As the Senegalese label launches its first exclusive capsule collection with Industrie Africa, we talk to its inspirational founder about what matters now.
Helen Jennings is the editorial director of Nataal, which is a global media platform celebrating global African creativity. Through its award-winning magazine and editorial website, Nataal is dedicated to supporting emerging talent and diverse storytelling.
Dec 14, 2020
Photo: Sarah Diouf. Courtesy of Sarah Diouf
With her bright smile and even brighter ideas, Sarah Diouf is an unstoppable force in African fashion. Raised in Abidjan by parents of Senegalese, Congolese, and Central African descent, she obtained her masters in marketing and communication from INSEEC U in Paris and first set out by establishing Ghubar in 2009, a quarterly digital publication promoting African and Arab fashion and arts. She followed this in 2015 with NOIR, a bi-annual lifestyle magazine connecting Black women globally. A year later, Diouf decided to move to Dakar so that she could turn her ample talents for entrepreneurship and storytelling into developing an online womenswear brand that could proudly be called ‘made in Africa’. With its pillar being promoting Senegalese craftsmanship, affordable luxury and everyday glamor, Tongoro proved an instant hit. The brand has since shown in Lagos and Cape Town, been featured everywhere from Vogue to Forbes, and expanded into menswear.
This year alone, Tongoro has been named among Fast Company’s 10 most innovative African companies, been worn by long-time supporter Beyoncé in her Black Is King film, and has released the brand documentary Made In Africa. To round off 2020, Diouf is now launching a special capsule collection with Industrie Africa which effortlessly expresses the essence of Tongoro with its extravagant volumes, uplifting prints, and flattering silhouettes. Long lines on jumpsuits, dresses, and two-piece sets are complimented by elegant brass bar earrings and adorably small leather purses.
Perfect opportunity then to sit down and enjoy some real talk with this down to earth powerhouse, who I have always found to be one of the most forward-thinking, genuine and friendly voices on the scene.
Click here to shop the limited edition exclusion capsule collection.
What can you tell me about Tongoro’s capsule collection for Industrie Africa?
I selected five pieces that anyone can put together to have something complete in their wardrobe. The collection is light and bold at the same time and reflects my love of prints by using florals for the first time. You know, this year has been tough on all of us. Creativity has been my refuge and so for this, I wanted to do something fun that can bring some joy into people’s lives.
How has your personal journey been through 2020?
When the pandemic first hit in March, it was like wow, how is this going to impact my business? Fashion is not a primary need. I calculated how many months we could survive. But as I focus on e-commerce over retail, I was pleasantly surprised. Our drop in May for Africa Day sold out in two weeks. I refused interviews talking about COVID-19—I didn’t want it to be part of my narrative—and thankfully, Africa has been spared compared to many other parts of the world, so we just kept working and stayed focussed.
Photo: Malu Jumpsuit, Tongoro.
And then came the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter uprisings.
I’m Black and African so anything that affects a Black person in the world affects me, both emotionally and mentally. At some point it was a lot. I shut down for two weeks as the news became unbearable. With so much ugliness happening, with people who looked like me dying, I questioned what impact and relevance I could have. But then I remembered that as a creative and an African woman, having a voice is powerful. We are fighting and marching for everyone who came before us who didn’t have the privileges that we have. It’s a new time so we must use this cultural currency to craft a positive narrative for Africa. That is the best thing I can do and I am going to keep on doing it.
The End SARS protests attest to the fact that global action and unity is crucial when it comes to fighting injustice.
My generation is showing solidarity, giving strength to the movement and creating safe spaces where we can have debates and plan for when it is our time to be leaders of our own countries. Painful things are happening but it’s necessary for layers to shed and a new era to come to light.
2020 has exposed the global fashion industry for many shortcomings including its lack of sustainability. What lessons can it learn from African fashion practices?
In West Africa, we’ve been able to create something out of nothing, so that’s sustainable in its own way. I can’t overproduce because I source my fabric from the local markets and once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s about consuming more responsibly. If you can invest in something that is well made, contributes to the local economy, and supports an emerging designer, then that’s a virtuous circle. It’s time for the global community to think about how our actions impact the less fortunate in the system, which almost always means Africans. But we’re in the conversation now so maybe how we’ve been doing things for the longest time could be the solution—think smaller and do business in a way that benefits every actor in the chain.
Senegal has such a strong tailoring tradition. How important is it to you to support that?
Here tailors are the real cultural agents. They design the aesthetic that we all know. But outside of the cultural festivities, it is hard for them to sustain an income. Tongoro employs tailors year round in our atelier and my goal is to hire as many as I can and train them in international standards so they can live comfortably by the work of their hands.
I remember interviewing you when Tongoro first launched. You were adamant then that you were not a designer! How do you feel now?
Ah yes! When I started out, I didn’t want to define myself for fear of taking something away from people who have studied at fashion schools. I was not a designer but what I did know was how to create a brand and a business. I’m a creative and I love telling stories, so now I call myself a fashion entrepreneur.
“I remembered that as a creative and an African woman, having a voice is powerful.”
Photo: Beyoncé in Tongoro, still from Black is King. Via @tongorostudio
Your journey with Tongoro has been hugely successful, as your recent documentary Made In Africa, made up of footage you’ve shot from the beginning, reveals.
When you’re working for yourself you don’t have time to look back, it’s always about what’s next. But this year gave me time to reflect and feel proud about all that has happened. The brand story is a cultural story to be told. The best thing for me now is when I receive messages from people who I don’t know telling me that Tongoro represents African female leadership. Giving people strength and inspiration really is the icing on the cake.
And then there’s Beyoncé. Are you sick of talking about Beyoncé?
(Laughs) You know, I’m never sick of talking about Beyoncé! She created one of the first moments around the brand in 2018, and has worn Tongoro five more times since then. I will be forever grateful for that continued support and exposure. For me though, it also helps to create a new notion of luxury. For the longest time I was stressed about keeping up with how things were done elsewhere and being perfect, rather than making magic with what I have. But when you see a superstar in Tongoro it is an affirmation that luxury is not about the price tag. It’s about how wearing something can make you feel like a million dollars.
Despite the rise of African luxury fashion, it is still consumed more outside the African continent than within. How does Tongoro address that hurdle?
Tongoro is speaking to a global audience now—not just the diaspora—and everyone is invited. Our biggest market remains the US but things are slowly switching. With Covid-19, our orders from South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana grew. The issue is that African luxury consumers still love the physical retail experience in a nice boutique. But e-commerce platforms like Industrie Africa are game-changers and so the more people receive a smooth online experience, the more the homegrown market will grow. Once you can show that you are more than some pretty images on Instagram, and you can answer demand, trust will build.
What are your plans going forward?
What’s next? Wow! In 2021, I want to hire more, to train better, and to start printing our own textiles on the continent—we’re looking at South Africa and Morocco. We are going to keep expanding and just giving people what they need.
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