Selly Raby Kane: The Unapologetic Senegalese Fashion Designer Reinventing Futurism in Dakar

Unapologetic, touching and thoughtful, Selly Raby Kane the woman behind the eponymous Senegalese fashion brand is reinventing the alternative heritage pioneered by legends in the likes of Joe Ouakam and Djibril Diop Mambéty, who disrupted Arts and Films in their era. Kane has been on the mission to burst the constructed bubble Dakar has been flourishing in with a new reality at the intersection of fantasy, surreal fiction and mysticism, recounting Senegalese stories through her daring fashion collections, short-films, and pan-african collaborations.

In only a few years, the Selly Raby Kane brand took Africa by storm and now making its way in the United States and Europe with world-renowned stars from Beyonce, Lil Mama, and Issa Rae to Nai Palm, Maria Borges, Tiwa Savage, Bonang Matheba, and Jamel Debbouze wearing her exquisite pieces. As seen on CNN, in Vogue, Elle, InStyle and Fast Company, Openletr has had the pleasure of having a conversation with Kane to dig into who this unwavering woman is behind doors.

Fatima: How do you define yourself?

Selly: I define myself based on my work. I am really immersed in it, mostly because it can make a difference to have chosen the path that I am on. I have started to see the fruits gradually. Being focused on the Dakar creative scene reveals a sense of activism that I grew up with. Many people in my family have been engaged in politics for a long time, and this activism is seen in my writings and the pan-African collaborations. There is a need to unite, create, and measure the repercussions of all undertaken actions. In addition to activism, there is humour in my work.

Fatima: From previous readings, I found that you have studied Business Law in Paris, then moved to Dakar in 2008 to explore the Senegalese art scene. What made you take that huge leap of faith as opposed to pursuing a traditional career?

Selly: It was slow death for me to pursue law even though I was very curious about it and loved what I learned. It truly was not for me, and I am thankful to have realized it quite early. At some point, it had been clear that I wanted to go back home to Senegal, observe the fashion scene and its dynamic, and see if I had a place in it. It was to get away from a potential bad career choice that led me to where I am today.

Fatima: It also seems that you have joined Le Collectif des Petites Pierres upon your arrival in Dakar. Would you tell us about the importance of finding like-minded individuals, and the impact this had on your aesthetic today?

Selly: It had a huge impact as some of my biggest collaborations, including the one with Ibaaku, happened within Le Collectif des Petites Pierres’ ecosystem. It taught me the essence of collectivity, and the importance of micro entities feeding off one another to grow together. It can be very difficult for creative enterprises to flourish in Africa, but having a support system made of people with a deep-rooted desire to challenge the status quo and break the imposed creative formats to create new possibilities was a revolution for me. And it was precisely what I needed.

I also received some personal development from the experience. We had the chance to learn group decisions, identify one another’s strengths and weaknesses to have a coherent output and offer solutions early on in a collectif with creatives from different backgrounds and ages. Towards the end, I led the collectif, so I quickly jumped into a leadership role, which I had not been exposed to in my prior experiences. I gained a lot from thinking for the whole before the individual.

Fatima: Being an African woman in the arts can be challenging at times due to family and cultural expectations. Did you go for your dreams and later apologized, or seek your relatives' blessings first?

Selly: It happened very organically. I did not ask permission. I announced that I was leaving Law School to live in Dakar for a year, and strangely they were opened to it and understood the situation. In about 10 days, I was no longer in France. I still find it strange, and wonder what happened at that time for everything to have aligned so well. I decided to leave France, then met Le Collectif des Petites Pierres, travelled on a Fashion trip, and participated in young creators competitions. It was a necessity for me to make that career switch, and luckily my parents understood at that specific time that I could no longer stay in France and finish my law studies. I believe they thought this was a temporary decision and wanted to give me some space, but things did not go that route. In the end, they did not put any pressure on me, and I am grateful for that.

Fatima: What do they think of your journey today?

Selly: I succeeded in onboarding my father, he works for me now. I think this allows them to explore new areas, discover the creative space, which they would not have had any exposure to otherwise.

Fatima: What is your stance on cultural expectations creating limitations versus individuality leading to creative freedom?

Selly: It is a bad investment to push people towards careers based on their perceived knowledge that certain paths are more stable or lucrative than others. There is work to do in re-educating older generations in terms of new career paths and possibilities, and redefining success and stability, which are not limited in time. There is a whole universe outside of what we know today, and we should let career choices become personal decisions.

Fatima: Your are paving the way towards a new Dakar: the alternative kind, which I am in love with. Please tell us more about that, and where that inspiration actually comes from.

Selly: I am not paving it, because Senegal has a huge heritage with pioneers such as Joe Ouakam and Djibril Diop Mambety. These people created a new dynamic, they were in Art and Film, and broke all imposed boundaries. And I think their created culture left a strong blueprint in Dakar. In a cyclical way, new generations feed their inspiration from this heritage to re-shape the narrative. And us, the millenials are looking to create new platforms for those alternative kinds, whose profile exist in Dakar, but are unable to sustain themselves from their creativity, because they are generally misunderstood. The idea is to bring people together and make sure the alternative concept is not shattered, and create a platform where all creatives whether in fashion or in the arts in general are tightly working to together so their differences do not become divisive.

Fatima: Being a Malian and New Yorker, I feel home in many ways. Selly Raby Kane, to me, is a mixture of the Africa I have been exposed to with a hint of New York. How are travels translated into your designs?

Selly: In terms of textile, the swallows and shrimps often found in my designs were first purchased in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. However, when I first arrive in any given country, I am interested in where the sub-culture is, who the creatives are, and who is working towards bettering their communities with the main goal to immerse myself in that culture, and understand the city’s identity from their lenses. It is in those environments that I lit up. Generally speaking, when I leave a city, there always is an impact be it inspiration for a collection or a collaboration. What matters and is most important to me are those individuals shaking things and innovating.

Fatima: You are a full-on creative, from clothing design to film direction. What is the relation between your different artistic penchants and symbolism, fantasy, and mysticism?

Selly: I have a desire to transfuse the myths of my country into my work. For me, these are stories that must be heard, and they are infinite sources of inspiration. The origin of my interest for Science Fiction and Fantasy came from my childhood. It is a genre I am truly attached to, and early on, I have consumed tons of movies in that category. I have always been fascinated by those intangible and invisible things, also found in “The Other Dakar,” my virtual reality movie, in some pieces of my collections, and will be seen in future projects as well. There is a need to speculate, to get out of that constructed bubble, and imagine other ways of living.

Fatima: I’ve heard that you scored a partnership with Ikea. What should we expect, and when will your designs be available?

Selly: The partnership is meant to capture the diverse living rituals of urban cities in Africa, and I was chosen to represent Dakar. It is launching in the first half of 2019, and will be available in all of the Ikea stores around the world.

Fatima: Generally speaking, creators always intend some kind of impact from their output. How do you hope the Selly Raby Kane brand impacts Senegalese, Africans, and women around the world?

Selly: I hold dear to my heart to tighten the community and further integrate the African continent to ensure creative hubs come closer together. I did have the opportunity to be a part of Yali, one of Obama’s founded programs, which allowed me to spend three months in the United States surrounded by other sub-saharan African leaders from Lesotho and Angola to Namibia, and get to know them. Therefore, it is important to ensure a cultural closeness, and the essence of creation thankfully enables that.

Also, I have a strong obsession for my city and the space I develop my work in. Art, Culture, and Design must be developed and turned into a coherent industry, and all agents within the space must be enabled to nourish their inspiration from one another. My interest lies in impacting creatives, and be accountable for the ways stories similar to “The Other Dakar” are presented to restore a kind of truth. I am under the impression that Dakar deserves more recognition than it has now, as it holds so many values, ways of thinking, and things to offer. And unfortunately, these are misrepresented in the media; therefore, there is a need to establish an existing reality deserving to be wide-spread.

Selly Raby Kane is shoppable at:

  1. Marche Rue Dix, in Brooklyn-NYC

  2. Nelly Wandji, in Paris-France

  3. Alara, Lagos-Nigeria

  4. Selly Raby Kane, in Dakar-Senegal

Photo courtesy of Selly Raby Kane / Anna Toure PR