DAKAR, Senegal — Law student Aminata Kande stepped out in a $25 blue wax print dress to watch lanky models storm a makeshift runway wearing pieces that cost ten times that amount.
Dakar Fashion Week, an 11-year-old institution birthed in the posh hotels of this West African culture hub, took its act to Guediawaye, one of the most downtrodden neighborhoods of this sea facing capital. While organizer Adama Ndiaye affectionately described the area as "the 'hood," the northern suburb has repeatedly been the scene of violent riots over problems ranging from power cuts to seasonal flooding in this nation that consistently ranks in the bottom tier on global development reports.
The show was part of a six-day event featuring 18 designers, seven from Senegal and others from as far away as Germany and Brazil. Shows were scheduled to be held in three different locations throughout Dakar.
Ndiaye said she hoped staging a show in a working-class suburb would make high fashion as accessible to students like Kande as it is for the wealthy.
"It is very important to show that beautiful things are not only for rich people," said Ndiaye, who shows under the name Adama Paris. She said that the clothes she displayed in Guediawaye were of the same quality — and cost — as those that were to be featured later in the weekend at a luxury seaside hotel.
"I want this neighborhood to see what we have, and if it's a gown for 1,000 euros, then who cares? You don't have to be rich to like Dior," she said while prepping the staging area behind the runway, which was assembled on a sandy clearing normally used as a marketplace.
But a show in the suburbs is not exactly like a show downtown. Senegalese designer Ramsen, who specializes in dark, loose dresses adorned with foot-long feathers and other unusual accents, said she left some of her pricier pieces at home both to accommodate the crowd and to protect her more delicate creations.
"This is the suburbs, so people don't have the same financial means," she said. "Also, as you can see, there is a lot of sand out here."
The runway scene was also far rowdier than shows in the capital, Dakar. Thousands of Senegalese, who don't necessarily work in fashion, were vocal about their opinions. They cheered lustily at a leggy model wearing hot pink shorts by German designer Kathrin Huschka, and dozens of men jostled for better views from parked minivans on a road overlooking the runway.
The loudest reactions were reserved for the more famous models, especially actress Diarra Thiam, who was greeted to rapturous chants of her nickname, "Lissa." The presenter later brought her out to blow kisses to the crowd, which nearly toppled the control barrier on one side of the T-shaped runway.
For designer Tapha Fall, the show was a kind of homecoming. As a boy growing up in Guediawaye, he developed a love for clothes while helping out his father, a tailor. He said the decision to stage a show in the suburb would expose residents to global trends they might not otherwise encounter.
"The people here already have their own style — urban, a mix of American and French," he said. "But now they will see what's going on in the rest of the world."
But Yannick Minko, an assistant to Lebanese designer Enzo Itzaky, said designers could look to Guediawaye for inspiration.
"Style begins in the street," he said. "You look at designers in America, they are getting their inspiration from the Bronx, from Brooklyn. So why can't it be the same here in Senegal?"
After the show, law student Kande suggested that inspiration might come full circle. Though many of the items were outside her budget, she said she had snapped a few photos of dresses she might want to wear. And as is common in Dakar, she said she planned to take advantage of cheap labor to add some approximations of the outfits to her wardrobe.
"I'll see if maybe my tailor can make them," she said.