Ivorian fashion designer Felicite Mai sees the clothes she crafts from jute cocoa bean sacks as a tribute to her father, a tailor-turned-cocoa planter who gave his daughter her first sewing machine. Cocoa is the Ivory Coast's top export, and Mai sources her materials from the warehouses of an Abidjan port. "'Ivory Coast's economy is based on agriculture, especially cocoa and coffee. So I decided to promote these crops by creating these fashion designs," said Mai. "For me, it's a way of drawing the whole world's attention to cocoa and coffee." (Unfortunately, as Reuters also reports today, rising fuel prices in the nation mean less profits for cocoa farmers.)
For the past five years, ever since winning a fashion contest in the town of Divo, the designer has catered to an ever-widening circle of celebrity clients drawn to her garments' muted colors and rough-hewn appeal. The designs, whose sophisticated lines attest to Mai's formal fashion school training, deliberately draw on the inescapable realities of her country's past; as a tailor, her father, whom she cites as a major influence, catered to a French colonial clientele, while the cowrie shells Mai incorporates as accessories were a form of currency in the days of the slave trade. When a motif or influence is explored in the mainstream fashion world, it is generally abstracted, and when a designer does attempt commentary (see: Donatella Versace) the results are often cringe-inducingly self-serving. It's exciting to see a franker response to an immediate influence: this is what fashion can do, at its best.
Cocoa Catwalk: Sacks Are Sweet For Ivorian Designer [Reuters]