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The Malian designer and artist talks to Industrie Africa about crafting womenswear from homegrown textiles, her love of Lagos, and why she considers herself a citizen of the world.


By Innocent Ndlovu

Oct 21, 2020

Malian fashion designer Awa Meité identifies more as a citizen of the world than that of a specific country. “I come from Mali and Cote d'Ivoire: two countries which, at this time, find themselves in a political crisis which makes us interrogate the notions of democracy and social justice. It is for this reason that when asked where I am from, I reply that I am a woman, I am Black, and that each situation experienced by a fellow human being is a situation experienced by us all,” asserts Meité. “The state of the world today makes us question the equality of rights,” adds the multifaceted artist, alluding to the current political instability in the West African countries of Mali and Côte d'Ivoire, and to events protested by the Black Lives Matter movement which started in The USA seven years ago and has since gone global.

Awa Meité grew up in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, moved to Bamako, Mali at age 15, and then to New York, where her mother worked for the United Nations. Her time in the US, after hearing a lecturer inaccurately describe Mali, sparked in her an interest in studying her own heritage. Upon returning home after studying at Stony Brook University in Long Island, she traveled across Mali to educate herself about her motherland.  


Photo: Point Fringe Dress and Skirt, Boubou Carre. Awa Meité

Meité defies categorization. Now based in Bamako, Mali, she designs distinctive womenswear under her eponymous label which she launched in 2014, is a filmmaker (she directed a 12 part docu-series on Sub-Saharan immigrants), is a social and cultural activist, a painter, and a stylist. Her Afro-chic designs, many inspired by the black and white work of renowned Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, are laborious in construction, featuring captivating geometric lines and rich textures of handwoven Akwete (a traditional textile from Southeastern Nigeria) and mudcloth (an indigenous Malian dyed, cotton fabric with patterns made from fermented mud). Heavy, textured fabrics and raw embellishments of artisanal effect such as fringe details and handwoven piping are constant elements of Meité's designs. Her next collection draws attention with playful ruffles and elegant bouffant sleeves, and features a range of button-down dresses and separates in brilliant indigo colors and check patterns whose loose-fitting cuts are just as dynamic as they are comfortable.

From our chats leading up to this interview, Meité comes across as refreshingly blunt, refusing to discuss what she deems unimportant for the sake of being polite. She changes the subject when I pose a series of personal questions, including one about the biggest lessons she learned growing up around some of Africa’s most influential figures, for instance. But, it's a fact that Meité was surrounded, from an early age, by elite figures from Mali’s art and design world. She owes much of that artistic immersion to her mother, a former culture and tourism minister of Mali, whose bohemian friends included the aforementioned Malick Sidibé, as well as the famed fashion designer Chris Seydou, who worked with the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Paco Rabanne, and is renowned for taking African fashion to the global stage in the 1970s . 

Beyond Bamako, Meité is engaged in a love affair of sorts with the vibrant Nigerian city of Lagos. In 2019, she debuted her SS‘20 collection at Lagos Fashion Week, describing it as a dream come true. According to her, our power as Africans comes from embracing each other through meaningful collaborations and by creating on our terms, not by the standards and stereotypes (and borders) of the Western world. “Our strength has become our ability to create networks that enable us to share, to achieve, and to build together,” she tells Industrie Africa. For Meité, events such as Lagos Fashion Week are more than just functions to showcase the latest collections, but also serve as a platform to share cultural experiences and cultivate a united vision for the future. In her words, “This is the advantage of globalization. There are negative aspects just as there are positive, and it is up to us, with our power and resilience, to rewrite our story with our resources, our vision, our references, and our intelligence for ourselves and future generations. It is this sentiment that I felt in Nigeria during Lagos Fashion Week.”

On the question of discovering Meité, Omoyemi Akerele, founder of Lagos Fashion Week and fashion business development agency Style House Files, says it happened by coincidence. “I stumbled on Awa Meité purely by happenstance in Dakar last year,” says Akerele, who invited the designer to show at Lagos Fashion Week in 2019, introducing Meité’s brand to a whole new African and international audience. “We’d just arrived for our Fashion Focus Talks event [in Dakar, Senegal in 2019] and were exploring the city when we bumped into what looked like an editorial photoshoot at (Senegalese furniture designer) Ousmane Mbaye's showroom. I caught a glimpse of indigo textiles, colorful hand-dyed woven materials so rich I could not help but ask who [was behind these designs]. I was immediately interested in Awa Meité’s work. We got talking and I knew it was love at first glance when she told us this was all made by hand by her and a community in Mali,” Akerele tells Industrie Africa.  

 Photo: Awa Meité FW‘20. Courtesy of Awa Meité

Photo: Awa Meité FW‘20. Courtesy of Awa Meité

Photo: Awa Meité FW‘20. Courtesy of Awa Meité

Meité is the voice of her community. Her goal to improve the living standards of her people through sustainable employment and skill-development has led her to cotton production. “The sort of women who inspire me are those who barely earn $1 per day, and yet remain dignified and support their families,” says Meité of how moved she is by the ordinary working woman. “It is my admiration for them that makes me want to know them better and to work with them in the valuation of locally-produced cotton,” she adds. “Mali is one of the most important producers of cotton in Africa and the number one (producer) for two successive years. This sector creates millions of [jobs] locally, but the living conditions of both the producers and different players in the sector remain precarious.” Meité’s goal goes beyond creating employment: she wants to reshape the local industry so that it benefits local stakeholders as much as it does the international market. “Our fight is to transform [the local] cotton [industry], to create real added-value, instead of only exporting raw cotton, the prices of which [we would] not set. 


Photo: Awa Meité FW‘20. Courtesy of Awa Meité

And so it is that cotton is such an integral element of Meité’s brand that it is almost impossible to mention her name without thinking of both the cotton plant and fabric: “I am a creative who is committed to promoting what is produced locally and to creating value within my society, in this case, Mali. Le Coton Reparateur [The Healing Cotton] has become the emblem of the brand.” Slow fashion and sustainability are at the core of Meité’s brand. Her work is focused on crafting, in limited quantities, investment pieces that stand the test of time. She is also unafraid to speak out about the West’s appetite for overconsumption. From her point of view, Africans, having been upcycling for years with the culture of elders handing down clothes to children, are inherent practitioners of sustainability in fashion. The brand's ethos from the beginning has been to produce consciously, applying both ethical and sustainable values. “This is also why [my] collections since the inception [of my business] remain [trans-seasonal]”, she says.

Earlier this year when Covid-19 infections were at their peak, Meité called upon creatives from Mali and together with her label, they created free washable cotton masks, that were distributed with soap and kettles, to help minimize the spread of the pandemic. “There is no longer a singular model of development, of thinking, and of seeing the world as we thought for a long time. We are in a period of crisis with Covid-19 and a period of research for alternatives and responses because the dominant model has reached its limit.” Through it all this, Meité doesn't seem to be fazed by accolades, fame, or social status. She continues to stay focussed on the mission, to serve her community and make beautiful clothes in the process.  

shop Awa Meité


Point Fringe Dress
Point Fringe Dress
Point Fringe Dress

Awa Meité

Point Fringe Dress

$275
Point Fringe Skirt
Point Fringe Skirt
Point Fringe Skirt

Awa Meité

Point Fringe Skirt

$287
Boubou Carre
Boubou Carre
Boubou Carre

Awa Meité

Boubou Carre

$250
Kimono
Kimono
Kimono

Awa Meité

Kimono

$247
Black and White Bouffant Sleeve Vest
Black and White Bouffant Sleeve Vest
Black and White Bouffant Sleeve Vest

Awa Meité

Black and White Bouffant Sleeve Vest

$300
Indigo Bouffant Sleeve Vest
Indigo Bouffant Sleeve Vest
Indigo Bouffant Sleeve Vest

Awa Meité

Indigo Bouffant Sleeve Vest

$300
Bogolan Skirt
Bogolan Skirt
Bogolan Skirt

Awa Meité

Bogolan Skirt

$225