How One Grad Student Incorporates Her Senegalese Roots Into Her NYC Style

By * [caption id="attachment_14006" align="alignleft" width="225"]Photo: Courtesy of Amy Sall Photo: Courtesy of Amy Sall[/caption] Amy Sall is a graduate student in human rights with major goals: She aims to impact minds and lives through channels beyond policy reform, and also to find a way to incorporate her favorite bright Maasai khanga fabrics into a New York City wardrobe that’s heavy on all-black Rick Owens. While she’s still in school at Columbia University, her main platform is Instagram, where she keeps an inspiring diary of her research and travels through images that range from Iman in a bright head covering for a 1983 Kenzo ad, to a James Barnor portrait of two Ghanaian women in the 1960s, a vintage Nigerian ad for Satin Sheen hair conditioner, and of course, pictures of her own personal style. In the past year, she’s traveled to Kajiado county in Kenya to volunteer with the Maasai Youth Outreach Organization, as well as to Senegal, where her parents are from, to visit her grandmothers and extended family in Ndoffane and Koalack. Here, she discusses her favorite style moments from the trips, why her eyes never rest when she’s taking in the street style in Dakar, and how to wear beautiful traditional pieces from other cultures with respect and appreciation. Fashionable Roots The photo of me in the blue dress was taken in Senegal. That was my first time in ten years being back. I was there to see my family before I started the school year. Style and Senegal go hand in hand. Everyone—men, women and children—they all have this incredible personal style. It’s just their everyday. They have waxed prints, beautiful hats, and jewelry, and your eyes can’t stand still because everyone looks so great. My favorite day was when I went to Gorée Island. I have tons of photos of this on my Instagram, because I thought it was so bizarre and so amazing that what I happened to be wearing pretty much matched the entire island! I was coordinating with the landscape. I feel like more eyes need to be on Senegal. There’s a lot of emerging talent there when it comes to fashion: a lot of designers who want to take traditional African prints and just make a dress out of it, whereas someone like Sophie Nzinga Sy(Sophia Zinga) is very inspired by how something is worn and elements of Senegalese culture translated into a beautiful, modern take on African clothing. She did this beautiful dress inspired by a fabric that a group of religious men in Senegal wear: She was able to take that and turn it into a really gorgeous womenswear piece. The Story Behind the Fabrics [caption id="attachment_14005" align="alignright" width="200"]Photo: Courtesy of Amy Sall Photo: Courtesy of Amy Sall[/caption] The colorful fabrics I brought back after working in a Maasai village in Kenya are called khangas. The male version is called shukas. They are traditionally worn by the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania and they are just beautiful. Around the edges they have sayings in Swahili. It’s interesting that they incorporate their language into the fabric. Traditionally, Maasai women wear three of them: two draped around the body and one draped around the shoulder.” In New York, sometimes I’ll wear them on my head while I’m deep conditioning my hair. I do love prints, especially being West African, but my style is very minimal. So, I’m still trying to figure out how to blend the two. I took a photo of myself with a blue khanga around my head was when I was in Nairobi—I didn’t see women in head wraps in Kenya, but I decided to do it to see what this East African fabric would look like in a West African way. All the African printed things that I own have been given to me by family. They separately in very intimate moments reached into their closets and said, “This is for you. I want you to make something special out of this fabric.” I really cherish these pieces. One of the fabrics my paternal grandmother gave me I ended up making into a top and skirt, and the other fabric from my maternal grandmother I made into a very simple dress. How to Appropriate Style Respectfully and Fashionably In one photograph from my trip, I’m wearing a traditional Maasai beaded necklace. How it’s worn commonly is with four around your neck of all different sizes so that their arrangement indicates different things, whether wealth or social status—and also so that they’re simply layered and cascading in a really beautiful way. I believe in terms of being respectful, it takes more than just liking something that’s African and trying to wear it. This is their everyday dress and some things signify rituals and traditions, like the birth of a child, a funeral or a marriage. So many elements are codified within these fabrics, dresses, and necklaces. When things are appropriated, they are extracted from that context. It’s important to know what these things mean and who these people are and not just label it as fashion. It’s beautiful, but it’s not fashion, it’s culture, and a representation of individuals and history. People have to be mindful of that and take the time to learn about it. *Vogue]]>

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