Imane Ayissi, a Cameroonian artist, has been making traditional African fabrics into made-to-order womenswear worn by Zendaya, Angela Bassett, and Aissa Maga for nearly two decades. However, it wasn’t until January, when he was asked to present his Spring-Summer 2020 show as a guest member of the Chambre Syndical de la Haute Couture, that the international press took note of him.
“There was a lot of excitement,” Ayissi said from his Paris studio. “People were intrigued.”
Though his guest member status does not grant him access to the haute couture label (the selection criteria and specifications are stringent), it does put him in the same tier as Ralph & Russo, Iris Van Herpen, and Zuhair Murad. “His ability to encourage (and) beautifully transform conventional methods, as well as his ingenious way of working on fabrics hitherto unused in couture obviously played a role in him being invited,” a spokeswoman for the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (the French fashion industry’s governing body) said in an email.
Ayissi made his couture week debut with a collection dubbed “Akuma,” which means “richness” in the Beti language, to convey the notion that real wealth is determined by what you do with what you have, whether you have a lot or a little. A strappy dress was draped in red raffia from Madagascar, strips of Ghanaian kente were assembled on a loose coat, and obom tree bark from Cameroon was molded into petal sand floor-length evening gowns with appliqués on the runaway.
“It’s about your relationship with material objects and your respect for other people,” Ayissi explained. “It’s how you build a dress that gives it life.”
Ayissi was a dancer with his home country’s national ballet before moving to France in the early 1990s to collaborate with French ballet star Patrick Dupont. He is the son of a boxer and a former Miss Cameroon. He didn’t have any formal design experience, but he got the fashion bug when posing for Dior, Givenchy, and Lanvin, the same labels for whom he now shares show schedules, and launched his own collection.
Ayissi acknowledges that his early collections were not always good, but he persevered and steadily improved his textile and tailoring skills. He’s now known for combining ethically sourced, recycled fabrics from African cooperatives with traditional couture fabrics such as silk and taffeta. The forms are usually plain, allowing the craftsmanship and elegance of the fabrics to shine through.
Ayissi founded his own label in 2004 after moving to Paris to work as a dancer and model, walking for brands such as Dior, Givenchy, and Lanvin. While he began by designing for private clients, he has since gone on to exhibit at international fashion weeks such as Lagos, Dakar, and Shanghai. He also has showrooms in New York and Paris, and his ready-to-wear cocktail dresses, made from Faso Dan Fani (Burkina Faso’s national textile), can be found at Alára in Lagos, which is also compared to Paris’s classic Colette.
Vogue visits Ayissi in his workshop in Strasbourg Saint-Denis, which is becoming increasingly hip. He is surrounded by his works and Cameroonian sculptures. For the 51-year-old, these are exciting times. For the first time, on January 23, he presented his SS20 collection as a guest designer on the official Haute Couture calendar, making him only the third African designer to do so after Alphadi. “I’ve worked very hard to get to this point. It was my third time trying and it worked! It was a very touching moment,” he says of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode’s (FHCM) strict rules and regulations. Both Saint Laurent and former FHCM chairman Didier Grumbach endorsed his candidacy and pushed for his profile to be accepted as part of this season’s calendar.
Ayissi is making a name for himself for delivering a modern, complex and sophisticated vision of Africa. “Africa isn’t a country, it’s a continent! We deserve better than these simplistic clichés, which sadden me,” he explains. “It’s my mission to show how hugely diverse our cultures are: in Cameroon alone, we have over 200 dialects; there is a profound complexity that I want to celebrate.
Zendaya, Angela Bassett, and Assa Maga have all worn his clothes on the red carpet, which revive classic textiles while adding strikingly haute couture know-how and fluid, pared-down aesthetics. Consider Ghanaian kente (handwoven fabric with geometric patterns); Madagascar raffia on the hemlines of kaftan-like dresses; obom (fabric made from tree bark) fashioned into flower embellishments; Jackie Kennedy-style coats cut from bglanfini (Malian fabric dyed with fermented mud); and ndop (African fabric dyed with fermented mud) (resist stitched, indigo-dyed cloth from Cameroon).
Ayissi’s compositions are woven with narratives, some of which are laced with acerbic wit. Take, for example, a tie-dye blazer created with a technique dubbed “My Husband Can Afford It” – a mark of luxury that the designer embraces with a smile. Many of the fabrics are sourced in close cooperation with cooperatives, such as Xoomba in Burkina Faso, which specializes in woven fabrics.
What Would You Use to Describe Your Personal Style?
Imane Ayissi said “I’m not sure I’m the right one to describe it. I’d call it contemporary couture, as it combines African inspirations with a Parisian aesthetic while remaining simple except on ornate silhouettes.”