Tanzanian Designer Doreen Mashika on How Zanzibar Inspires Her Work

Courtesy Doreen Mashika

We stopped by her Stone Town boutique to learn more.

Even on a pallid gray day, the unrelenting torrents of rain do little to keep people out of the busy streets of Zanzibar’s Stone Town: spice markets and seafood auctions see brisk trade, no matter the weather, and groups of football fans spill out onto the streets to cheer for a match being aired at a boisterous local café. It's easy to get swept away amid the crowds in the historic old town’s tangle of alleys, where the famed Zanzibari carved wooden doors preside over every narrow lane, but chances are you’ll eventually wash up around the waterfront area. It’s there, just steps from the opulent Park Hyatt Hotel, which inhabits a restored 17th-century palace, that you’ll find Tanzanian designer Doreen Mashika’s eponymous boutique in a 1940s-era warehouse. 

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“Zanzibar is very authentic. I don’t know where around the world you'll find such authenticity in every square meter,” says Mashika as she sits down for a chat at her shop on a drizzly afternoon. “If you look at Stone Town, everything is very original.”

Courtesy Doreen Mashika

The designer was born in Dar Es Salaam and moved to Switzerland as a teen, then stayed on to work in a private bank and in Europe’s luxury goods sector—developing a keen eye for high-end fashion along the way. But Tanzania was always on her mind. “I stayed in touch with what was happening, and wanted to come back to Africa and while I was still young,” Mashika says. “I never wanted to have my dream made in Europe, I wanted it to happen where my roots are from. To bring change in so many ways to the perception of fashion in Africa, by Africans.” 

Daniel Scheffler/Courtesy Doreen Mashika

She returned home in 2005, and made the move to Zanzibar in 2008. As a crossroads where far-flung cultures have long mingled—Africans, Arabs, Europeans, and Chinese all left their mark on the island—Zanzibar’s cosmopolitan vibe is an easy fit for Mashika’s global outlook. Though she had holidayed on the island as a child, “it wasn’t sexy to come to Zanzibar,” she remembers. But when it came to her design sensibility and plans for her brand, setting up shop in historic Stone Town just made commercial sense. “Being here, I felt like I was in contact with the global world. There’s so much inspiration, so much cultural heritage I could take advantage of,” she says. “The way they weave their fisherman's baskets. The architecture—balconies, Zanzibar doors. The ocean, flora, and fauna. And the people, and even my customers inspire me—they come from different places in the world.”

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The gallery-like emporium is a reflection of Mashika’s vision of showcasing Tanzania’s creativity to her global clientele. You’ll find a vast selection of her own dresses, shoes, bags, and jewelry—many of which incorporate traditional Zanzibari cotton kanga cloth and Maasai-inspired glass beading—alongside other Tanzanian brands like Sidai Designs jewelry, Cocozania skincare, and Aqua Zanzibar perfume. And if browsing the silken scarves, airy dresses, and chic clutches on display at Mashika’s gleaming emporium inspires you to become a client, you’ll find yourself in esteemed company: former First Lady Michelle Obama has one of the designer’s print bags. 

Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

While the pandemic has choked Zanzibar’s thriving tourist market, Mashika has recently begun selling some of her designs through the fashion site Industrie Africa, which ships some of Africa’s top luxury brands worldwide. What that means for you: If a trip to Mashika’s Stone Town boutique isn’t on the cards just yet, you can still browse and shop from an edited selection of Mashika’s summery frocks—like the asymmetrical Bahari dress, the beach-ready floral Nia, or the halter Pilipili. Even with global travel largely on pause, Mashika manages to bring a tropical taste of Zanzibar right to your doorstep.