Style revolution: Years of exile hone Liberian flair for design


After almost 200 years of Western influence on their clothes, Liberians are revelling in a style revolution, designing and tailoring their own edgy creations with prints and cuts influenced by their African neighbours.

Until 2003, when a peace deal ended 14 years of devastating civil war, tens of thousands of Liberians had been living as refugees in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Guinea.

Since then, most of them have returned, bringing with them fashion influences that have translated into a vibrant homegrown industry.

Increasingly visible across the country are a wave of unique Liberian creations, which are rapidly eclipsing the once-popular combination of polo shirts, jeans and hoodies.

Back home, Liberians began asking tailors to stitch them clothes like the ones they had grown used to in Conakry or Abidjan, where people habitually wear traditional west African styles.

– Insatiable demand –

“The long stay of many Liberians in other African countries during the war (was) where they saw different ways of dressing,” designer Agatius Coker told AFP.

These days, chic in Liberia means channelling a vibrant fierce elegance — from edgy “resort pants” slit to the thigh, to bright print shirts, or “handkerchief” dresses paired with head wraps.

One of Coker’s key markets is traditional African wedding celebrations, attire for which is now as sought after as the outfits for a standard European wedding.

“The cloth is produced in African countries, we buy it and do the design here and the sewing,” he said.

A breathable, loose-fitting cotton suit costs between $60 and $80 (53 and 71 euros), and a print shirt around $35.

“We are less expensive than the European styles that cost $120 and above,” Coker added, and in the extreme humidity “the African styles are adapted to our weather.”

Sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia was founded by the United States in 1822 for freed American slaves, the descendants of whom still dominate political and economic life.

Over the generations, the local tribes living in Liberia largely adopted the dress of these American settlers, explaining the sartorial leanings of this west African nation.

One by-product of their switch to African style is that Liberians have become avid window-shoppers, stopping to photograph the latest styles displayed outside new boutiques.

– A secure livelihood –

And this is far from a female-only phenomenon.

Strutting down a Monrovia street on the lookout for a new outfit is Roosevelt Krumah, who is kitted out in black skinny jeans, leather boots and a shirt made of bands of clashing prints, a matching cotton cap on his head.

With him is his friend Joe, sporting turquoise trousers, a black dress shirt and a waistcoat with matching turquoise lapels.

“I feel like a real African when I dress in African style,” says Krumah, for whom functionality is also a big draw.

The impact is not only a feast for the eyes but a secure source of income in an economy heavily reliant on small-scale entrepreneurship.

Designer Korlu Jallah, a haute couture specialist who founded the Liberian brand Edith House of Fashion, has now diversified into pret-a-porter to deal with demand.

Five years ago she was just another jobless college graduate.

“My mother is a seamstress. I used to like watching her sewing when I was small,” she says, speaking to AFP in her multi-purpose studio-store.

“When I had difficulty in finding a job, she advised me to continue in tailoring. It was difficult at the beginning because our women liked the European fashions.”

– ‘It blings you up’ –

The 32-year-old now employs 22 people, including 15 tailors, six saleswomen and an administrator, but still finds it hard to keep pace with her customers’ demands.

“Our African style has taken the lead,” she says, gesturing to the queue of ladies waiting for a fitting.

“As you can see, business is going well.”

Ophelia Gbedia, 19, helps to sell Jallah’s designs and has managed to avoid permanently dropping out of school early like the majority of Liberian girls, despite the death of her father during the Ebola crisis.

“He was paying my school fees,” she said, carefully folding cotton shirts.

“That’s how I dropped out of school, but now that I have this job, I’ve gone back.”

Handsome profits for the designers and jobs for the young are not the only by-products of the phenomenon, which taps deep into Liberian psychology, according to stylist Jodie Reid Seton.

“It brings out the realness in you, the real African continent; a real African woman’s pride,” she told AFP.

“When it comes to African (style), it blings you up.”

Reid Seton, who has seen a boom in sales with her label Sarnokoon Designs, can no longer imagine life without a touch of Africa to her outfit when she gets dressed in the morning.

“Even if you’re not in an African dress, you can wear African pants; you have to have on at least an African bangle or something,” she explains.

“Once you’re in that nice African attire, everyone is drawn to you. There’s a certain beauty about it.”

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