It is a difficult time to be a migrant now. If you look at the media, the west grudgingly pities refugees and demonises economic migrants; while, too often, countries of origin decry the brain drain as talented young people leave to build lives and make fortunes elsewhere.
But instead of fixating on shrinking borders and finite resources, what about focusing on opportunities for exchange and the endless possibilities economic migration will bring?
What about the many young people who want to travel to broaden their horizons and deepen their knowledge? The patissier who wants to master choux pastry for his fusion cuisine; the designer who wants to learn how to construct pleats like the top fashion houses; the writer who wants to travel and roam and see new things from an outsider’s perspective?
Creativity will suffer if we close borders. I interviewed Maguette Gueye, a young Senegalese designer, who is trying to hone her craft by gaining experience in Paris. It is a long journey but she is talented, resourceful and brave.
Maguette Gueye’s big break came in the summer of 2013, when she was hand-picked to represent her native country Senegal in Marseille, France. The proposition was relatively simple. Maguette, who had shown her work at a Paris trade show earlier that summer, was invited back to France as an emerging Dakar-based designer whose fashion show would be held in open air, near the old port. It would be part of the celebrations and events staged throughout the city which had been picked as European Culture Capital that year.
Getting to show her latest collection in France was a dream come true.
As with many runway productions, the show started close to an hour late. Maguette, who was improvising with a production team and models she’d met only a few hours earlier, seemed impatient, displaying some kind of frustration. Getting to show her latest collection in France was a dream come true, especially as her number one objective was an export-driven expansion into European diaspora markets.
But this was not the kind of production she was used to. Back home, when she showed her outfits at Adama Ndiaye’s Dakar Fashion Week, she had near complete control over the hair and makeup teams. Most of the models were the kinds of girls she knew, or grew up with, and her styles seemed just right for the contemporary look many young city girls wanted to be seen sporting.
In Marseille, however, the show was a mess, because it felt as if the city was staging this runway show as a way to pay lip service to the fashion contribution of the city’s many African immigrants. Despite the disappointment, she felt a sense of pride, for having shown her work in France for the second time that summer.
The day after the show, she woke up early and hopped on a high speed TGV train to Paris, but she had so many garments in her oversize suitcases that it took longer for her to carry the luggage up and down the stairs of the Paris metro. By the time she got to Charles de Gaulle airport, the Air France flight to Dakar had already taken off, and she had to spend the night in the only airport motel she could afford. The next afternoon, she boarded flight AF 718 to Dakar, with a feeling that this excursion might have been a bittersweet introduction to the European fashion business.
A child growing up in a working class family from Dakar’s Wolof-speaking Lebou ethnic group, Maguette was always interested in fashion.
A child growing up in a working class family from Dakar’s Wolof-speaking Lebou ethnic group, Maguette was always interested in fashion. Her mother had moved to Europe when she was a young girl, and she was raised with her siblings in her father’s house, in a Dakar suburb. When she became a single mother after a failed marriage, fashion became more than just a passion.
Now a full-time designer working overtime with a part-time seamstress in a small studio near the motorway, she wooed all types of Dakar women in an attempt to establish herself as a reliable purveyor of fashion-forward outfits for weddings, parties and soirées.
Soon after she returned to Dakar however, she started longing for another European experience. Many of her Dakar clients were late in paying for their outfits, always coming up with excuses, and somehow it felt like cashflow would be tight. For a while. ‘I want to move to France for a few years,’ she told a Paris-based friend in August 2014, about a year after the Marseille show. ‘I feel like I am suffocating here in Dakar.’
She decided to stay put and work harder in Dakar.
She started researching new possibilities on the Internet, exploring new opportunities in the Paris fashion scene, writing to couture houses and fashion academies. In October 2014, she received a reply from the school at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. A five-month course in the Parisian direct draping technique she so wanted to master would set her back around 7,000 Euros, which was much more than she had saved up. Plus, the student visa process kept getting more complicated at the French Consulate.
She looked at several international distribution options for her MaaGuette line, but international shipping was costly. Not to mention marketing. In the end, she decided to stay put and work harder in Dakar, in order to save up enough for a short course in Europe that might set the stage for a temporary move to a European capital. For obvious reasons, Paris was right at the top of her wish list.
‘I want to show the elegance of Senegalese women’.
‘Now that I have been in business ten years, now that I am in my early thirties, I want to find a way to represent Senegalese fashion,’ she said in an email interview earlier this week.
‘I want to show the elegance of Senegalese women, but the most frustrating part of my job is having to compete with the cheap Chinese manufacturers who have been flooding the Senegalese market over the past ten years. I want to see my MaaGuette collection on the ladies who work at the best Senegalese companies, who go to the chic Dakar restaurants, who dress up for the stylish wedding ceremonies. That is how I will get to export my clothes, because if the right ladies start wearing my clothes here in Dakar, then the right ladies in Paris, London and New York will notice my style, place orders, pay for shipping, and take a chance on this hard-working girl from Dakar.’