“I am as moved as I am proud. Happy of course that my work is recognized but also touched that the African textile heritage, which runs through my creations, is thus celebrated. As if something was finally lining up and a new chapter in fashion was opening. Africa, so often fantasized will finally be able to express itself, in a authentic way and in all that is has noble and luxurious,
in the eyes of all .” - Imane Ayissi
It was in January 2020, when the Parisian couturier with Cameroonian origins finally entered the official calendar of Parisian Haute Couture as the guest member.
Not long ago, In January 2017, french ELLE magazine “recognized” Imane Ayissi as one of the most promising fashion talents, in an article entitled “They will dress us tomorrow”. Former dancer - from the National Ballet of Cameroon to the company of french star Patrick Dupont; model for the biggest luxury brands (Dior, Lanvin, Givenchy, Yves Saint- Laurent...), Imane Ayissi is considered today as one of the greatest African fashion designers.
Crazy about Vionnet and Balenciaga, influenced by his years in the ballets but passionate as well about African textile heritage, Imane Ayissi likes to cultivate his cultural mixing. His creations combine traditions: those of French haute-couture and those of his original continent, “academic” know-how and treasures from a flamboyant and age-old craft heritage. Each collection is designed as a modern tale a much as an invitation to travel. Continental archives, clothing or historical, shed light on or question our contemporary worlds. The women that Imane Ayissi dresses are like this exploration: they are curious, daring and committed.
Very sensitive to environmental issues, Imane Ayissi uses natural and often biological ways as much as he can, with the least possible impact. He favors organic cotton, textiles dyed with natural ingredients or printed in an artisanal way.
When did you know you wanted to be a fashion designer?
IA: It is a bit difficult to say, since for me, for a long time, styling, modeling, designing and even ballet were mixed or at least part of a big fashion universe. But I have been interested in fashion since I was a child, maybe under influence of my mother who was (and still is) a very elegant person. I used to sketch silhouettes in the ground dust with wood stick when I was 6 or 7 years old (at the time we didn’t have paper for that). Later on I started to unstitch and re-sew some dresses of my mother.
I started to work as a fashion designer and stylist in Yaoundé for a local brand when I was 18 or 19 years old.
How much did ballet influence your creative vision?
IA: Ballet makes you really conscious about your body, how you move it, how you have to control it, etc. So I think I am not an “abstract” couturier who think of a garment only as an object with its construction, its relationship to fashion history and so on. When I design a collection, the important thing is relationship between my garments and the body. What is important is the “allure” (a French word almost impossible to translate in English) they give to the women who wear them. The way my clothes move on a body in movement is very important, and when I design an oversized coat in a quite stiff fabric for example, I design it so that we can still feel the body underneath.
How does African heritage spark your creativity?
IA: I am a fashion designer, but I also come from an African country, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. So I don’t design “African fashion” or “African garments” but I don’t want, and can’t, erasure my African heritage. You can see this African heritage through my relationship to colors, to the body (that comes from ballet in general but also from traditional African dances) and also through this vision that fashion is there to embellish people, to give them strength and pride… “Grunge” or this idea of “poor” fashion is not very African. In my country, everybody, even poor people are very conscious of their appearance and try to show the best of them through their garments.
Please tell us about the traditional techniques in your designs that are noteworthy or uncommon in clothing today.
IA: At the beginning I would say that traditional textiles are sometimes almost forgotten even in African countries. It is very important for me to show to an international audience some fabrics like a Ewe kente from Ghana, a Baule kita from Ivory Coast, a Manjak pattern from Senegal, and to demonstrate that you can still use them in a contemporary way. Then, I think, the way I use “square” cuts, used for Boubou for example (as well as for kimono). Using this in a contemporary way, and mixed with the best western cut, gives a garment very special “allure”.
What is your favorite part of the process of making the collection?
IA: Certainly the first part: the researches of inspirations, stories, and textiles. I always discover and learn new things, and I still can dream of a “perfect collection” without any limitations.
What are the inspirations that come from other creative fields, such as art or dance, for example?
IA: It is more a general feeling that comes from dance, instead of precise inspiration, even if sometimes, I can be inspired by ballet costumes for collections. I really admire some contemporary artists (like El Anatsui, for example) and I imagine that their visions inspire me, help me feel the contemporary world, but I have never designed a collection directly inspired by an artist.
How do you discover new textiles?
IA: For traditional African textiles it is quite difficult because most of them are a bit forgotten, so you hardly find them in big cities nowadays. You have to travel to a small villages, find artisans… Actually I try to speak a lot to the people I met about the fabrics of their childhood, the traditional fabrics of their native culture… Books and collectors help me, too. And recently one artisan come to me through instagram for example. For the other kinds of fabrics, I do like the other designers. I visit the Premiere Vision fair in Paris.
Who are the biggest fans of Imane Ayissi?
IA: I don’t really know… My Couture clients are vey diverse, I must say.
If you’ve had a breakthrough moment in your life, what was it?
IA: I was lucky enough to have lived several in my life, but I must say the announcement of my “Akouma” collection as a part of the official Haute Couture SS20 calendar was a great moment. It is such a recognition for my work, but also for African cultures.
The story Africa - A Modern Tale by Tanja Beljanski first appeared in the March 2020 issue of L'Officiel Arabia.