This is the second part of my conversation with Rachel-Diane Cusiac-Barr, a fashion entrepreneur from Cameroon. In the first part, Rachel-Diane explained what feminism meant to her. Now she tells me how she blends her vision of womanhood and fashion in her designs.
You explained earlier that Niango is more than a clothing line. It’s a source of empowerment for you. Let me add: it empowers others too! I’m thinking particularly about your amazing ‘African Queens’ collection. What inspired you to create it?
I wanted to explore female leadership in Africa as it existed way before modern feminism. As I was doing my research I learned about how strong female leadership was among African royalty. So I selected ten African queens whose story and style inspired me to design the ten dresses in the collection. ‘African Queens’ is a collection I’m truly proud of.
Did one of the ten queens inspire you not just as an artist but as a woman, too?
They were all inspiring but the queen whose story stuck with me is Queen Nandi from Zululand, mother of Shaka Zulu. A woman who raised such a strong historic character and also succeeded in her own path is inspiring to me. It’s fascinating to see how she instilled the respect for women in her son. She’s given me lots to think about with regards to how we should raise our sons, even in today’s world.
Her story is so powerful, you know? To this day she is a role model for modern women. She inspires us to stand tall, even in a patriarchal environment, and claim that we are human beings and we have the same rights and the same value as men do. It’s the only way we can advance the feminist cause.
It struck me that your designs are a tribute to women’s power, when the fashion industry so often convey such a degrading image of women. We’ve seen women who are excessively thin, hypersexualized, and so on. What do you make of that?
As with everything in life, there is what something is, and what people make of it. I’ve never thought of fashion as something degrading for women. It’s about how we each make fashion ours. A piece of clothing is more than what you are wearing, it’s also a message. If your message is a degrading one, that’s what people will see. But of course, too often fashion is misused to advance a negative message.
“A piece of clothing is more than what you are wearing, it’s also a message.”
One thing though, about hypersexualization. We must recognize that some women feel beautiful when they show off their body! That too is a way to reclaim their body, and they can feel empowered by it. So again, it depends on what each of us makes of fashion and what message we want to share.
Okay so are you saying that the fashion industry will only change if every individual person and brand commits to portray women in a positive way?
That’s right. I can tell things are already changing. For example, we now see that models on the fashion weeks runways come in all sizes, all races. The fashion industry is a lot more committed to change now than it used to be.
And you know, fashion is more than what the magazines and big brands want it to be. Fashion is about how every single person owns what they wear. We even see it now, with the “street style” now permeating the runway, and with how bloggers have made their mark on the mainstream style. Big brands don’t define what fashion is. We must do that for ourselves.