Fashion History Minor: Mali's Master Couturier Chris Seydou

The "Fashion History Minor" series will highlight the rich fashion tapestry of legendary creatives and designers throughout the diaspora as well as traditional design techniques that have undoubtedly contributed to the canon of visual aesthetics in their time and beyond.

First up, Malian fashion designer Chris Seydou who transported the bogolanfini textile to a global stage during the 1980s and 1990s.

Chris Seydou / Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Chris Seydou / Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Name: Chris Seydou (FKA Seydou Nourou Doumbia)

Place of Birth: Kati, Mali

Most well known for his bogolanfini or mud-cloth designs, Seydou began his training in design as a young child creating looks for dress dolls and absorbing his embroiderer mother's European fashion magazines, eventually apprenticing for tailor Cheickene Camera as a young teen. He moved back and forth between Kati and Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso during his early years before setting up his first tailor shop in the former city. His work transported him to Abidjan, Ivory Coast where he created pieces for affluent women in the burgeoning fashion capital and then Paris, France where he worked for Yves Saint Laurent and Paco Rabanne.

His eponymous label launched in 1981 in Abidjan, applying European design techniques to traditional African printed textiles. Seydou expanded the use of bogolan, a cotton dyed fabric using a process of fermented mud that dates back to the 12th century, through his reimagining of Western-style cropped skirts and jackets in indigenous fabrications. Historically produced by women of the Bamana culture, the handmade textile utilized symbolic markings and ritualistic motifs passed on from generation to generation. Seydou was mindful of the cultural context behind this rural fabric and commissioned his own materials inspired by bologan so as not to destroy any of the historical significance of existing textiles. His contemporary during this period was painter Ismael Diabaté, whose use of bogolan in his fine art practice similarly achieved international acclaim. 

A spring of inspiration, his aesthetic later influenced the designs of Givenchy and Oscar de la Renta. Before his untimely passing in 1994, he established the African Federation of Fashion Designers, a forum dedicated to support and promote designers on a global scale. Considered the father figure of African fashion, his legacy lives on in his Bamako-based atelier of tailors who continue to produce collections in the iconic mud-cloth print and in the countless creatives he has inspired across the diaspora.