Young entrepreneur Sarah Diouf brought African fashion to a new level when launching Tongoro in 2016, an African ready-to-wear label offering affordable and fashionable items.

Her collection is made with one of a kind, timeless pieces and original designs perfected with Senegalese craft. Her business is not only about well dressed women, but also giving back: with material sourced on the continent, she works with local tailors in Dakar, providing them with a regular income and allowing the development of Made in Africa.

With this oh-amazing start, Diouf is ready to fly to new heights bringing her label to global levels and the attention it deserves. Exposure she did get recently, following her allegations of French house Yves Saint Laurent ripping off one of her designs. She spoke with about her new label, fashion faves and of course her sentiments regarding the Yves Saint Laurent replication. Tell us about your label. Who is the Tongoro woman?

Diouf: Tongoro is a 100% Made in Africa label launched in Spring 2016, offering style conscious consumers quality, variety and convenience, at affordable prices. The Tongoro woman is bold, joyful, in movement, and not afraid to make her own statement. What is the inspiration behind the bag? I read it involves bread?

Diouf: The MBURU bag is our signature accessory, it launched with our first collection in May 2016.

MBURU means [bread] in wolof. The name of the bag is inspired by the Dakar youth hustling spirit — who wakes up to earn their ‘bread’ (as money) every single day ; Youth employment in Senegal is a real issue. You see all these young guys on the streets trying to sell anything ; it’s not that they’re are not educated, but there aren’t enough jobs to give. Yet you see them every morning, smiling, running, selling cashews, toys, fruits or phone credit, because to hustle is to keep going as long as you’re alive.

I named the bag MBURU after that ; your bag is where you keep your money, your money is what allows you to eat.

It’s a metaphor that represents an essential part of our culture and embodies the very essence of our dignity : the ability to stand, get out and fight for yourself.

Tongoro’s MBURU bag is a sure statement accessory and an essentials-only keeper  ; your phone, your cards and maybe some change (…) all you need to go out there and make it happen for yourself — with style.

Sarah Diouf Your assistant sent you a picture of a similar looking bag from the YSL 2017 collection during PFW. What was your initial reaction?

Diouf: I was very surprised. I talked about it to a friend who works in the industry, and ask different people around me to compare and give me their honest opinion. The responses regarding the bags resemblance were unanimous. A friend of mine pointed that, even though the design from YSL was too similar to ours, some luxury houses also worked around the concept of the baguette bag in the past and being a small African company, the chances to be acknowledged were small. A fact and reality we can’t ignore, yet we also have to keep in mind that when it comes to creation, originality and distinctive design attributes and are what differentiate one from another and makes it unique in the eye of the customer, and on a larger scale — on the market.

With all that information, I then decided to reach out to a professional, as there were some technicalities that are beyond me and the eye of the public. Have you ever encountered this situation before?

Diouf: As far as the brand, never. I launched Tongoro last year to develop the textile production industry here at home, in Dakar, Senegal, so it’s a bit sad when you think about the cycle this could follow.

Luxury brands set the trends in the eyes of the world, and trends are delivered to the mass market by giant retailers like Zara ; but we — are offering affordable fashion too, so this directly kills us as we are not as big yet.

As far as being plagiarized, it’s not the first time that I find close similarities between my work and a bigger brand’s ; Few years ago, my first magazine Ghubar, released an African issue – styling Rwandan model Christelle Yambayisa wearing a wax prints head wrap on the cover. Some time later, a cosmetic brand, Black up, launched a campaign using the same model and styling, resulting on a visual a bit too similar to ours.

I was very vocal about it because I knew I was in my right to be. They reached out, and we settled the issue.

The thing is, with the Internet, and social media, and overall the global exposure of everything, we all have to be careful of what we do. The war we’re fighting is one of image, and there are things we can’t recover from once exposed. Do you feel that there is space at the table for African designers?

Diouf: Definitely. I believe there is enough space for everyone. The African fashion industry is slowly shaping and structuring itself, it’s a matter of time before it becomes a tangible player on the global map. Your story has been covered on different sites. Is the international reaction what you expected? Is it proportionate to your allegations in your opinion?

Diouf: I wasn’t expecting that attention, but I am grateful for the support because it’s very difficult for small entities to have their voice heard on that scale. And yes it is, because I don’t believe some of the publications (that are very reliable sources) would have covered the story if there wasn’t an ounce of doubt on their hands too.

I don’t believe fashion institutions like Vogue or Elle are into sensationalism.

Plagiarism in Fashion — and by luxury brands — is nothing new. Think about the case of this Irish lady who got her sweater design stolen by Chanel, or again YSL copying Christian Louboutin’s red sole trademark for one of their collection.

Fashion is a business, but it all starts with creativity. If you don’t have any, collaborate.

Sarah Diouf What is the hardest thing about being an emerging African designer? Do you think that you are an easier target?

Diouf: I would say entering the global market as selling to a global consumer base. Which is what I believe being a successful brand is. There is a convincing regarding quality that has to be done, but it’s up to us to break that barrier.

As far as being a target, I think the world is watching the continent like never before. At the same time, some people are still in the mindset of [no one would notice if…] which is absolutely wrong and false.

At least one person will notice, because someone’s always watching. Did this incident affect your way of seeing the future of your brand in any way (positive or/and negative). Where do you see Tongoro in 10 years?

Diouf: Not at all. It convinces me I am on the right track.

Tongoro is the first affordable African online retailer brand selling and shipping (almost) worldwide.

Think online versions of Zara, Topshop, H&M: fashionable items at attractive prices to which you add our unique features. It’s a combination that works, and what I lean towards.

I just think it’s sad for the brand to be introduced globally through such an unfortunate event. But there’s always good in bad What is your favorite thing about Senegal?

Diouf: The Quality of life. Favorite cities?

Diouf: Dakar and Saint Louis If you weren’t a fashion designer, what would you be?

Diouf: [Laughs] don’t define myself as a fashion designer. I am a creative, for sure, but I have 2 businesses. Tongoro being the latest, and Ifren Media Group, my first entrepreneurial venture : a publishing and visual production company housing 2 publications. Ghubar a fashion and culture online magazine, and NOIR a fashion and lifestyle magazine for black women. How do you unstuck creatively?

Diouf: I travel. Who is your style icon?

Diouf: I would say Life icon : Miriam Makeba Best part of working in fashion

Diouf: Having someone’s day made by wearing something you created What’s on your playlist right now?

Diouf: Jay Z, Public Service Announcement / Inna Modja, Tombouctou / Ali Farka Touré, Kala Djula If you could bring 3 things on an island what would it be?

Diouf: Size Zero, a book by Guram Gvasalia / A picture of my parents / A Journal and a pen Guilty pleasures?

Diouf: Oreo Ice cream and Shoes Biggest celebrity/personality exposure so far?

Diouf: Maybe not biggest but best : Naomi Campbell at a Givenchy after party in Paris