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In Dakar, Chanel breaks out of the fashion bubble with its first-ever show in Africa

What I remember about Dakar is the birds. Hundreds of crows that circled its coast, keeping watch over its grand presidential palace and the hand-painted fishing boats that crowd Soumbédioune beach. In December, while watching them dance through the sky outside the Ancien Palais de Justice, a mid-century building that’s home to Dakar’s art biennial, twins from the Gambia, in town to model during Dakar Fashion Week on nearby Gorée island, explained that the birds were scoping out spots to dive into the Atlantic and scoop up a mouthful of fish.

What I remember about Dakar is what the locals wore. The colours and the prints on the audience that ascended the steps outside the Ancien Palais – through a slow-motion performance by choreographers Dimitri Chamblas, Germain Acogny and the École des Sables dance school – to take their seats for Chanel’s Métiers d’art show. Even the international celebrities in the crowd ­– model Naomi Campbell in cool, white tweed; singer Pharrell Williams in a hot pink bucket hat – seemed awed by the exuberant display of West African fashion.

What I remember about Dakar is the dancing, hours of it, to the deep amapiano base that made the venue hum joyously following the presentation.

It was a remarkable 72 hours, especially considering the space that Chanel created to experience Senegal’s natural beauty, creative community and art.

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French-Sengalese author Marie Ndiaye.EmilienItim/Handout

The space to hear French-Sengalese author Marie Ndiaye talk about her 2016 book, The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel, during a satellite edition of Chanel’s Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon salon. The space to visit the home of sculptor Ousmane Sow, known for his monumental figures of Nuba wrestlers. And the space to join hundreds of local university students as they quizzed Chanel president Bruno Pavlovsky about the brand’s presence in their country and its long-term implications for its own fashion industry.

In the context of the debate about the sustainability of destination fashion shows, Chanel’s deep dive into Dakar made the case that escaping the fashion bubbles of Paris or New York or Milan is essential for expanding the industry’s creative conversation.

“The second you get here, just the love of life and hunger for creativity and art and happiness and joy is so thrilling and overwhelming,” said B.C.-raised actor Whitney Peak, who appeared most recently in the Gossip Girl reboot and now stars in Chanel’s campaign for its Coco Mademoiselle fragrance. “The fact that we’re here right now, in Senegal of all places, the first fashion show for Chanel to take place in Africa, is incredible. And the fact that’s they’ve done so much research to do this the right way, where they’re appreciating the dancers, the music and arts and crafts and painters…it’s been really fruitful.”

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Chanel’s journey to Dakar to present its Métiers d’art began three years ago. The annual collection, which highlights the know-how of the embroiderers, shoemakers and goldsmiths in its 44 artisan workshops often explores how their techniques capture a sense of place. It has been shown at Scotland’s Linlithgow Palace, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What set the Dakar show apart is how it articulated the house’s expanding artistic universe.

“You belong to your world and you feel all these connections that you need to have with all the different activities,” Pavlovsky said. “When you read the biography of Mademoiselle Chanel or what Karl [Lagerfeld] has done, it’s an exchange with all these other disciplines. So what we are doing now, what [creative director] Virginie [Viard] is doing now, is just a continuation of what has been done in the past but with her own touch. For her, it’s even more important. She’s passionate about cinema, about dance and she needs to feel that.”

Set against the venue’s graphic tile work, rough concrete and lushly planted courtyard, the collection stood out for its rich palette, delicate beadwork and intricate lace. Viard looked to the 1970s for its maxi coats and flared trousers and layered on charm necklaces and handbags with wooden chain-link straps to create a maximal moment. Footwear included glossy platform sandals and patent pumps.

What the collection didn’t incorporate were any explicit aesthetic references to Dakar, Senegal or West African fashion. Pavlovsky called the few subtle nods, such as a gold pendant shaped like the African continent, Easter eggs. “This collection is a Chanel collection,” Pavlovsky said. Like any of the house’s shows, the Dakar event’s purpose was to unveil a new line designed and created in its own studios. “The first step is about us, the launch of our collection here in Dakar. And after, it’s about Dakar and our knowhow – embroidery, weaving – with local creative input.”

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Chanel president Bruno Pavlovsky speaks to university students about the brand’s presence in their country and its long-term implications for its own fashion industry.Chanel

What Pavlovsky was hinting at was the months of craft-focused programming that followed the presentation. In January, Chanel began a three-month residency at Dakar’s Musée Théodore Monod. Partnering with the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, its Sur le Fil (On the Thread) exhibition focused on West African embroidery and weaving through workshops and installations that also incorporated photography and painting. On May 17, the exhibition will travel to Le19M, Chanel’s craft hub and gallery space in Paris, where it will be on display until the end of July.

Beyond these creative moments, Pavlovsky also suggested that Chanel is using the initiative to explore the potential of Senegalese materials including cotton and how they could become a resource for future collections. “We are not here for 20 minutes,” Pavlovsky said. “It was important that when we do something here, we can create an impact. The show is already something big because it’s a way to talk about Dakar and Senegal worldwide.”

All clothing and accessories, price on request at Chanel (chanel.com) this June.

Style Advisor travelled to Senegal as a guest of Chanel. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.

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