A collection in homage to the resilience of African societies

July 7, 2020

In an interview with the journalist Hortense Assaga, Imane Ayissi tells us about the inspiration and genesis of her Autumn Winter 2020-21 Couture collection.

Hortense Assaga : Imane, you are Cameroonian but you live mainly in Paris, so where have you spent the last 4 months? 

Imane Ayissi : I spent them in Paris. In fact I was in Yaoundé just before the lockdown in France, I came back to Paris on Monday March 16th with, I think, one of the last flights between Yaoundé and Paris. I might have spent more pleasant weeks in Yaoundé where the situation has never been as bad as in France and where there was no real lockdown, but I don’t know when I would have been able to come back to Paris and therefore I probably wouldn’t have been able to participate in the Haute Couture Online. 

HA: But did you manage to work during the lockdown period? 

AI: It was very difficult. The advantage of being independent and at the head of a very small structure is that I could regularly come to work in my studio/workshop with a certificate. But practically first, it was very complicated, since my suppliers showrooms were closed, the workshops were converted into mask factories, and above all the post office and all international shipping services were practically blocked. And for my fabrics I work a lot with artisans from different African countries. We could always communicate by whatsapp, e-mail …etc, but it was almost impossible to receive their work, when in the same time I had to produce orders for stores. And of course I was forced to put aside all my orders from Couture clientes which required fittings, not really compatible with social distancing… Then it was a period of intense and difficult questioning : suddenly what became crucial was to take care of people, we were only talking about essential activities and this pandemic was bringing back to the forefront everything we do to nature and the consequences it has for everyone. So I really wondered, what’s the point of doing fashion? What’s the point of creating an extra dress when there’s already too much of it everywhere? 

HA : But you still decided to make a collection ? 

IA: Yes, pretty quickly, as soon as it became clear that there won’t be any fashionweek in July, I decided that I had to do something anyway, at least a small collection, even though I wasn’t sure how to present it. Despite of all my questions, or rather because of them. Because the conclusion I came to is that essential activities are not enough and that the superfluous is also essential to life. In any case, creativity, newness, beauty, culture, seduction, you can’t do without them. So you have to do with fashion, at least the best part of fashion, not disposable fashion, but fashion that tells stories, that makes sense. 

HA : So concretely how did you work, since you couldn’t have your usual fabrics, and what were your inspirations  

IA: It was very different from the usual process. For me it was really not possible to make a collection like the others, as if nothing had happened, it had to be directly related to the situation of the moment. So I didn’t look for photos, objects, samples didn’t made any mood board, I didn’t even try to tell a story. The inspiration was: how can you create something new when you have nothing left ? And therefore to find African reflexes, because this question is the problem that a good part of the populations of the different African countries have to solve. Hence the ingenuity to repair everything, to recover and transform everything in order to make some kind of miracle out of almost nothing… and hence the very low impact on nature compared to Western societies. This ability to upcycle what is thrown away so easily in Europe inspires even some major artists I admire, such as Romuald Azoumé with his masks or sculptures made from old plastic cans or tyres, or Brahim El Anatsui and his fabulous tapestries, so luxurious, made from recycled bottle caps. 

So I decided to do the same thing, to create beauty from waste, that is to say to make a collection only from scraps of fabrics from previous collections and orders, or from coupons and unused samples… that is the only inspiration and that’s these pieces of fabrics that naturally led to the different silhouettes, from a very artisanal work of assemblies 

HA : But you had enough scraps ? 

AI: Yes, I even have some left over to make another collection (laughs). I must say I love fabrics and it’s always a bit difficult for me to cut them, so as soon as there’s a piece that’s a bit important, but which, in any normal workshop, would go in the garbage, I keep it and I put it in a big box where it joins many others. It must be also my Cameroonian side, subconsciously I might say to myself, you never know, it could be useful… And finally it was useful. And then I also recycled elements already sewn for other collections but not used, for example petticoats that are regularly made and that I don’t use at the end because I prefer the natural fall of the fabric even for evening dresses. Then they were finally used… 

Obviously, and that’s also why it’s not a collection like the others, I won’t be able to reproduce the models exactly as they are. Of course it will be possible to order them but with other fabrics depending on the scraps available. Moreover I have made few silhouettes with the idea that each one is rather an idea that I could then decline in different variations with my customers, when ordering. 

HA : Why did you call it Amal-Si and what does it mean ? 

IA: Amal-Si, in the Ewondo language, means “the disaster that befalls the earth”. It obviously describes the situation that we know and that led me to make this collection, but it’s also a tribute to the resilience of African societies, which, for the moment, are doing better with this virus than in Europe or the United States, and which in any case are used to hard times and recover from them. More generally it is about of this capacity that we find in most African countries to make humour out of all problems and to create beauty, sometimes even joy out of misfortune, but without forgetting or hiding it. For example, the difference in the way death is treated in the Western and in African societies has always struck me. Of course every society has its rituals, but globally in Africa, mourning is obviously sadness, unhappiness, but at the same time people get together, help each other and it becomes festive, almost joyful, and also very beautiful sometimes, when there is music and dances. I’ve also found that in the prodcution of Joana Choumali, for instance, who is an Ivorian artist, a photographer whose work I really like. She has made a serie called “Ca va aller”. It’s a serie of photos she took a few weeks after the bombing of Grand Bassam in 2016. They are images that document in a way the misfortune that befell this city, yet they are embroidered photos, very colorful, at first glance very joyful, and really beautiful. Amal-if that’s what it is, doing something beautiful in spite of the misfortune, to counter it. 

HA : You won’t be able to show this collection, so how are you going to show it ? 

IA: I have to admit that I’m still a little frustrated by the missing show, for me to physically discover my clothes, to show them alive, in movement, even to few people, is the culmination and celebration of the work of a collection, even if, then, of course, there is all the adaptation to real life that are orders. And it completely changed my collection, I probably wouldn’t have done the same if there had been a fashion show.  

But I really thank the Federation of Haute Couture and Fashion for putting together this Haute Couture Online, with video presentations, because it allows to communicate about this work, which is first of all a Manifesto collection, and I have to say that I’m both a little bit worried and quite excited by the use of this tool, quite new for me, which is the video. Of course there are videos of all the fashion shows I’ve done, but this is something else. Since there’s no fashion show, again, it seemed impossible to me to make a fake filmed fashion show, to pretend it took place. So I tried with the video to show the clothes in a different way, to show what you just can’t see in a fashion show.  

And I also tried to play with the atmosphere, which would probably have been more complicated with a fashion show, to introduce a little bit of anxiety, a strange feeling of melancholy, in the middle of all these nice things, because that’s the story. 

HA : We can’t wait to see… And now what’s next for you  

IA : Now I want to move on. Not to forget, but to take the next step, and I’m already working on the next collection. I have a lot of ideas, hoping that this one, I will be able to showcase it in a really nice fashion show… 

Hortense Assaga is journalist and producer of TV shows about Culture for Canal + and Africa 24 

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