“African craft should not be about charity”

5 Jan

Interview with Charlie Davies
Designer, SAHEL design

Ruched handbag in claret

Last week, I came across SAHEL design. The designs, the ethos of the designer and the means of production, instantly meant something to me.

For me here was a designer who was truly interested in creativity and artisanship. I was really moved by how her designs both preserve and evolve traditional skills. They are, at the same time, strikingly authentic and innovative.

I needed to know more about the designer, her work and her journey.

Here is my interview with the designer, Charlie Davies.

SAHEL design – www.saheldesign.com

“Sahel Design is about discovering, celebrating and reviving traditional craft techniques. It’s about learning from and respecting the people who make them. It’s seeing the continuation of skills into future generations by making them profitable today“, www.saheldesign.com



What are three of the main aims of SAHEL design?
– Preserving indigenous artistic traditions that are in danger of being lost.
– Creating a livelihood for artisans who are struggling to make a living from their work.
– Changing perceptions. African craft should not be about charity but about beauty, diversity and history.

What inspired you to start SAHEL design?
I wanted to create work for people that pays well, but is also meaningful to them. I also thrive on being creative.

What makes SAHEL design so special?
We do celebrate style and beautiful things, but ultimately we’re about loving people and using things, NOT the other way around; using people and loving things.

Charlie Davies talking with leatherworkers

Your work has a strong aesthetic signature, name three influencing factors to your work?
– My surroundings here in the Sahel are a continual inspiration: the texture of a grass hut, the curve of a pounding pot, the dignity of a broken calabash carefully sewn up.
– I am influenced by local people. Stories they tell become incarnated in my work. The swinging tassels on my bags are from traditional Fulani horse reins, testament to this region’s strong equestrian heritage.
– My background as a fashion editor in London helps me understand what works well. I love mixing rustic with urban, and contemporary with historical.

Fulani chevalier Barani horsemanship

What has been one of your biggest challenges as a designer (and what have you learnt)?
Working within the limitations of what is available locally has been a challenge for me, but I have learned that it’s much better to focus on what you have, not at what you don’t have. Don’t try to turn materials into something that they aren’t; keep it simple and play to their strengths.

Organic cotton cushion covers

Leather and Cotton Tote Bag

Where do you see SAHEL design in Five years time?
There will be a much broader collection of fashion and home accessories which are exporting worldwide as well as selling locally. The next line I’m working on is belts.

When you think about SAHEL design and you smile, what are you thinking about?
Salamata and Fatimata, the clever old ladies who make horse reins. They have such a wry sense of humour.

Making a set of tassled horse reins

Where did you train and gain your skills as a fashion designer?
I began making clothes and accessories when I was 11, and went on to graduate from Nottingham Trent University with a BA (Hons) degree in Fashion Design. I’m still learning through my obsession with making things. There’s a lot of trial and error.

Name three fashion designers you respect?
Alexander McQueen – a genius tailor who wasn’t afraid of being different.
Paul Smith – he is so good at combining classic with quirky.
Karl Lagerfeld – he pulsates with creativity and at 78 years old continues to be open to new ideas, interested and engaged with the world.

Where can people purchase products produced through SAHEL design?
At the moment we have two stockists in the UK, and in March there will be an online shop. Nuance in Ouagadougou sells the bags and we are hoping for more stockists worldwide this year.

Link to SAHEL design stockists

Two tone flat Tote Bag

And finally, what would be your single message of advice for fashion designers in Africa?
Authenticity is beautiful, so build on who you are. Don’t try to emulate others or be something that you’re not. You have a voice that is unique to you. Find it and work with it.

Charlie Davies

Charlie Davies is a fortunate artist, who has found a great  muse; Sahel in Burkina Faso: A small part of the world from which she directly draws her inspiration and can translate that inspiration into high-quailty commercially viable creative product.

There are a number of wonderful designers who are keeping traditional craft techniques of Africa alive, and making them relevant for the 21st Century. If you want to know more about them and also about Afro-infused fashion, then get to know:-



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