When Sarah Divine Garba was going through a career crisis, something from her past came to her rescue. Growing up in Cameroon, she had learned local design and style from her mother’s tailoring shop. She augmented these skills with experience in accounting to start Maision D’Afie, a fashion brand she considers an extension of her mother’s business.
Sarah Divine Garba says that selling her first dress gave her the courage to fight on despite the challenges. Pushing contemporary African fashion through a wall of stereotypes has been a hard task, but the stylist’s determination has earned exposure for her brand on Elle, Vogue and Forbes. Maison D’Afie now makes dresses in Europe, Africa and Asia and the brand is incorporating Japanese and French influences to give its classic Cameroonian dresses designs a new edge.
Kibonen Nfi designed her own clothes when she worked as a banker in Cameroon, but only started to take her skills seriously when someone asked if they would be able to buy what she was wearing from a store. When she moved to America it gave her new perspectives on her roots, something she embraced at the Art Institute of New York City. Invitations to showcase her designs quickly followed, one of them an exhibition at Fashion Week South Africa.
Her growing reputation got the attention of Lupita Nyong’o, whose stylist commissioned a dress for the actor. The designer took a $5,000 loan and made 10 dresses for her idol, none of which were chosen. This, together with a bad business deal, sent the aspiring designer into a depression. One day, though, when she was out to buy fabric, a chance encounter with Humans of New York transformed her story into one with an unlikely break. As a result, Kibonen NY received so many orders that the website crashed; and Lupita Nyong’o finally wore two of her designs within a week.
To tackle the distribution challenges they were facing, the three sisters at Eloli World have come up with a winning formula. Fese sources local materials from Cameroon and ships them to Toronto, where Sume is based. Dibo, the creative director, makes her contributions from London. The sisters all manage sales of their products, which are distributed globally. This arrangement has turned their childhood hours playing on their mother’s sewing machine into a brand that thrives on three continents but remains true to its African roots. Bold colours are expressed in their designs, which are accessories for men and women, including everything from handbags to phone cases. They were named one of Canada’s startups to watch in 2015 by Canadian beauty magazine The Kit.
Young Cameroonians often shun African print fabrics in favour of smart designs, but Ngwane Liz is leading a group of young designers who are giving print a comeback with trendy dresses that work for her generation’s needs. The result of this progressive approach is print clothes for men and women that include trainers, jackets and jeans and blend perfectly with the urban fashionista’s gadgets. Based in Buea, Cameroon’s best young designer of 2017 is growing a legion of fans who want to dress casual and go about their hustle while staying in touch with what their parents used to wear.
More fashion designers in Cameroon are seeing the need for an education in both tailoring and business, and one of the few places to learn the trade is Université de la Mode, founded by Yde Doris Njamen. With over 15 years’ experience in fashion, Cameroon’s top designer has built a space where young creatives can explore their talents and hone them into assets that will help them succeed. Many of her students go on to gain experience at Clap Style, the designer’s fashion brand. Université de la Mode’s diplomas are certified by Cameroon’s Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training. Away from the school, the designer is busy on the celebrity scene, and has dressed Cameroonian stars X-Maley, Kareyce Fotso and Charlotte Dipanda.