DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters Life!) - For women in Tanzania’s humid Dar es Salaam port city, the “kanga” is must-have material, functioning as an everyday wraparound dress, bath towel, shawl and, when ragged, dish cloth and mop too.
But for Mustafa Hassanali, a popular local designer who organized this year’s second annual Swahili Fashion Week, the traditional rectangular kanga cloth from east Africa’s Indian Ocean coast means much more.
“Just as India has saris and Japan has the kimono, we have the kanga,” he said after the show, as Tanzania’s glitterati exchanged air kisses under the moon by an outdoor catwalk.
“We have to take east African fashion to the international market.”
Models strutted down the runway under bright lights and low-hanging tree branches wearing an array of vivid colors and traditional cloth sewn into figure-hugging mini-dresses.
“Growth comes with baby steps,” said Hassanali.
“East Africa lags behind west and South African fashion, but 80 years ago there was no Paris Fashion Week ... We have to take our clothes to a new level.”
About 20 designers took part in this year’s event, many of them newcomers.
For all of them, it was a chance to dive into the coast’s diverse Swahili culture, born of traders from Arabia, Africa, India and Europe who plied the sea routes hundreds of years ago and developed the area’s own distinctive language.
Dazzling and revealing outfits donned by lithe local models were greeted with waves of applause and sighs of wonder from the audience throughout the evening.
Eye-catching numbers included those from veteran Tanzanian designer Manju Msita, who styled one leggy model as a giraffe with two necks emerging either side of her own. She was closely pursued by a green-clad hunter toting a rifle.
Others showcased elegant visions sporting colored beads, grasses, seeds and shells inspired by traditional customs.
Ailinda Sawe, the country’s first fashion designer, whose label “Afrika Sana” means “Uniquely Africa” in Swahili, showed off her new range of kanga clothes.
“Our designers have a lot of energy but we still lack authenticity,” said Sawe, 58, wearing a string of bright kanga fabric leaves around her neck and material pinned to resemble petals hanging from her hips.
“We need to look to our own roots for our own success. Swahili culture is a fascinating mix,” said Sawe, who with her husband and business partner researched how nine of Tanzania’s 120 or so tribes wear traditional outfits -- then incorporated them into her work.
Kangas are more often seen for sale in the dusty streets of Dar es Salaam’s hectic, disheveled downtown Kariakoo market -- covering the sides of small stalls squeezed between electrical goods stores -- than amid the glitz of the catwalk.
“It’s really amazing to see something we’ve never thought of as sexy look so good,” said Lucky Peter, 21, a hostess who usually buys second-hand Western clothes from the city’s street markets. “I’ve always seen the kanga as local, never as stylish, but tonight was just crazy.”
The show boasted high production values, with rows of lights illuminating the catwalk, a slick sound system and dozens of flashing photographers’ bulbs.
International fashion show producer and director Jan Malan said there was no reason for Africa to scrimp on presentation.
“Why shouldn’t they have the privilege of showcasing their work and why shouldn’t it be of a high standard?,” the South African asked over a beer after the show, in between congratulating excited models.
“We’re giving people a reason to be successful.”
Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Casciato