Rural Congo on the Paris podium – OZY

Designs with deep roots

body in motion

The parents of Sakia Lekouzou’s mother and father are from Boundji and Sibiti, two villages 406 miles apart in disparate parts of Congo. Marked by clusters of thatched-roof huts and farmland, these communities were where Lekouzou, on visits during her childhood, immersed herself in the cultural aspects of the Mbochi and Bayaka tribes of his parents. The future designer developed a fascination with a fabric called raffia, which has the unique ability to hold a shape, and she paid particular attention to how it looked when draped around the bodies of traditional dancers as they performed ceremonial movements. It was the beginning.

In tradition, seeds of the future

“At 10, I was playing with different types of fabrics a lot, but the raffia was just different,” Lekouzou, now in his early 40s, told OZY. “I considered using raffia for the very reason that people weren’t considering it,” she explained. “He is often reserved [for] wizards, traditional dancers or royal families within the Congolese tribes.

Opportunity in a Parisian salon

Sakia’s father Lékoundzou Itihi Ossetoumba, was a former minister and honorary member of the Congolese Central Labor Committee. This gave young Lekouzou the chance to travel and study abroad. In the early 90s, at age 14, she left home for school in Paris. IIt was while she was having her hair cut in the French capital that she was spotted by a gentleman who learned that she was a budding designer and invited her to a fashion show; this encounter led her to show her own work at a Black Sugar fashion event. In the presence of celebrities like Papa Wemba, king of Rumba rock music in Congo, and American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, this event was a big break for Lekouzou. Bridgewater was asked to wear Lekouzou’s designs in a cover photo shoot for Amine magazine.

World, meet the raffia

Gaining momentum, Lekouzou eventually moved to the United States, where she worked as a styling assistant alongside Derek Warburton and Teddy Gunter at their agency Atomic Funk in South Beach, Florida. After three years in this role, Lekouzou decided it was time to launch her own brand, which she called SakiaLek. In 2014, his designs were featured in an art and fashion show in Dallas with the theme “man as machine”.

“I was surprised because people thought my raffia collection was futuristic,” she told OZY on a recent call. Little did they know that even though Lekouzou’s creations were visions of the future, they were deeply rooted in the past.

Raise the stakes

Claim your culture

“I believe that in the Republic of Congo, we are facing a big problem of cultural identity,” Lekouzou told OZY. “Many Congolese tend to dissociate [from] their traditional origins. If we claim this identity, it will help us to embrace our cultural roots. When I look at Nigerians, for example, a lot of them embrace their culture, but in Congo we think ‘that’s not good enough’. I firmly believe that bringing raffia back will help Congo regain its identity.

Slow, luxurious

The raffia fabric presented challenges for Lekouzou. The raw fiber comes from the peeling of raffia palm leaves; the fibers are then spun on a wooden loom to make fabric. This process is passed down from generation to generation in many villages. The laborious nature of the process makes raffia, which is very durable, very expensive to produce. It is also difficult to find skilled workers in this trade. “Many locals who are familiar with the production of this fiber have migrated from the villages to the city,” Lekouzou said.

“Knowing that raffia is a luxurious fabric, the pieces I make are limited,” Lekouzou continued. “I worked on my supply chain directly with the villagers to create a network of specialized raffia farmers.” She sees herself as introducing a trendy organic product to the wider market.

Preserve and modernize

Alain Ossibi, designer based in Brazzaville and popular sapper, says what he appreciates most about the Sakialek brand is how it preserves Congolese culture while modernizing it. “It’s impressive to find local and young designers who want to showcase our culture locally, but more importantly, on the international fashion scene,” he said. “The Republic of Congo is very often ignored in many areas, especially the fashion scene in Western countries. We have many local talents but we don’t yet have the visibility we need. Both locally and internationally, I think she really defies people’s gaze.


Look forward

Inspiration is everywhere

“Anything can become my subject of creation, yes, even the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the war in Ukraine, my neighbor, the hairstyle of someone I admire,” Lekouzou told OZY. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she said the sense of uncertainty created by putting on and taking off masks inspired her to create her collection of SS accessories, or style shield, which she plans to use for her next fashion show. Stay tuned.

New collaboration

A day after presenting her raffia collection in Paris in 2019, Lekouzou was approached by Lamine Badian Kouyaté, designer and founder of the XULY.Bët brand. Best known for upcycling used clothes into haute couture creations, Badian Kouyaté has dressed celebrities, including the French singer Aya Nakamura and director and activist Alice Diop. Kouyaté extended his hand to Lekouzou after seeing his work on the Paris catwalk. The two now plan to launch a collaborative show in 2023. Dates are yet to be determined; look Sakia Lek on Instagram for updates.

Come to a navigator near you

Lekouzou is also working on a collection that will be shown in Dakar, Senegal later this year as part of a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Dakar Fashion Week. She says her inspiration for this particular collection was butterflies and windows; the public will have to wait and see what it looks like on a track. Later this month, she will post an announcement on Instagram regarding the relaunch of her online store.

‘Sow a dream in space and time’

“We all have a unique story to tell,” says Lekouzou. “Sometimes, when we sow a dream in space and time, a bit like we sow a seed in the ground, we are afraid of having no return… A little patience, passion and confidence gives us the opportunity to have fantastic feedback. So that’s my raffia story, to follow.

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