Friday, 31 January 2014

Happy Tết

Happy Vietnamese new year from Hanoi! I live right behind the flower market and just wanted to share some photos of the flower market - which goes completely crazy during tết! Think the Hanoi equivalent of Chadstone shopping centre just before Christmas.

Friday, 24 January 2014

West African Textiles: Indigo

Malian Woman Producing Indigo in the
Dogon Country
Beginning this project in Ghana, where African-produced wax print is ubiquitous, I thought sourcing locally made textiles would be as simple when I arrived in Senegal. Once I started visiting markets and speaking with textile importers, I quickly realised it would be much more difficult to find textiles for Madame Tây that had been produced in Senegal, if not impossible.

As we were developing this project, we realised we had the unique opportunity to be able to explain how our garments were produced. For us, ethical production starts with the materials used to create a garment, but as Steph remarks in her earlier posts about the cotton industry (All About Cotton - Part I and Part II), the production processes involved in creating the fabric we purchased are completely closed off to us.

Working in West Africa, where most young people prefer buying mass-manufactured clothes imported from China, or second hand clothes imported from all over the world,  this was particularly poignant for me as I hoped that Madame Tây would not only be able to support Senegalese artisans, but also the local textile industry. When I realised that there was no local textile industry in Senegal (You can read more about  the wax print used to create Madame Tây garments here), I started looking further abroad.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Why Madame Tây?

In Vietnamese, Tây literally means west, but the term has been liberally applied to describe any foreigner you might come across. Having lived in Vietnam for almost three years, being Tây continues to be inextricably tied to my identity. You carry the label with you where ever you go: from getting passport photos printed, where the storekeeper will jot down Tây in the blank space next to name; to weekend trips in the countryside where kids will run after you shouting Miss Tây or Uncle Tây. I won't go into this in more detail, since my friend Tabitha has already described it far more eloquently than I ever could in her blog here. When I started visiting the tailors, I noticed that many of our pieces would come back with a piece of paper labelled Tây sewn into the fabric to indicate that they were for me. Of course, having grown up as a second generation Chinese girl in Australia - where almost half the population has at least one parent who was born overseas the broad application of the term Tây sat for me somewhere between amusement and bewilderment. I remember the security guard for our small alley asking one day whether Sarah - my Jewish-American housemate - and I were sisters.

As we started this clothing project, we ended up producing clothes in Senegal and Vietnam by chance. Cara and I were skyping one day when she raised the idea. I live in Vietnam and Cara was planning to go to Senegal. One of the first questions we had was how to bring together clothing under our project which would inevitably be of two very different styles that reflect each countries own history, culture and fabrics. One small thing which ties together these two vastly different countries is their history of french colonialism for more or less a hundred years. The influence of the French differs greatly between the two countries. In Senegal, where French remains the official language the influence of French colonialism is very visible. It is important to note however that Senegalese society, whilst greatly influenced by the rule of the French, remains uniquely Senegalese - the top university in Dakar bares the name of Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop who developed the notion of négritude - the promotion of a common black identity as a rejection of French colonialism, and although French is the official language, most Senegalese prefer to converse in their first language. Despite this strong Senegalese cultural identity, the influence of the period of French colonialism is undeniable and is present on institutional levels (the Senegalese educational and legal systems mirror the French systems) as well as more informally - all street signs and shop names are French, and you'll hear the French greeting 'ça va?' everywhere you go in Senegal. In Vietnam, french influences remain more subtle - but can still be found in the baguettes for sale every afternoon on the pavements in the old quarter, the french style seating in cafes - arranged for people watching - and the occasional use of Madame when addressing foreigners.

So we chose the name Madame Tây to serve as a reminder for a few things. The importance of adaptation (which would haunt us throughout the whole production process) - you may not understand how or why something works, but still need to trust that it does. The  magnitude of roots and origins - despite how desperate you may be to fit in - our roots, for good or for bad, mold the food we eat, the books we like and the clothes we wear and deserve due respect.  And finally that the world is a much smaller and more interconnected than it first seems.

Friday, 17 January 2014

West African Inspiration: Nio Far by Milcos

One of my favourite things about producing Madame Tây garments in Senegal was meeting young Senegalese creatives working in fashion, photography, graphic design, music. cultural promotion, theatre….everything! Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, is such a buzzing, vibrant city with a really tight-knit creative scene. This kind of atmosphere has bred a whole range of innovative and clever artists, and over the next few weeks I will be sharing with you the work of a few of these emerging creatives.

Nio Far by Milcos

El Hadji Malick Badji wearing Nio Far
Photo by Djibril Dramé 

El Hadji Malick Badji, like many young Senegalese designers, fell into his work in the fashion industry. Driven by his love of natural fabrics like linen, and disillusioned by the lack of such fabrics in contemporary Senegalese fashion, Malick soon realised that if he wanted to wear linen shirts, he’d have to make them himself.

 Luckily for Malick, his sister owns a fashion boutique in the leafy suburb Liberté 6 in central Dakar, and she was quick to help him learn the basics. Working closely with his sister and her tailor, Malick was able to design a range of beautifully detailed shirts, pants and dresses. Malick spends hours trawling through markets all over Dakar (his favourite is Colobane) to find high-quality linen to make his pieces. Nio Far’s aesthetic is perfect for balmy Senegalese nights, and features a lot of beautiful neutral colours with accents of marine blue, dark sea green and warm orange hues. Malick tends to favour contemporary silhouettes – most of his collection consists of loose fitting mens shirts and pants, and a few casual dresses, but he also creates traditional Senegalese outfits with his trademark Nio Far linen at the request of his friends.


For more information and to see more of Malick's creation you can check out Nio Far's Facebook Page

If you’re in Dakar and you’d like to meet Malick and visit the Nio Far boutique you can contact him on 77 251 32 81 or 77 456 21 88.

All photos courtesy of Guillaume BassinetSkillzography, Djibril Dramé and Djibril Ciao

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Style Inspiration - Sara Rhoufrani

NAME: Sara Rhoufrani
HOMETOWN: Rabat, Morocco
OCCUPATION: In charge of privatization at Le Comptoir Général

Cara and I first met Sara more than five years ago back when we were studying in Paris. You can't help but notice Sara because she has this unique style which falls somewhere between high fashion and tomboy. She often mixes different standout pieces and then pairs them off with a pair of comfy sneakers. We love her style because she is a constant reminder the fashion and comfort do not need to be mutually exclusive!

Top two photos courtesy of Sara Benbrahim.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Know Your Wax

Wax Prints at a store in Tamale, Ghana

When purchasing wax print fabric here in Dakar it can be hard to really know where the fabric you find in the big markets comes from and who was responsible for its design and its production. Often the fabric sellers won’t be too sure themselves, and some prefer to feign ignorance when the wax they sell is foreign, out of worry their customers won’t pay a decent price if they know the fabric is made in India or China. Adding to this, most people I’ve spoken to here just don’t know where the wax they wear comes from - in the same way that I couldn’t tell you where my Cue shirt was produced, or where the cotton used to make it was grown and manufactured.

Whilst I can’t tell you where the cotton for every wax print I bought came from, I want to share with you what I’ve learnt since being here in Senegal about the different wax prints that are available and particularly those that are used in Madame Tây garments. Most of this information I learnt from talking informally with a few Senegalese textile industry professionals who import textiles into Senegal. For a country whose second main export is cotton, there is an incredible amount of importation of textiles – mainly from Asian countries. This is due to the lack of processing plants in Senegal to turn the cotton they grow into thread or fabric. When I’ve asked any of the Senegalese designers or tailors I’ve met here why such processing factories don’t exist, they have all thrown up their hands in exasperation and been unable to answer! 

When you purchase a Madame Tây piece from Senegal, please don’t hesitate to ask us for more information about the fabric – we’ll be happy to share with you what we know!

Read more after the jump

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Photoshoot - Behind the Scenes

We wanted to share with you a few behind the scenes shots from our photoshoot.

Click through for more photos!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Print Stories: Eyes

This is one of my favourite fabrics. You see it all over Ghana, with both women and men wearing it all the time. Called ‘L’Oeil de Boeuf’ (Bull's eye) in many francophone countries, the print is known quite simply as ‘Eyes’ in Nigeria, as well as being called ‘God’s eye’ in Ghana.


In Benin, the print has a bit of a story behind it. It is called ‘Lisu ya pite’ which means ‘lustful eye’ and is worn by a woman to show a man that she desires him. So if you’ve got any seducing to you and need a bit of help, you’ll be able to have your own lustful eye shirt or bag when Madame Tây launches in January!

Madame Tây's 'Eye' fabric

Mini Madame Tây in Senegal

Working at our tailor Diogomaye’s house in Dakar means we often have three enthusiastic helpers always on hand – Diogo’s three nieces. One day, the girls decided to have their own fashion parade with some Madame Tây samples. Cuties!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Nga - the Button Seller

Street life is ubiquitous in Hanoi. In the heart of the city, the old quarter is made up of 36 streets, each specialising in a particular craft. When it came to buying buttons and zips – there was only one place to go – button street on Hang Bo.  It was here that I met Nga, who owns a small button stall on the pavement outside 15 Hang Bo with her older sister Hoi. In Nga and Hoi’s small stall, I found the oyster shell buttons used on the Snow-White chemise, the gold exposed zips for the Paintbrush pencil skirt and the concealed zips for the Paintbrush dress.

Nga’s family comes from the village of Lang Co Dien around 10km outside of Hanoi, where for decades all the men in the village have traditionally sold glasses and the women have sold buttons. Her parents left their village in the 1950’s for the capital of Hanoi where economic conditions were better. In Hanoi, they continued their traditional crafts of selling glasses and buttons. Growing up, Nga and her sisters would help their mother to sell buttons, continuing even after Nga got a job in a state owned factory in her early twenties. After she got married and had children she left her job in the factory and started selling buttons full time, because she found that it gave her more flexibility to look after her young family. She started her own stall on Hang Bo at the age of 27 years old. Back then she was one of only a handful of other women selling buttons on the street – these women would help to transform Hang Bo, which was traditionally the place to sell bamboo baskets, into button street.

Today Hang Bo is jammed full for two or three blocks with button shops or people like Nga who set up temporary stalls along the pavement. Unlike the past, where Nga would sell small handfuls of buttons to individuals and tailors to make one or two pieces of clothing, many of Nga’s sales are now made to wholesale factories and tailors who buy buttons in bulk. After her husband was injured in the war, Nga’s button stall has helped her to become the breadwinner in her family.

However, for Nga the police have become a daily part of life. Despite the city’s bustling street life, a 2008 ban on street vendors has rendered the pavement side sellers, which so many people immediately associate with Hanoi, as illegal. When the police turn up she stashes her boxes of buttons and runs away, but from time to time when there is major crackdown on street vendors her goods will be confiscated by the police and she will need to pay a fine upwards of one million dong (AUD 50) for their return. When I ask why she doesn’t set up a formal shop to sell her goods, Nga responds that it is not financially practical to rent such a shop. Her button stall remains a largely family affair and Nga and her sister are regularly joined by Nga’s son and niece who help to sell buttons.

You can find Nga everyday from 7:30am to 7pm outside 15 Hang Bo. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Print Stories: Nkrumah's pencil

This ever-popular fabric, whilst sometimes referred to as ‘backgammon’ for its similarity to the zigzag pattern of the board game, is fondly called ‘Nkrumah’s Pen’ in homage to Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah. 

Nkrumah was seen as a powerful force behind Ghana’s liberation from its British colonial masters, and was praised for his forward vision and desire to create an industrialised, modern Ghana. When he was appointed in 1960, he was beloved by the Ghanaian people and this in part was due to his charisma and the powerful speeches he delivered. The story goes that Nkrumah would meticulously write notes with a very sharp pencil before giving a speech, and so this fabric was named in honour of his fine wit and sharp intellect (and his sharp pencil!).

The print is now available all over West Africa. We found a lovely dark green version at the Marché Sandaga in Dakar, Senegal and loved it so much we bought 12 metres! 

The Nkrumah's pencil that will be featuring in Madame Tay's first production lot.

 The below vintage shot comes from Malian photographer Adama Kouyaté, who owned a photo studio in Ségou during the 1960s and 1970s. The women is wearing a simple dress and wrap skirt made from Nkrumah's pencil - we'd love to know what colour she chose!

Photo Credit: Adama Kouyaté, taken from

You can find more beautiful vintage photos by Adama Kouyaté here:

Friday, 3 January 2014

Partner Profile: Diogomaye Lô, Senegal

Madame Tây wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the team of incredibly talented, devoted and patient artisans we are collaborating with. In Senegal, our main partner is our tailor, Diogomaye Lô

I first met Diogomaye Lô in Saint-Louis in August 2013. I was looking for a skilled tailor with a good eye for modern styles and despite the hundreds of tailors working in Saint-Louis’ Marché Santhiaba, it can be really difficult to find a tailor who can make modern clothes, as most of the tailors are specialists in creating traditional Senegalese wear (think long kaftans and ankle-length skirt and matching top ensembles!). One of my oldest friends in Senegal, Beuz, is a tailor, but he has been living and working in France for a few years now. Lucky for me he is still pretty in tune with the tailoring scene in Saint-Louis and suggested I meet Diogo, known also as Diox, when I was looking for a tailor in August last year.

As soon as I saw Diogomaye in his tie-dye shirt with his big, diamond-encrusted necklace (not real diamonds, by the way), I knew Beuz had sent me the right way. Diogomaye made me a few really beautiful and really detailed pieces, so when it came to finding a tailor I could trust to create garments for Madame Tây, I knew he was the man for the job.

Diogo's contemporary work at a fashion show in Saint-Louis in 2009
Some of Diogo's more traditional work

Diogomaye got his first taste for tailoring in 1992 at the tender age of 15. At the time, he worked with his Uncle at Marché Santhiaba while he learnt the techniques of the trade like looping thread, cutting and basic stitches. A few years later, with the support of a family friend, Diogomaye was able to attend a fashion school in the town of Saly, a few hours south of Dakar. Diox spent seven years working and studying in Saly at Ely B Confection, under the tutelage of a franco-senegalese couple who were both fashion fanatics. In Saly, Diogomaye learnt about patternmaking, industrial sewing and mechanical cutting, as well as refining his designing, cutting and sewing techniques. In 2003, he returned to Saint-Louis where he opened his atelier in the Marché Santhiaba, where he has been working for a diverse range of clients ever since.

Here is a photo of the outfit which won Diogomaye the esteemed 'Ciseaux d'Or' (Golden Scissors) award in 2010:

Butterfly lady from Calabash and Bottletops.

He requested I include this photo of him, looking sharp as always:

If you’re ever in Saint-Louis, and would like the number of a talented tailor, you can give Diogomaye a call on +221 77 261 62 57 or +221 70 924 72 60. He has an atelier at the market just at the end of the bridge to the Langue du Barbarie, called Marché Santhiaba. Tell him Madame Tây sent you!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

West Africa Production - Phase Three: Garment Production

After our first samples had been tested, we set to work making the needed changes – the blazers were too long, the t-shirt were too wide, the shorts were a bit too tight and the skirts needed a few extra details. The whole process was pretty difficult for me, as someone who has never worked in patternmaking or design but who has specific ideas about what the final product should look like. Luckily, our tailor Diogo was super patient and really great at showing me his methods of cutting fabric and explaining techniques like darting which really helped me understand what changes we needed to make for our final run of garments.

Diogo in his atelier in Marche Santhiaba, Saint-Louis, Senegal

Once Diogo and I had decided on the final changes to make to the four different pieces we are producing, he set about the production – which included transferring patterns, cutting and finally sewing over 130 metres of fabric! Needless to say, it was a look of work, so Diogo called in his friend Atou (pictured below) and they worked together to complete about 75 pieces (plus a few extra surprises!) for Madame Tay’s first range of garments.

Atou (l) and Diogo (r) getting to work, Saint-Louis, Senegal

Atou and his machine, Saint-Louis, Senegal

Diogo has an atelier in Marche Santhiaba, the big textile market in Saint-Louis, in Northern Senegal. The market is buzzing from 6am to 11pm with the sounds of sewing machines and scissors slicing through fabric. Diogo’s atelier looks onto a long, covered passageway where apprentice tailors spend hours each day looping string to make fancy embroidery for dresses and shirts -  which are both really popular in Senegal for events and celebrations.

Detail of Diogo's atelier - superman, mannequins and posters of Senegalese religious leaders

Marche Santhiaba

The last part of the production was completed in Dakar, at Diogo’s family house in a suburb called Parcelles. We set up a temporary atelier with a borrowed table, a borrowed sewing machine and goats constantly sticking their heads through the window as Diogo worked.

Diogo's temporary atelier in Parcelles, Dakar

Madame Tay garments ready to be sewn!

Diogo cutting out some Madame Tay high waisted shorts.

Diogo and some neighbourhood goats.