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Accra fashion week fights for female empowerment



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As the music booms and the lights flare, a model sashays down the runway at Accra Fashion Week in Ghana. But the focus isn't on her high-waisted black pleather skirt, it's on something more risqué: her sheer, very tight top.

"Showing breasts! That's not very Ghanaian!" a woman in the audience exclaims to her friend. Reality star Kim Kardashian and singer Rihanna may have popularised the style overseas, but in conservative Ghana, African designers are hoping to use these racy looks to help young women challenge the traditional status quo.

"Everyone should be able to express themselves and not be oppressed in any way," said designer Josefa Da Silva, an effervescent 29-year-old sporting a halo of ink-blue hair. The designer was showcasing her collection with models wearing floor length dresses made of quilted faux leather and glittering gold and silver visors. Da Silva, a native of Cape Verde based in the United States, isn't afraid to make a statement with her designs.

Earlier this year she made headlines for including Madeline Stuart, a model with Down's Syndrome, in a runway show. "I think that my design is a little bit more futuristic," she said. "I know that over here it's probably a little bit more conservative, and mine is on the other side -- high fashion."

Confidently showing skin and being a feminist go hand-in-hand, says Cameroonian designer Irene Nuvi, who was showing her Nuvi Creative Fashion Legacy collection. "The time has come where you don't judge a woman any longer in what she is putting on," the 36-year-old said. "You don't judge a girl because she's put on a short skirt. It doesn't make her irresponsible."

Empowerment bonus

Hard times may have hit Ghana, which is experiencing its slowest economic growth in decades, but the fashion industry is going strong. Accra Fashion Week is just one of three major fashion events taking place in the West African country in October, while there are a plethora of other fairs and shows happening throughout the year.

South African designer Tanya Kagnaguine drew inspiration from pop star turned feminist crusader Beyonce and human rights icon Nelson Mandela to help women "channel their inner goddess". Like the other designers, she stands by her revealing designs.

"Sometimes there is a bit of a shock," Kagnaguine said. "But I want people to feel free. Men can wear what they want, so why can't women wear what they want?" Accra Fashion Week organiser Nana Tamakloe wanted the event to highlight locally designed clothing. Empowering women through fashion has been a bonus, he said.

Yet Tamakloe said the new styles debuted by the designers are far from common on the streets of Accra. "Whether it pushes our culture's boundaries, that is another question." Still, Ghanaian designer Yvonne Tawiah, who has been working in the industry for 20 years, says there's no doubt that local fashion is evolving.

"Sewing used to be for school dropouts -- now the graduates are coming in from universities," Tawiah said. Now, the modern woman in Ghana expects a mix of both old and new, the veteran designer said.

Today the brightest fashion stars will be able to deliver some skin, while incorporating elements from traditional wear in Ghana. "If you want to get everybody to wear your clothes you have to blend all of them," Tawiah said. (AFP)

Photos: Accra Fashion Week, Facebook and website

Accra Fashion Week
irene nuvi
josefa da silva
Madeline Stuart