‘Around the age of twenty, I embarked on a long journey to rediscover my roots and the lost spirituality of my land, in an attempt to reclaim my African identity. My work as a fashion designer today is a byproduct of that journey.’
Lafalaise Dion is regarded by many as Africa’s most outspoken and ambitious emerging fashion designer – and, along with Kenneth Ize, Thebe Magugu, Loza Maleombho, Kentegentlemen, Tongoro Studio, Elie Kuame and Olooh Concept, one of the most promising. In her Abidjan studio, she recalls the eureka moment that led to the conception of her first piece, a cowrie shell headpiece named Queen of Cowries.
‘In 2018, I travelled to the West Ivory Coast, the region where I was born, to reconnect with my family’s ethnicity and linguistic group, the Dan. During this time I began interviewing the elderly of the villages and asking them about their childhood. Cowrie shells turned out to be a frequent theme in the stories they told – a fascinating symbol of femininity, creative power and spirituality.’ Immediately after that trip, the designer gathered some girlfriends and went to the beach of Abidjan to collect cowrie shells. ‘Once I had enough, I started working on my first piece almost instinctively, driven by that powerful, unmistakable energy that comes from your hands when you are making something that represents you. In the end, it took the form of a headpiece, which I called Queen of Cowries. Eventually, I came up with the idea to build a fashion brand around it.’
‘It’s not by accident that I began my career as a fashion designer with a headpiece,’ she adds. ‘The head is the spiritual centre of a person. Masks are powerful tools that are used in our tradition to manifest the presence of the divine. By providing them with a physical representation, they make it possible for djinns and other otherworldly spirits to enter the space. Rather than simply being accessories, they are access points into other dimensions.’
Having said these words, she disappears for a few minutes and returns wearing an elaborate headpiece made by hand from cowrie shells. A moment ago, she was an energetic and passionate young African designer; suddenly, the piece of jewellery placed as a crown on her head has transformed her into an awe-inspiring and powerful African deity, the Queen of Cowries in person.
Some months after that journey to West Ivory Coast, in July 2019, a miracle occurred. In the video for ‘Spirit’, Beyoncé wears one of Dion’s creations, a cowrie mask with a rather elaborate design, called Lagbaja. ‘A celebration of women as creative, divine, mystical, and protective, this piece is named after the eponymous Nigerian musician. When I saw the video, I couldn’t believe it,’ Dion says. In an instant, this young designer from the periphery of the fashion world – just twenty-four years old at the time – became an international sensation. In the following months, other celebrities would commission new works, including Rossy de Palma, American model and activist Ebonee Davis, singers Inna Modja, Mala Rodriguez and Janelle Monae, and boxing champion Deontay Wilder.
All of her creations, she emphasises, are genderless. They can be worn by anyone who recognises themselves in them, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Highly engaged and political – one of the first things you notice is that she speaks like an activist more than a fashion designer – Lafalaise Dion sees her work as a designer as a way to promote the values of tolerance and inclusivity on her continent. In October 2020 she posted on her Instagram a picture of two happy grooms wearing her cowrie headdresses and kissing on the day of their marriage – quite a courageous move for someone from a continent where homosexuality is largely regarded as shameful, and in some countries severely punished by law. ‘Many people unfollowed me, others insulted me in the comments. There is no way around it. The only way to see the change in this world is for someone to start the conversation, even if that means getting a shitstorm.’
In 2021, she launched her most ambitious project to date: Signature, the haute couture and art pieces branch of her brand. ‘Who says haute couture is only for global fashion capitals? We don’t need validation from the West to do haute couture in Africa; we have some of the finest craftsmen and materials in the world, as well as a highly developed sense of patience – a key ingredient of haute couture.’ Similar to the Queen of Cowries, shells and cotton are sewn together to create elaborate, handcrafted dresses – all fabulous, luxurious, distinctly African and yet global in their appeal. ‘We are now a complete fashion house, with a continuously growing offering, one which attempts a blend between beauty, art, and lifestyle, one imbued with African pride. Welcome to Africa, the continent of art, fashion, and culture. Africa, the continent of talent. Africa, the continent of spirituality. Africa, the continent of manual skills. Africa, the continent of haute-couture!’
Africa is, moreover, the continent of dance and rhythm, as the Ivorian designer reminds us in her collection Tanke, a tribute to a traditional West African dance called tématé.‘The dancers from my home region, the eighteen mountains, have always fascinated me. When I was young I dreamed of becoming one of these powerful and sensual women. They are so energetic, so strong, and so courageous. Their elegant yet daring way of occupying the space leaves me speechless each time. To me, they symbolise a woman’s freedom to pursue her passions and dreams. My favourite thing about them, however, is how they use cowries for their costumes. I think that is one of the main reasons why I am so obsessed with these shells.’
Lafalaise Dion repeatedly proposes through her visual manifestations the image of African women as powerful goddesses; even the names of her creations, very often, refer to African female deities. ‘Because every woman is in the image of God, she is, therefore, God,’ she says. ‘She gives life, she preserves it, she keeps this world balanced. She is strength, mystic, power, spirit … God is a Black woman.’
‘In our tradition, the cowrie is a symbol of fertility. In my work, it stands for female creative power. African women are activists by definition every time they embark on a professional journey that differs from what a patriarchal society expects of them. In order to pursue their dreams, they have no alternative but to become feminist fighters … When I was growing up,’ she goes on, ‘I had few strong African women around me I could look up to as role models. Fashion can be one of many tools to convey the message that African women are allowed to follow their dreams.’ On this topic the designer walks the walk: she is known for working with a team composed entirely of women, many of them coming from underprivileged backgrounds.
‘Had I been a man, my life as a designer would have been only partly easier,’ she says. ‘Creating high-end fashion made in Africa that celebrates our cultural and spiritual roots is, per se, a rebellious, subversive act,’ she notes. ‘To most people, this expression still sounds like an oxymoron, contradictory. For centuries, the colonisers taught us to be ashamed of who we are, dismissing our culture as inferior. What’s worse, they taught us to be ashamed of our centuries-long spiritual tradition, brutally dismissed as superstition. Even our traditional headpieces made of cowries, used for centuries as shields against evil energies and as instruments of divination, suffered the same fate: we were taught to be ashamed of them.’ Lafalaise Dion goes on to explain that when she was a child, she wouldn’t wear cowrie shells due to all the prejudices surrounding them. ‘They were said to be demonic objects which established links between men and spirits and brought bad luck.’
For her, these little white shells are more than a nod to tradition; they are an anti-colonial statement. ‘Aware of growing up in a schizophrenic environment, between two cultures at odds with each other, we, the new generation of African designers, have the historical task now of getting over the colonisers’ narrative. The time has come for us to decolonize not just our countries, but also our minds.’
This sentiment is widespread in the new generation. According to Kenneth Kweku Nimo, author of Africa in Fashion, young Africans are increasingly dropping the Christian names forced upon their parents and grandparents under colonial rule, and are embracing the traditional names of their communities and cultures. As a whole, they question what was lost when Africa was subjected to imperialism, including African fashion and style. ‘Colonialists didn’t just violently export African people,’ he writes. ‘They brought clothes, textiles and luxury items, and traces of these imports are still visible in how we dress today. That is why this new generation is also changing the way they think about what they wear, and how it’s made. Today’s designers are at the intersection of culture and history.’
‘The future of Africa lies in the rediscovery of its past and in the richness of its cultural heritage. It is now time for my generation to free itself from this mental cage that has been placed on us centuries ago and that prevents us from expressing the originality of our culture – this is what my cowries are there to remind us,’ concludes Dion. ‘It is only by rooting ourselves in the tradition and by rediscovering our forgotten spirituality that we can find the energy to be born again – and, at last, to fully become ourselves.’
By Michele Fossi
Published in ACNE PAPER #17 – ATTICUS, November 2022
Design by @lafalaisedionn
Photographs by @frenchgold Justin French
Styling by @glenmban Glen MbanEIC @thomasperssonstudio