When it comes to meaningful and positive change, the fashion industry tends to take two steps forward and one step back. Just look at the catwalks of AW19, which saw a 38.8% increase in racial diversity from last season, while the number of plus-size and older models decreased across New York, London, Milan and Paris.
Progress in the industry as a whole is slow-moving but the internet, and more specifically Instagram, allows us to be more global than ever before. The less inwards-looking and Western-focused fashion is, the richer and more exciting it becomes. Discovering brands from different time zones is one of the biggest thrills that Instagram – for all its faults – brings, and our latest find is Tongoro, established in Senegal by Sarah Diouf.
Founded in 2016 in the country’s capital, Dakar, Sarah started Tongoro with the aim of empowering local artisans while celebrating African prints and fabrics. "I trained Senegalese makers by training them to produce quality goods matching international standards," she tells Refinery29. "Tailoring is such an important part of our culture here, but outside cultural festivities most tailors' income remains low and unstable, and sewing remains an undervalued skill; my ultimate goal with Tongoro is to empower local artisans through training and professionalising their craft, in a structure and platform that will allow them to get a better and stable income." This started with outsourcing and producing with independent tailors, then last year Sarah set up her own production unit, where she’s implemented a strong logistic chain allowing the brand to ship anywhere in the world in just seven business days.
With bold, graphic patterns and vivid colours, Tongoro offers billowing jumpsuits and dramatic dresses that are appropriate for every event in the calendar, from weddings to garden parties, and have us dreaming of sun-soaked summers. The aesthetic feels directional; Sarah says it’s best summed up as "Africa forward". "We are witnessing a revolution where Africa is, and will, slowly be taking the lead in terms of culture and arts. The colours and prints I try to use capture this vibrant and unique feeling we can only experience when living or visiting the continent, and I wanted that to be the aesthetic of the brand in a way that could resonate with most," she explains. Think of it as "Africa subtly translated for a global audience".
2018 was a great year for the brand for many reasons, but one could argue that it was Beyoncé who brought Tongoro to the world’s attention. "Beyoncé was certainly part of that!" Sarah says.
"She’s worn four of our looks, and the impact in terms of sales has been amazing. Zerina Akers, her stylist, works closely with her to include rising talents from all over the world in her wardrobe." Whether it’s the Zanzi co-ord, all sweeping chiffon in swirling patterns, or the monochrome Maliki power suit, Bey made a great case for the label when she donned its pieces last year.
But it’s not a brand made just for global stars and fashion’s elite. "African fashion is the fresh air everyone wants to breathe, but aren’t quite ready to splurge a lot on," Sarah says. With pieces priced between £30 for tops and £175 for dresses, affordability is key to Tongoro’s mission. "I wanted to come up with a product that would defy and break all stereotypes regarding the quality of our goods, for everyone to be able to at least try and be convinced – turning non-believers into fans." While Tongoro's pieces are currently only available in sizes 8-14, Sarah confirms that this will be extended to size 18 by the end of the year, launching with a plus-size capsule collection.
Alongside stellar pieces, celebrity fans and a rapidly growing Instagram following, Sarah’s key aim with Tongoro is to raise awareness, whether it’s celebrating African design, supporting and investing in local artisans, or highlighting often overlooked political situations. While the brand was established and is based in Senegal, 'tongoro' translates to 'star' in the national language of Central African Republic (CAR), where Sarah’s mother is from.
"The CAR is the very heart of the African continent, but sadly ranked 180 out of 187 on the Human Development Index. Abundant in diamond mines, the CAR has only known a few hours of peace since its independence in 1958, with unstable and rocky political situations leading three years ago to unprecedented chaos. Every time I am asked what 'Tongoro' means, I am able to raise awareness of the CAR and pay tribute to the very heart of the motherland: wounded, bleeding, yet still blossoming."