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WELL BEFORE I landed in Dakar, Senegal, I was told by friends in Brooklyn, where I live, that “Dakar never sleeps.” I didn’t quite grasp the adage until my second day in the city when I saw locals smartly outfitted in bold dresses, button-downs with pressed black slacks, and dark sunglasses — at dawn. This was my first time in Dakar — my first time in Africa — but just two weeks prior, I had discovered via a DNA test that my own genesis (via my late father’s Panamanian side) includes Ghanaian ancestry, as close as two generations ago. And I had heard about West Africa’s style and creativity for a long time, given that its contemporary roots predate my birth by over two decades.
These roots were planted in 1960, aka the Year of Africa, which saw 17 of the continent’s countries gain independence from colonial rule. This historic shift punctuated the power and ascension of modern Pan-Africanism, as famously described by W. E. B Du Bois and modeled by Ghana, which claimed its sovereignty three years prior, on March 6, 1957.
The occasion was anointed by the country’s newly minted prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, wearing a kente cloth — a traditional handwoven Ghanaian textile — featuring a design associated with the proverb “Adwini asa” (“I have done my best”). Senegal’s liberation came on April 4, 1960. The personal expression of both Nkrumah and Senegal’s president at the time, Léopold Sédar Senghor, combined with the exhilaration of freedom to ignite vibrant creative scenes across the region, with Dakar and Ghana serving as cultural epicenters and catalysts.
What has developed since is astonishing, as evidenced by the inspiring and intimate conversations I had with creatives in each city, highlighted within this portfolio. Each encounter was distinct, yet threads of ambition, integrity, innovation, and sustainability wove the varying people and places I visited together. The resulting tapestry sparked emotions I’d never experienced — overwhelming adoration and deep tranquility — and left me with the desire to return, immediately.
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Self-identifying as “‘l’artrepreneur,” Papi Wata employs painting, tailoring, and curation to celebrate his city. Dakar Lives, a globally renowned Instagram project he co-founded in 2015, does this explicitly by “curating the best photos from Senegal.”. Mwami, Wata’s clothing line, honors the city through its sustainable philosophy. “If you want to have as ethical a production as possible, you’re not left with a lot,” Wata explains. “The way we make our mark is by applying traditional embroidery and craftsmanship to modern fabrics. I won’t have anything industrially produced; everything you’ve seen here is dead-stock fabric.” Wata’s paintings also reflect his dedication to heritage and community, as does Cabal, his soon-to-debut concept store. Comprising a performance stage, bar, coffee shop, gallery, and music studio, it places people — plus their ideas and creations — at its center. “I get a lot of calls from locals and from people who are visiting,” Wata reveals. “‘Hey Papi, I’m coming to Dakar. Where can I go?’ Now I can just tell them to come home; I want them to know it’s their home.”
When I meet Bada Seck at his inconspicuous atelier in the Ngor arrondissement of Dakar, he’s busily sewing dresses, tablecloths, runners, and seat-cushion covers for Tabaski, the Islamic holiday also called Eid al-Adha or the Feast of Sacrifice. But the tailor is busy year-round, with clients from all over the world arriving at his one-room space in search of signature creations. Seck has been a tailor since 1989 when at the age of 15, he dropped out of school to learn the craft from his brother. In 1997, he began working for himself and has since trained six apprentices who he hopes will help him expand the business, which beyond bespoke tailoring, includes ready-to-wear designs — from Western-style suits to dresses to kaftans — sold both in Seck’s atelier and abroad. But for now, Seck’s passion and ambition mean he sometimes works until 5 a.m., taking a brief nap before beginning again at 10 a.m. “Is such a business challenging?” I ask. “The path is not difficult,” he replies. “The difficulty is the path.”
“Spoiler alert: You may fall in love with Senegal around here,” reads the Instagram bio of The Dakar Dream, Margot Mendes’ account. The warning is fair; it happened to Mendes herself. The designer — who hails from Guinea-Bissau and France — lived in Dakar as a child. When we meet, I get a glimpse of the passion for the capital’s culture that Mendes shares on social media and expresses through her accessories line Amaja. Born from her admiration of the kufi — a rounded, brimless hat traditionally worn by men in many West African countries — Amaja represents a left turn for Mendes, who studied international politics and earned a master’s degree in business. But its designs are a genuine reflection of Mendes’ style. “When I first wore a kufi, I felt so confident, so comfortable, and unique. I wore it every day. Women would say, ‘I love it, but it’s too bold.’” So Mendes worked for years to refine a prototype specifically for women, obsessing over seams and sourcing fabrics at local markets. Her studio table, with loose threads, old designs, and tags, coupled with the imminent global expansion of her business, reveal the tangible fruits of her labor. The intangible rewards are equally valuable: “It is because of creativity that I am alive,” she says.
When I first meet Aboubakarim Ndaw, he’s wearing a cotton, camo-green two-piece suit carrying two graphic tote bags with leather handles, all from his brand Kakinbow. So I ask what informs his designs. “It’s everything!” he says. “I think parties, fashion, and creativity are all in one box — the energy, that passion, are that creativity.” Yet, Ndaw’s creations are distinctly “out of the box,” intentionally unisex, with global undertones, an eclectic mix that entwines Ndaw’s personal story: He was a professional soccer player who lived for a time in Washington, D.C. Kakinbow’s designs usually incorporate local mud cloth and declare themselves to be “Made in Dakar with LOVE.” The style is also holistic, wholly Ndaw, intentionally challenging binaries and clear definitions. “I’ve always been this way,” he declares by way of explanation.
In December 2022, Chanel’s Métiers d'Art show shone a global light on Senegal’s unique craftsmanship, placing the heritage and progressive work of designers such as Marie-Madeleine Diouf, founder of 10-year-old label NuNu Design by DK, at its center. A Dakar native, Diouf discovered her love of indigo at a young age in her mother’s closet, which was filled with intricate inky garments traditional to her family’s Serer culture. By 15, Diouf was making her own clothing from the expressive fabric. With NuNu, she intersects memory and modernity, sourcing Senegalese indigo dyes and cotton and employing craftspeople from the area, whose craft is on display when I visit Diouf at her boutique in downtown Dakar. But Diouf’s influence stretches beyond fashion: Her work has also recently been featured in the Dakar Biennale and at la Galerie du 19M in Paris.
Nearly every conversation I had on the beach in Dakar began with, “Have you watched ‘The Endless Summer’?” The 1966 surf documentary memorably captured Dakar’s tantalizing waves and its citizen’s generosity. Both remain on display when I visit Take Off Ngor, a surf club and school located outside Ngor, a coastal arrondissement. Founded by Pape Samba Ndiaye five years ago, it transcends financial barriers to entering the sport. Ndiaye and a handful of surf club members offer free lessons to local kids. I watch as around 20 children aged 5 and up (Ndiaye’s two children among them) jostle, fall, and rise on the boards. Among the jersey-clad crew, who also wear grigris (talisman) wrapped around their bellies and necks, there is an equal — and intentional — split of boys and girls. “This is my passion,” Ndiaye confirms. “I knew only one girl who surfed 20 years ago. Now the girls and boys mingle and take care of one another.”
I encounter Glenn DeRoché and Juergen Strohmayer at a timber factory stacked with Ghanaian wood, which is apt since all the architects’ partnerships — such as a revamped house for the Surf Ghana collective and a contribution to the 2023 Venice Biennale of Architecture special project “Guests from the Future” — demonstrate a sharp focus on holistic sustainability. “The privilege of being from New York City and Vienna and meeting one another in Ghana allows us to merge ideas from these three distinct environments to explore alternatives, opportunities, and materials,” explains DeRoché. For the Surf Ghana house, raffia palm was sourced from a village six miles away, and at the site we walk through later in the day, the pair is modifying rather than demolishing the existing property. “There are parallels between these worlds of making,” Strohmayer says. “They all stem from and go beyond fundamental human needs: shelter, clothing, and sustenance.”
When I catch sight of the Skate Gal Club members at a frequent meeting spot, they’re skating down the middle of the street. Just as important to the club’s founder, Sandy Alibo, the young women I see are also bonding. “With skateboarding and what we build together, there’s a good balance between their dreams and how they can be more respected,” Alibo explains. “Being together gives them hope.” Her impetus in founding the Skate Gal Club in 2019 as a partner to Surf Ghana (of which Alibo is also a founding member) was to connect and empower girls and women in Ghana through skateboarding. Uplifting community is at the heart of all Alibo’s endeavors, which also include Accra’s Vibrate Space: a community recording studio and workspace with music business programs for young artists. Designed to give them the tools and information they need to succeed in the global music market, Vibrate Space launched in 2022 to international attention, with Spotify investing in it through its Creator Equity Fund and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visiting the space on her first day in Ghana. Speaking to the impetus behind her myriad projects while watching the Skate Gal Club crew ollie and flip, Alibo humbly notes, “It’s just positive for them to have more confidence.”
The singer-songwriter DarkoVibes (formally known as Paul Nii Amu Andrew Darko) and I meet in front of Republic, inarguably the most popular bar in Accra, to discuss the intersection of style and music that defines him as one of the country’s brightest stars. Yet I’m immediately struck by his down-to-earth familiarity. He speaks freely about his early love of music and unaffected style. “My style comes from my family, who has strong opinions when it comes to fashion,” he reveals. “My mom used to sell fabric around Accra Central, and my dad was a tailor.” He’s wearing a track jacket and pants by the Ghanaian brand Free the Youth — DarkoVibes often employs his clothing to display his pride in being African, pairing this expression with his music to inspire others to honor themselves. His recent album “BUTiFLY” amplifies this message: “There’s enough space for everyone in the sky and that every person, every child, can be a star.”
When I visit the Studio 189 manufacturing facility in Accra, a batik artisan named Aggie is working outside under a mango tree, meticulously stamping a dress with paint before folding it, dipping it, and drying it. The craft, which Aggie has been practicing for nearly 25 years, imbues the fabric with a distinct DNA (the print is aptly called the “Aggie”) that conversely defines every Studio 189 design. “Studio 189 is the sum of us,” explains Abrima Erwiah, who co-founded the fashion and lifestyle brand in 2013 with Rosario Dawson. Visiting their factory later that day, I begin to comprehend the meaning and magnitude of this statement. Here, Abigail and Hannah snip fabric for Lydia, who stitches the offcuts into women’s, men’s, and kids’ garments to be sold at luxury retailers around the world. Beyond manufacturing clothing, however, Studio 189 describes itself as a social enterprise that “provides a platform to help promote and curate African Fashion.” It collaborates with artisans, such as Aggie, who specialize in traditional craftsmanship techniques — ranging from batik to kente weaving to plant-based indigo — to create Made-in-Africa garments that sustain their makers and the region’s heritage. “Underneath it all is technique,” affirms Erwiah. “The people who made it can tell you the story — their own version of the story.”
LaTonya Yvette is a contributing editor for Departures and a multi-media storyteller. She founded LY, a highly trafficked lifestyle blog, in 2011, and produced visual and written content for a decade. During that time, she published her first book, “Woman of Color” (Abrams, 2019). She also co-authored “The Hair Book” (Union Square, 2022), an illustrated children’s book, with Amanda Jane Jones. Her third book, “Stand In My Window” (Dial Press), hits shelves Spring 2024. LaTonya is the owner and steward of The Mae House, an upstate New York rental property and the home of Rest as Residency, which offers BIPOC (primarily geared towards families) a no-cost place for rest and focus. Yvette resides in Brooklyn with her two children, where she writes the newsletter “With Love, L.”
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