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Imane Ayissi

An anthem to nature and african inspirations

The first African designer on the official Haute Couture calendar, Imane Ayissi creates refined, eco-responsible fashion flying high the banner of the African continent’s artisanal expertise.

How did you discover couture and fashion?
I lived in Cameroon with a father who was a professional boxer and a mother who was a dancer, model and flight attendant. It was she who passed on to me her artistic bent and her taste for fashion. She traveled a lot, bringing back fascinating clothes and accessories from Europe. When she tried on a new dress, it was always me she called to zipper it up! These memories remain engraved in my mind. They paved the way for my creativity. I started to draw, to cut tiny fragments of fabric, to assemble them, to invent clothes, to dress up pieces of wood... Later, I sometimes took apart my mother’s dresses, without her permission, to understand how they were made and try to put them back together. At first, she was not happy because I spoiled some beautiful garments! Then she noticed that I could give a new lease on life to some models, so she entrusted me with a few dresses. That’s how it all started.

Your childhood was also marked by dancing, which was actually your first profession?
Yes, along with my sister who is now a singer and my brother who is a choreographer, we loved to organize shows at family parties. We then joined the Cameroon National Ballet company, which gave me early opportunities for travel. During a family event, Yannick Noah was impressed by our performance. He took us to France to present our traditional Cameroonian dances to the tune of “Saga Africa” during a tennis tournament for the association “Les enfants de la terre”, followed by a tour. This was the beginning of a wonderful story for me, which led me to join the show “Ils dansent le monde” by Patrick Dupond, with whom I went on tour in Japan and Canada.

Does the way a body moves influence the fashion you invent today?

Very much so: my fashion celebrates bodily freedom. Whether the fabric is light, voluminous, entrancing or minimalist, it always accompanies movement and participates in its choreography.

Which designers inspire you?

There are many designers who fascinate me, for different reasons. I love the draping of Madame Grès, the slanted cuts of Madeleine Vionnet, the audacity of Coco Chanel who emancipated women, the modernity of the silhouettes created by Christian Dior and Jeanne Lanvin. And I find that Saint-Laurent embodies pure and timeless French elegance. I draw fabulous inspiration from each of them in creating my own fashion.

Your creativity is nourished by your commitment to eco-responsibility and your desire to promote the traditional skills of Africa...
The valorization of African craft heritage and ecological awareness are the mainstays of my work. There are superb traditional fabrics in Africa that I am keen to promote, such as Faso Dan Fani, made in Burkina Faso, known for its stripes. I source this exceptional fabric from an association that weaves it the old-fashioned way, with organic yarn. By treating it to the cut, the finish and the style it deserves, I bring it into the world of luxury design, which makes me very happy. Raffia also inspires me: I use it to make lace and evening dresses. I have also discovered the Obom, a tree from which the bark is removed and subsequently regenerates. We worked on this material to soften it and to obtain a rendering close to that of leather, which is very worthwhile for bustiers. I love research and experimentation with natural materials. The possibilities are endless.

Some of your designs also carry eco-responsible messages...
The pieces to which you are referring are inspired by the Asafo flags that the Akan people of Ghana display during ceremonial parades. They are true artworks that tell poetic stories. To celebrate this tradition, I presented three dresses, one of which was a strapless number called “The Black Sea”. Its old-fashioned volumes were reminiscent of the Victorian style. It carried the message “save the ocean” and featured a blue whale, a mermaid, a starfish and a turtle, whose big eyes humorously challenged the observer, inciting a gentle, benevolent, non-provocative awareness.

Do you practice recovery, upcycling?
Alongside the fabrics I have made by artisans, I sometimes create models from vintage fabrics such as “kente”. We source this splendid embroidered and hand-woven material of Ghanaian origin from antique shops and collectors. I make draped garments and loincloths out of it to avoid cutting it up, just as I do with ancient Japanese kimonos, which I love incorporating in my collections.

How are up-and-coming African designers doing?
I support them as best I can by serving as a lecturer for the CCMC*, a training center of excellence that teaches them to create and market their collections. I am the first African designer to be registered in the Haute Couture calendar, not the last!
*Centre des Créateurs de Mode au Cameroun

Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters

Images

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

© F. Malard

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