Cocoa catwalk: sacks are sweet for Ivorian designer

ABIDJAN Thu Jul 10, 2008 5:25am EDT

1 of 6. A worker (R) prepares a dress made from used cocoa sacks as fashion designer Felicite Mai walks past at a warehouse in Abidjan in this April 4, 2008 file photo. Mai, who uses the cocoa sacks to produce clothes, follows a philosophy she calls 'waboua', that everything is useful.

Credit: Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon/Files

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Cocoa runs in the family of Ivorian fashion designer Felicite Mai. It was her father, a tailor-turned-cocoa planter, who gave her her first sewing machine, a model dating back to 1952.

And for the last five years, this sewing-school graduate has been turning out eye-catching outfits made from the jute sacks used to ship Ivory Coast's top export - cocoa.

From her humble shop in the popular Treichville suburb of the economic capital Abidjan, Mai designs, cuts and fits clothes for men and women that use the natural beige colors and coarse fiber of cocoa and coffee sacks.

Normally stuffed to bursting with the cocoa beans that make Ivory Coast the world's No. 1 grower of the source of chocolate, Mai's creations are worn by a growing clientele of celebrities, artists and musicians, some even from abroad.

"Ivory Coast's economy is based on agriculture, especially cocoa and coffee. So I decided to promote these crops by creating these fashion designs," said Mai, whose real name is Maimouna Camara Gomet.

"For me, it's a way of drawing the whole world's attention to cocoa and coffee," she said.

Proud to wear her own designs, she sports a beige cut-off top with a frayed fringe, made from a jute sack, over blue jeans, a tape measure draped around her neck.

Her creations -- for both men and women -- include skirts, tops, trousers, shirts, waistcoats as well as caps, bags and accessories, mostly in the natural beige of the washed jute sackcloth, but sometimes also dyed darker brown or blue.

"PRODUCT OF IVORY COAST"

Her models say the "sack clothes" look good with traditional jewelry and ornaments, such as the cowrie shells that were the common currency of the West African coast during past centuries of the Atlantic slave trade.

Mai buys the sacks -- some stamped with the words "Product of Ivory Coast, Cocoa" -- from warehouses at Abidjan's bustling port. The jute material is washed and cut at her Treichville workshop, where a wax mannequin is used to help with fittings.

"I had this idea from when I was still at sewing school in 1987. Then I opened my own workshop in 1996 and I first launched these kind of designs in 2003 during a fashion contest at Divo (in the south of Ivory Coast)" said Mai, who has several assistants at her shop.

"My father was a tailor and he made jackets for the colonial settlers," she said, referring to Ivory Coast's former French colonial masters.

"Then he became a coffee and cocoa planter," she added.

Mai hopes that her sack fashion designs can serve as an attractive, enduring advertisement for her country's best known products -- cocoa and coffee.

"That was the livelihood of our parents," she said.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)

(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)

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