It could have gone badly wrong. The optics of Chanel, one of the most haute of all European haute luxury brands, parachuting into Africa, a continent where they have no stores and no meaningful business, with a bells and whistles one-off fashion show, could have smacked, loudly, of colonialism.
Especially because it was the first such show ever in sub-Saharan Africa, not to mention in Dakar, Senegal, once part of the French empire, now a country with its own thriving fashion culture and heritage, especially given Chanel has no particular individual history with the area (“I cannot say Madame Chanel dreamed to come to Dakar,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion).
Especially coming in the wake of fashion’s mea culpas when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, and recognition of its own multiple missteps with cultural appropriation.
That the Chanel Métiers d’Art show, held at the Palais de Justice in Dakar earlier this week, went off with only a touch of blowback on Twitter is a testament to the effort the house made to reframe the exercise.
Rather than just a fashion parade designed to lure a new market into spending lots of money, it was conceived as a three-day festival following on the heels of Dakar fashion week designed to shed a spotlight on the country’s talents in art, dance, music and literature. Less as an exotic shortcut for new inspiration, in other words, than a celebration of equals.
In this, it marked a big, if imperfect, step forward.
Yet in focusing the spotlight on a variety of collaborators around the show, including Senegalese rapper Nix, singer Obree Daman and the local Ecole des Sables dance school, and situating the connections between them and Chanel somewhere on the abstract plane of the mind, it also made the clothes themselves seem like the least of the matter.
Still: the clothes. They were, according to the show notes, inspired by “the pop-soul-funk-disco-punk decade” of the 1970s, as opposed to anything as obvious as a traditional Senegalese motif, material or artisanal technique (the elaborate craftsmanship of the collection, which was conceived to showcase the work of numerous specialty ateliers Chanel bought to preserve their know-how, was all made in France). Which meant, it turned out, mostly … pants. Knit, bouclé, flared, denim, often paired with highly worked blouson tops, tunics or jackets.
Designer Virginie Viard can make a lovely classic Chanel dress, and she did here, with some lacy crochet looks, garden party cocktail frocks and sequined siren evening numbers, but they were weighed down by offerings that seemed most suited for a tribe of dabbling-with-the-hippie bourgeoisie.
If there was any imaginative through-line between place and products, it was in the breadth of the colors, and the layering of the pieces: a beaded vest over a bouclé jacket; a neat wrap skirt over some skinny knit flares; a long, wafty tunic over some faded jeans, caught by a gold belt. Of the 62 models in the show, 19 were African and 12 of those were Senegalese; the hair and makeup teams were about half locals and half foreigners, Mr. Pavlovsky said.
Mostly, though, the clothes seemed like the excuse to bring 850 people, about 500 of them from around Africa, to Dakar. Including celebrities such as Pharrell Williams, Whitney Peak and Nile Rogers (though not this critic; I watched from afar, like most consumers), the better to promote the city’s reputation as a cultural hub, and Chanel as a sort of creative, well — What? Kingmaker or global power sharer?
The line between those two positions is not entirely clear (maybe it depends where you are sitting), which is where the discomfort lies.
Chanel, which had buy-ins from both President Macky Sall and the ministry of culture for the event, intends to continue to work with local talent, and in January will return to Dakar for a 19M program (19M is the official name for the headquarters of the specialty ateliers) that will focus on work created in tandem with local embroiderers and craftspeople. That will then form the basis of a later exhibit hosted by the brand back in Paris. And, said Mr. Pavlovsky, their experience in Dakar may well form the model for a different kind of cultural exchange/collection experience going forward.
“It’s difficult to be creative if you are stuck on the rue Cambon in Paris,” he said.
Would Chanel ever buy a specialty Senegalese weaving atelier the way they have bought European ateliers like Lesage and the milliner Maison Michel, the better to preserve their know-how? Mr. Pavlovsky said there were no such plans, but that he could imagine a future, perhaps, where that was possible.
For the moment, said Oumy Diaw, a curator who was at the show, and despite some hiccups such as scheduling the show on the same day as the anniversary of the founding of Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations, the brand is being extended the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, said Ms. Diaw, “This Chanel passage will not be a one hit wonder or an opportunistic project to feed the Western fashion houses with Africa’s massive aesthetic capital,” but rather the beginning of a long-overdue process of honoring just how vibrant that aesthetic capital is.
After all, at Chanel shows in Paris, the audience generally arrives dutifully decked out from head-to-toe in their most glamorous bouclé, camellias and ropes of pearls. In Dakar, by contrast, the audience made dazzling style statements all their own.