Pathe’O, an Ivorian-Burkinabe tailor, has a 50-year career that has seen him rise from self-taught improviser to supplier to Africa’s wealthy and powerful, including Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid torchbearer. His richly colored shirts have adorned the backs of Moroccan King Mohamed VI, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote, in addition to being South Africa’s first black president.
Now he’s working hard to change people’s perceptions of his profession in Africa and provide opportunities for the next generation.
“Many people here believe that tailoring is a job for people who didn’t go to school, a job for failures,” says Pathe Ouedraogo, his legal name.
“However, African fashion and fabrics pique the interest of the entire world! There’s a plethora of creators and talents. To move Africa forward, we need to move from cottage industry to mass manufacturing and produce more.”
Pathe’O, a tall, slender man in his 70s with the wise elder’s face, is never seen without one of his colorful shirts. The father-of-three, who now runs a pocket business empire that spans ten countries and employs 60 people, still shows up every day at his workshop in Treichville, Abidjan’s working-class district, where he first set up shop 50 years ago.
He began teaching himself tailoring in a small workspace rented for a few francs after being rejected for work in the cocoa fields due to his frail health. Gradually, he improved, and in 1987, he won the local “Golden Scissors” competition, establishing a name for himself. Mandela would wear one of his shirts on an official visit to France ten years later, prompting new customers to line up outside his shop.
According to his biography “De fil en aiguille,” a man born during French colonial rule in the Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso) set out at the age of 19 to make his fortune in Ivory Coast with nothing but “my parents’ blessing” in his pocket (“From thread to needle”).
“I never imagined I’d be here 50 years ago. It’s incredible!” At a recent press conference in a luxury hotel where he unveiled the book, the founder told reporters.
Hundreds of workers are now crammed into three large rooms with only a few ceiling fans to keep them cool. All of the work is created by hand on old Singer sewing machines, and Pathe’O circulates among the tailors, designers, and pressers, inspecting their work and providing advice.
“In this trade, you have to know how to do everything,”
Leon Ouedraogo, unrelated to the Ouedraogo family, has worked for Pathe’O for 40 years and now oversees the shop floor.
“A simple man, always ready to talk, who takes time to listen and explain,” he describes his boss.
“Everyone wants something new,” Pathe’O says. “You have to keep creating every day, surprise your customers.” He gets his ideas from women on the street who go to the market wearing brightly colored clothes and scarves. Gilles Toure, an Ivorian designer, says his mentor Pathe’O “gave us pride in wearing African fabrics.” Pathe’O intends to devote all of his business success and international acclaim to what he refers to as his “battle” to gain respect for Africa’s fashion industry.
With a massive, modern new headquarters building in Abidjan’s trendy Cocody district, He sees it as a critical economic sector that can aid the continent’s development.
Maison Pathe’O hopes to “bring forth a new generation of African creators” with a massive, modern new headquarters building in Abidjan’s trendy Cocody district, which will also house its charitable foundation.