [...] development,” Alphadi is committed to supporting the textile industry and promoting traditional know-how throughout the African continent. The internationally-recognized designer, who created the International Festival of African Fashion, has become a symbol of the struggle for economic development. His latest dream is on the verge of coming true — creating a school dedicated to fashion and the arts in Niamey. We met up with this “Wizard of the Desert”.
Interview with Alphadi by Jasmina Šopova
You define yourself as “the most pan-Africanist of all pan-Africanists”. Where does this feeling come from?
I am a pan-Africanist by descent and conviction. I was born in Timbuktu to a Moroccan mother and a Nigerien father of Arab descent. I grew up in Niger and I did part of my studies in Togo. I also have family in Morocco, Mauritania, and Côte d’Ivoire. All these countries are part of my mixed heritage that I hold proudly as a sign of African unity and dignity.
What brought you to the world of fashion?
I always had a creative urge, ever since I was a child. It is only when my parents passed away that I was able to express it. For them, it was out of the question for me to go into fashion! They believed it was a “woman’s job” and also incompatible with Islam.
I got a degree in tourism in Paris to respect their wishes. I studied by day, and by night I attended fashion shows. I ended up rubbing shoulders with some of the most renowned fashion designers of the time. Once I received my tourism diploma in 1980, I returned to Niger and worked for the Directorate of Tourism in the Ministry of Trade in Niamey.
And three years later, you presented your first collection in Niger…
Exactly. At the beginning, I wanted to set up an African textile project with the late Chris Seydou, a great Malian fashion designer. But I then found myself alone, so I gathered all the strength I had and created a weaving and embroidery workshop on my own. It was only later that I trained at the Atelier Chardon-Savard fashion school in Paris.
How did you finance the project?
At the very beginning, I invested what I earned working in a weaving mill in Niger. That is how I created the Alphadi fabric. Then I availed of the voluntary retirement support programme from the civil service, a support credit for setting up businesses, and a subsidy from the European Union. This enabled me to buy my first machines and hire my first employees. And that’s how the Alphadi brand was born.
The brand was recognized in Paris in 1985.
It was at the International Tourism Trade Fair. Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint-Laurent and some other designers and models that I knew from my time studying in Paris, came to lend me a helping hand.
But my greatest moment will always be the second International Festival of Fashion that took place in Paris in 1987. All the biggest names in the fashion industry were there. There were thousands of models and tens of thousands of spectators, and a billion television viewers around the world were watching! To present your collection on an open-air catwalk in the Trocadero gardens accompanied by griots [West African travelling poets and musicians] and camels is incredibly moving.
The festival served as a consecration of all your efforts, and was also a nice way of recognizing the work of craftspeople.
Definitely. I work with very talented craftspeople. From the very beginning, I hired more than a dozen weavers and about twenty technicians specialized in sewing, embroidery and beadwork. Later, I created a team of jewellers in Niger and a team of tanners in Morocco.
In the 2000s, I launched a perfumery and cosmetics brand which used ingredients of African origin. And in 2005, I introduced a sportswear collection, including jeans, T-shirts, etc., at prices that are affordable for young people.
I am fighting to create value for the African people, to offer them work, and to make sure their creativity is recognized. I manufacture my fabrics in different countries including Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, and Morocco and I am advocating for the reopening of textile mills in Africa.
How are you campaigning to reopen these mills?
To give you an example, in 2014, I went to the “Le pagne en fête [the Loincloth Festival]” fair that was organized in Togo to promote the recovery of the textile industry in the country. In Datcha, a village near Atakpamé, there used to be a factory that employed 3,000 people. It was shut down about fifteen years ago, and the workers were left jobless. The wax fabrics they produced have since been manufactured in The Netherlands. With all due respect, I believe that we are in a better position to produce African fabrics in Africa!
Revitalizing the African textile industry and enhancing traditional know-how have been at the heart of my project as a fashion designer, from the very beginning. All the approaches I take are geared towards these objectives.
How many people do you employ now?
Without counting the sub-contractors, I currently have between 150 and 200 people working for me. In my opinion, a creator of fashion is also a creator of jobs. I have always been convinced that culture is the fundamental starting point for a country’s development. Let me give you an example. Back when I started my fashion career, Niger was the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium. I kept saying that fashion in Niger could be a much safer source of wealth than uranium, but people did not take me seriously. Since then, uranium stocks have plummeted and fashion has had the wind in its sails!
You have been president of the African Federation of Couture since it was founded in 1994. Can you tell us about your work there?
The Federation was founded in Ghana, and its headquarters have moved as political situations in African countries changed. I must admit that we do not have the means to match our ambitions, but I am doing everything I can to help develop African fashion and design in all its diversity. One of my main missions is to develop the protection of trademarks, particularly with the African Intellectual Property Organization — but also with the World Intellectual Property Organization — to encourage African countries to adhere to the international trademark system.
You created a fashion festival in the middle of the desert! Tell us a little bit about this adventure.
It is my biggest pride! The International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA) was born in the Tiguidit desert in Niger in 1998. It is the culmination of many of my dreams — showcasing African creations, promoting young designers, enabling encounters, mixing cultures, cohesion, diversity, and peace. These are all values to which I attach the greatest importance.
Let’s not forget that during the first edition of the festival, the Touareg rebellion was still rampant in Niger. It is no coincidence that the logo of the festival is a stylized Touareg turban. I wanted to return the turban to its former glory, and transform it into a sign of peace, not war.
The 2016 edition of the festival was also characterized by peace.
Yes, our slogan was “Building a mixed and peaceful Africa” and we paid tribute to Nelson Mandela, an emblematic figure of peace. I presented a collection of haute couture all in white and organized a parade in the streets where everybody was dressed in white. That was also a very emotional moment!
Peace, culture and development are the keywords of each edition of FIMA. Every two years, the festival brings together designers from all over the African continent, as well as guests from Europe, the Americas and Asia. As much as it celebrates Africa, it dedicates the last day to bringing together the whole world on the same stage.
In December 2016, we organized the 10th edition of FIMA in collaboration with the Chamber of Crafts and Trades of Niger in the traditional wrestling arena of Agadez, in the north of Niger. The theme was “Education and the industry for a mixed and peaceful Africa”. I was particularly delighted that the event took place, since we had to cancel the festival scheduled for November 2015, because of the events that rocked the world and West Africa in particular. Since it is impossible to eliminate risk entirely, we felt that we were not in a position to ensure the security of the public and the participants.
Assoumana Malam Issa, Niger’s Minister of Cultural Renaissance, the Arts and Social Modernisation, chaired the launch ceremony of the 10th edition. He announced that he would support FIMA in its mission to make the fashion and haute couture industry a permanent tool for development. Now that the festival has been qualified as a key cultural event in Niger, we will be able to organize it every year.
Do young African designers find their place at the festival?
Actually, they have a privileged place at the festival! Every two years, since 2003, we have been organizing a competition for young stylists in collaboration with the Association Française d’Action Artistique and since 2010 we have been organizing it with the Institut français.
We receive between 250 and 300 applications for the competition. An international jury comes together at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris to choose three winners. For the past five years, the prizes have been financed by the West African Economic and Monetary Fund.
We also have a prize for African models, which increases their chances of becoming top models.
Can you tell us a little about the “Alphadi caravans”?
The idea came from my nomadic spirit. After each edition of FIMA, a team of about forty people (designers, models, fashion specialists, sponsors, journalists) set off across Africa to organize Alphadi shows. This enables us to meet talented young artists in different regions, who will then be selected by our jury to showcase their collections at the next edition of the Festival.
Do you have other projects aimed at promoting young designers in Africa?
My big project at the moment is to create an international school dedicated to fashion and the arts in Niamey. I have been dreaming about this for ten years, and two years ago I was given the land for this. The government of Niger has provided us with 3,000 square metres. I am now waiting for other sources of funding to make this dream a reality.
The construction plans are ready. We are hoping to build a factory workshop that will welcome some thirty designers from Niger and abroad. They will be able to create their collections there, and, if necessary, make and sell their designs. We also plan to offer accommodation to designers and teachers from abroad and to create boutiques, a fashion museum equipped with a fabric library, and rooms that can be used for fashion shows.
The concept is partly inspired by 42, the [private, nonprofit and tuition-free computer-programming] school created by Xavier Niel, the founder of Free[the French Internet service provider]. His priority is talent and teamwork. The Atelier Chardon-Savard in Paris is also helping us with this project.
We will build the school with the help of donors, but it will have to function independently. This is why modest tuition fees will be charged. The Alphadi Foundation will grant scholarships, and the students will be able to partially cover their costs by selling their designs in the school’s boutiques. The school will also include a “cultural nursery” that will offer six- to eight-month training grants to really young pupils aged nine or ten, to teach them artistic creation and fashion.
What is the role of the Alphadi Foundation?
I first created the Alphadi association in 2000. It is closely linked to FIMA and is particularly active in the field of education, though it is not limited to that. To give you an example, I organized several telethons, including one in 2012, for Malian refugees and it was a great success. We worked in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to raise about €52,000 and nearly eighty tons of cereal.
I am currently creating the Alphadi Heritage Foundation (the by-laws of the foundation are ready). This will focus on training women and girls, and will be engaged in issues such as health and malnutrition.
I often jokingly say that I trust women more than I trust men. A woman who earns a living, feeds and looks after her children; a man usually uses the money... to buy himself a second wife!
Alphadi was designated UNESCO Artist for Peace on 25 January 2016. The same year, on 23 April, he joined the UNESCO Coalition of Artists for the General History of Africa. With this interview, the UNESCO Courier is associated with Africa Day, celebrated on 25 May.