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In 2009, Sarah Diouf had her first rendezvous with fashion while working at the digital magazine Ghubar. Through her role, she produced content, attended shows, and built connections with designers and photographers, buyers and merchants, and more. Little did she know then, that peek at life beyond the runway would pave an invaluable path for what came next.
Seven years later, Diouf launched her own label, Tongoro Studio, titled after the nickname her mother gave her—“Tongoro,” meaning “star” in Sango. Designed and produced in Dakar, Senegal, the brand focuses on unique and playful pieces that are made from African fabrics by African tailors. By localizing talent, materials, and traditions, Diouf aims to foster economic and social development for artisans in Western Africa.
Ahead of launching her Fall/Winter 2021 collection and her first home line, Diouf spoke with Whitewall about preserving the culture and craft of tailoring, how supporting artisanal communities is the root of sustainability, and how African spirituality is inspiring her today.
WHITEWALL: What gap in the African fashion market did you feel Tongoro Studio could fill?
SARAH DIOUF: I started observing a rise of labels promoting the wax fabric with a more modern and innovative approach and styles than what was usually commercialized. Then a first wave of African designers made their appearance, and a trend took off. Amongst those I liked, I noticed they were all positioning themselves on the luxury segment, which was not a bad a thing, but limiting if you take in consideration the global context and perception of Africa and African goods at the time. For long, “Made in Africa” was synonym of poor quality. So I thought, if we want to captivate the global market, we have to be able to invite people to try our goods once, to seduce them and convince them. Yet to try it, you have to be able to buy it. This is what I felt I could fill—accessibility and affordability.
WW: How does the label promote local craftsmanship and invest in artisanal training?
SD: Tailoring is a huge part of the West African culture. Everyone has a dedicated tailor. Yet when I started coming back to Senegal regularly, as I began talking with different tailors about production rhythm, organization, and capacity, I found out that most of their annual income was made around religious celebrations. Many of them never attended fashion school but inherited their skills from an elder and didn’t quite know how to work with patterns.
The hidden beauty of all that is that they highly serve as the cultural agents. The sartorial identity of Senegal depends on its tailors. They create the trends, dress the people, and are the gatekeepers of a know-how that is being passed down generation to generation. My goal when launching Tongoro was not only to create a brand, but to highlight this amazing resource that we have and structure it.
We hire and train tailors to produce, while respecting international standards and sizing, which contributes to the building of an industry. Economic development is what ultimately will support artisanal communities to thrive. We make sure people know how their clothes are made and what is the intent behind them.
WW: In your documentary Made in Africa, you mentioned that luxury is an experience, not a price. Can you describe what that experience is for you?
SD: Here in Africa, in most countries still, you can have something custom-made for you at a very affordable price—from jewelry and leather goods to clothing. And partaking or witnessing the fabrication process is a luxury, because it’s an experience and memory you’ll never forget that ultimately adds to the value of the piece you’re acquiring. Anything that is tailored to the taste and enjoyment of a person is a luxury, as it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Whether it cost 10 euros or 1,000 euros, the detail, the care, and time put into is truly what makes it unique.
WW: Sustainability is more than just no-waste designing. How are you considering the role of sustainability at Tongoro Studio?
SD: My idea of sustainability takes into consideration the African context and environment, where the main focus when it comes to creating is economic and social. It’s the aptitude to create value through a commercial product without compromising the well-being of the human resources contributing to the process, if not bettering it, which is our first objective.
When the conversation about sustainability started few years ago, I had the impression that the focus was primarily environmental. But when it comes to a continent like Africa, and, more specifically, a country like Senegal, the very first challenge is to make sure everyone can have access to proper housing and food before we get to talk about anything else. So my goal with Tongoro is to support the economic empowerment of the artisanal community in Senegal. I can only do so by meeting this first objective—making sure as the company grows that the work they do contributes to bettering their quality of life.
WW: How did the global pandemic impact your business?
SD: At the very beginning, I was a bit scared. It was a weird position to be in. We are a fashion company; we do not save lives. Fashion is not a necessity. I thought, “What are we going to do?” I was mainly thinking about my employees, who are depending on this income to live.
I started calculating to see how long we could operate without revenue, if it ever came to that. Then on May 25, George Floyd was murdered. And the world changed forever. Everyone was on a mission to highlight Black businesses, and as painful as it was to realize that it had to come down to this for us to be seen, it was also a blessing. As for many Black-owned businesses, the exposure tremendously helped.
WW: You have friends and supporters in the art and design worlds like Kehinde Wiley. What is your relationship like with art?
SD: Fashion is art. And as hard as it is for me to describe myself like this, I am an artist. I create with different mediums. I design my pieces, direct my campaigns, and shoot my collections. Art is omnipresent. I am very lucky to be surrounded by friends and amazing souls like Kehinde, who I look up to and who inspires me so much.
WW: A few of your looks appeared on Beyoncé for both personal and professional projects. How did the exposure impact your business?
SD: I don’t know if I can ever describe the feeling of seeing Beyoncé in Tongoro. Every single time. It’s so surreal, but it felt pretty amazing. She’s been so generous with us, and the exposure she gave Tongoro has opened many doors and contributed to our commercial success. The very first time she wore Tongoro, it multiplied our sales the following month times three. All I can say is that the Beyoncé effect is real.
WW: Inspiration for new designs can come from anywhere—from images to travel, from people you know to unknown villages. What’s inspiring you today?
SD: These days, I am inspired by spirituality. African spirituality. The ways and practices we had prior to being colonized and having religions forced upon us. Spirituality in any culture is pretty powerful. But I am reading many things, and it’s fascinating how many things originated from here we don’t know about.