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NIUKU designer Kadiata Diallo talks to Industrie Africa about her love of color, the beauty of hand-dyeing, and bringing her brand home.

By Lindsay Samson

May 6, 2022

Kadiata Diallo never met her paternal grandmother. She passed away before Diallo was born and her parents, as is a tradition in their family, gave Kadiata her grandmother’s name—as well as her nickname, Niuku. And while Diallo could never get to know her father’s mother in person, time would ultimately reveal an unexpected connection between the two, one based on a mutual entrepreneurial spirit and passion for hand-dyed fabrics, ultimately leading to the founding of Diallo’s very own fashion brand, NIUKU.

Kadiato Diallo. Photo: via @niukud.

Family Ties

“I did not initially know that I had this connection with her,” Diallo says over the phone, explaining that she only learned of her grandmother’s work in the clothing industry when her father recognized their similarities. Drawn to fashion and garment construction for as long as she can remember, Diallo started learning about her namesake. Family trips to Senegal, where her grandmother had lived, fortified this almost mythical connection between them. Further research revealed just how formidable a businesswoman, provider, and creative her grandmother was.

“It’s funny, though,” Diallo muses, “how just the name can be imprinted on you, and that person’s soul just repeats itself. I never met her, yet somehow, I am doing what she did.”

This sense of a conscious heritage defines the brand; through NIUKU, Diallo offers a representation of the Fulani, Mauritanian and African cultures that make her who she is, taking inspiration from a myriad of sources. These include her global travels, the natural landscape of her homeland Mauritania, and her own complex lineage. For Diallo, fashion and storytelling go hand in hand, and what better story to tell than her own?

Back to her Roots

Diallo initially established Niuku in 2013 while living in Paris and attending the fashion school Studio Berçot, and, in the beginning, her design aesthetic was admittedly conceptualized to appeal to the minimalist sensibilities of the European shopper. Diallo went on to have her pieces stocked in multiple stores between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, before an internal dissatisfaction with what she was producing descended. “I felt boxed in by their expectations of me,” she says. Finally, a desire to reconnect with her roots prompted her to return to her homeland.

Born and raised in Mauritania, Diallo now lives and works in the capital city of Nouakchott. And while her collections still boast the versatility and wearability that first brought her brand success, Diallo says she is now embracing a more “afrofuturistic” approach, which means incorporating unique prints and promoting generations-old hand-dyeing techniques. She embraces color more than ever and creates vibrant, unique styles that can still be easily incorporated into any wardrobe. “I want it to be versatile,” Diallo says of her designs. “I want people to feel super comfortable, but I also want my pieces to allow and encourage them to express themselves.”

NIUKU SS'22. Photo: Lagos Fashion Week.

NIUKU SS'22. Photo: Lagos Fashion Week.

NIUKU SS'22. Photo: Lagos Fashion Week.

A Marriage of Craft and Simplicity

Bold, bright, and handcrafted by local artisans using upcycled fabrics and traditional indigenous printing methods, there’s an appealing simplicity to Diallo’s pieces. Crafted from soft, breathable fabrics including cotton and linen, her collections are filled with breezy, feminine frocks and classically tailored jackets, each piece exuding a sense of wanderlust and ease. The current NIUKU collections, Diallo says, are nothing like what they began as. Today, they’re driven first and foremost by her—and her grandmother’s—love for color and hand-dyed fabrics.

“I absolutely love color, but I can no longer find any fabrics in colors that I love,” Diallo says. “It’s really tough for me. I’d rather just create the color I want myself. The print as well.” She has no interest in purchasing ready-made materials, explaining that she simply feels more connected to artisanally crafted fabrics. “It’s amazing how no piece is ever the same this way. Every single one is abstract and special. And working with local artisans is the most amazing thing because I am constantly learning from them every day.”

Photo: Masego in a custom Emmy Kasbit ensemble. Via @emmykasbit

“The world is looking to us now and being inspired by what’s happening here. There’s a shift happening. It’s our time now.”

Setting the Pace

Though she may still be learning in that area, as a designer and entrepreneur, Diallo has already achieved plenty. After obtaining her Master’s degree in Communications, Kadiata became the first African woman to be named a finalist in the ANDAM FASHION AWARD contest. In addition, she participated in Paris Men’s Fashion Week in 2018, something no other black Mauritanian woman has done, and was a recipient of the Maison Mode Méditerranée prize in Marseille. NIUKU also made its debut at Lagos Fashion Week earlier this year. Diallo unveiled her collection called “Sacred Woods,” which featured a striking sugarcane and indigo color dye scheme, and paid tribute to the “original Niuku”—her grandmother.

Despite all this under her belt, there remains a sense of ambition and excitement in Diallo that is palpable, ambition and excitement that suggests she has yet to even crack the surface of what is possible for her brand and perhaps even African fashion design‌. “We’re coming for everything. I can just feel it,” she laughs when discussing the future of both NIUKU and other designers from the continent. “The world is looking to us now and being inspired by what’s happening here. There’s a shift happening. It’s our time now.”

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