CNN Photos

Celebrating African fashion in Dakar

Photographer Per-Anders Pettersson has gone to fashion shows all over Africa, with the biggest being in Nigeria and South Africa. Most are indoors and exclusive, but Dakar Fashion Week in Senegal holds an outdoor show that is open to the public with concerts and other entertainment.

Thousands of people from Dakar’s poor neighborhood show up to the outdoor show, Pettersson said. Many of them don’t really know what to make of, as he put it, “skinny people in fancy clothes.”

“They just have never seen it before. It’s so foreign to them,” he said. The crowd boos at the skinnier models and cheers for the girls with curves, he said. They worry if the slender girls are sick.

Dakar Fashion Week, now it its 12th year, brings designers from around the world to celebrate African fashion. Dakar is the capital of Senegal and Franco-African fashion. (Senegal was a French colony until the 1960s.)

Most of the designers at the show are not known internationally, Pettersson said, though some offer different local and international lines to cater to the Western fashion world.

African dress has been known for inspiring high fashion, not headlining it. But that might soon change.

“A new modern Africa is growing rapidly,” wrote Pettersson in his project statement.

West Africa’s clothing typically features bright colors with detailed embroidery, and in its high fashion, some lines are more inspired by the international scene than others. The dress in this gallery’s third image, Pettersson said, could be from anywhere, whereas the headdress and heavily decorated dress in image No. 9 are more distinctly West African.

Pettersson, who is based in South Africa, first started photographing African fashion about four years ago. It strayed from his typical, more serious work, such as South Africa’s first democratic election or hardships on the Congo River, and he found it uplifting.

“At the time I had done so many hard stories. I wanted to do something else, something totally different,” he said. “I was fascinated by all that was happening.”

The fashion industry is growing in Africa, but it’s a challenge for designers there to build a lasting business. The wealthy still tend to prefer internationally known brands to the high-end creations of fellow Africans. Dakar Fashion Week includes workshops for designers to teach them how to grow a sustainable business.

Still, Pettersson said, “It’s totally a new thing that’s growing, and lots are very excited.”

- Lauren Russell, CNN