His father was undefeated boxing champion of Africa, now Imane Ayissi is making history himself by becoming the first sub-Saharan designer to show in the elite Paris haute couture week.
Not only is he joining fashion’s creme de la creme, the Cameroonian couturier is shaking up the stereotype of what “African materials” are by refusing to use wax prints which he dismisses as “colonial”.
Highly colourful wax cotton prints flooded West Africa after Dutch mills began turning out millions of rolls of the material with patterns borrowed from Indonesian batik in the 19th century.
“Still when we talk about African fashion it’s always wax, which is a real pity, because its killing our own African heritage,” Ayissi told AFP.
“We only started wearing wax during the colonial era. Africa has more to show for itself than that — and the whole world needs to know that,” he insisted.
The 51-year-old former dancer dreams of “opening up a new path for Africa” in an “alternative way of doing luxury fashion”.
With his show called “Akouma” or “wealth”, Ayissi has tried to create a debut collection that nods both to the depth of indigenous African know-how and the fact that haute couture is also preserve of the ultra rich.
Ancient African techniques –
While every piece is painstakingly handmade, as haute couture demands, the designer has had recourse to African materials and techniques rarely if ever seen on the Paris catwalk.
Strip fabric kente woven by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which was originally worn only by nobles, has been transformed into elegant evening wear, with spectacular dresses decorated with obom, the bark of a tropical tree.
Ayissi has also played with African luxury tropes by using a Cameroonian tie dye technique “which is expensive and slow to do” called “Mon mari est capable” (roughly translated as “My husband can handle it”), which is all about showing you how deep your pockets are.
Like his late father, Jean-Baptiste Ayissi Ntsama — who founded his own political party after quitting the boxing ring — Ayissi wants to become a champion for African talent.
His childhood home was a crossroads of many worlds: politics and boxing from his father and fashion from his mother, a former Miss Cameroon.
“Within the family we had boxing and dancing clans, and a bit of modelling too, and mother loved all that,” the designer said.
“I did a bit of boxing — it was obligatory, it was the family tradition after all — then I started to dance.”
Dancing with the stars –
His dance career mixed ballet, modern dance and pop, including dancing in videos for superstars Sting and Seal as well as touring with French tennis star-turned-singer Yannick Noah.
But it was his parallel career as a striking Paris runway model that really reignited his passion for fashion.
That re-awoke childhood memories of cutting up and re-sewing his mother’s and his aunt’s old dresses.
Yet Ayissi — whose show closes haute couture week Friday — has been far from an overnight success.
He staged his first Paris fashion show in 1993 “for his friends” with some 200 dresses, of which “only one or two” really worked, he remembers with laugh.
He has come a long way since, with his last collection, which helped get him in the door of the extremely select haute couture club, centred on ecological concerns.
It included dresses in black and mauve embroidered with plants and fish using an appliqued technique inspired by Abomey tapestries from Benin and the colonial era Asafo warrior flags from Ghana, then called the Gold Coast.
One particularly striking dress called “The Black Sea” was embroidered with a blue whale and large-eyed fish.
Ayissi said the dress was a reference to the “black tides (of pollution) on the one hand and sadness on the other.”
But ironically his own insistence on trying to use only natural dyes and organic cotton means that he has to buy a lot of material in France and then send it to Africa to be made.
“If we buy there it will have come from Asia and probably won’t be organic. It’s costly, but it’s a choice I make,” he said.