The most striking observation one first makes about Pathé O is his passion. He is very passionate about fashion.
As he should be. Mr Pathé Ouédraogo has been making ready-to-wear clothing for over four decades and has no plans to retire soon.
It is hard to imagine that he fell into fashion quite by accident, or rather, by necessity. After leaving his country of origin, Burkina Faso, to make a future for himself in Ivory Coast, Pathé O was faced with two options. His limited skillsets meant he could either become a farmer or try his hand at fashion. He chose scissors.
Fashion, he learnt, was as a complex and rich profession. After training as an apprentice tailor for several years, he slowly grew to love his craft and cultivated a desire to be the best. He also credits a designer who trained in France but returned home to Ivory Coast to work on African fabrics and revolutionised fashion.
It may have taken years but once Pathé O found his signature style, he knew he was on the right track. He was not afraid to use locally made hand-woven fabrics, bogolan, indigo or the printed loincloth to create styles and designs to suit the casual dressers and socialite alike.
In 1987, after almost two decades in Abidjan, Pathé O received his first award, the prestigious “Ciseau d’or”. This was also the first ever haute-couture prize to be awarded in Ivory Coast.
The prize would affirm his credibility, proving he not only had a place in the fashion industry but he was in fact the leader of the pack.
Much can be said about his modern approach to fashion design. His exquisite craftsmanship and the distinctive manner in which he uses colour and patterns makes him, even today, Africa’s most sought after designer.
‘Fashion is magic,’ he says. ‘To be able to create something is magic.’
Still, it has taken real determination to build a brand in the western African nation and beyond its borders, mainly because there are so many challenges an African designer must overcome if he wants to pursue his ambitions.
In the beginning, the obstacles were innumerable, not least of all because affluent Africans stereotypically do not like to buy, much less wear locally-sourced fabrics to parties or major social events. The preference was more for Western fashions designed by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Paco Rabanne.
‘Success is not easy without mentors,’ he says, when asked about how hard it was to launch his solo career. ‘You have make things that are out of the ordinary. You have to be exceptional.’
Since then, he has become adept to the international stage, attending several fashion shows in capitals around the world - not to mention the international fashion festivals like the FIMA, SIAO and the FESPACO events where he has shown what a top-notch African designer has to offer in spite of the social and financial constraints.
In 1993, Nelson Mandela started wearing his designs without Pathé O being aware of it. But it was when Mandela was invited by President Chirac to commemorate France’s 14th of July celebrations that the international world would discover Pathé O when the South African President wore one of his many colourful designs.
Pathé O said the publicity was phenomenal. His shops sold out their entire stock in a matter of days.
The two men would meet for the first time in 1997. The designer has also dressed other Heads of state like President Konaré of Mali, President Kagame of and even the now disgraced President Gbagbo of Ivory Coast. With pictures taken with Miriam Makeba and Henri Lopes, this talented couturier is no novice when it comes to building relations with celebrities who have flocked in droves to wear his clothes - from Koffi Olumide to Alpha Blondy to Brenda Fassie.
In 1995, he would open his first set of boutiques in Ouagadougou and Yamoussoukro with the clear intention of selling only African fashion. He said he was disappointed when African clients came in, took a look around and asked if they sold anything else – that is, anything non-African.
Today, he has boutiques all over the continent, including Mali, Angola and the DRC. His designs offer patrons a chance to own a piece of Africa, a piece of something unique, vibrant and creative.
Pathé O believes firmly in Africa’s potential. It is important, he says, to work with and create designs using African fabrics from the continent, all the while respecting traditions and the everyday needs of the wearer. If designs are affordable, he believes that more Africans will wear locally sourced fashion but first, they must be convinced of the practicality of this choice. The designers must also straddle the delicate scales between quality and quantity in a manner that sufficiently meets the demands of their markets.
While Pathé O may credit winning the Ciseaux d’Or as well as becoming the resident designer for the Miss Cote d’Ivoire contests for ten years for raising his profile as a major player in the fashion industry, it still took a lot of hard graft to get where he is today.
‘Fashion is magic,’
It helped that between the 1970s – 1990s, there was a real promotion of fashion in Ivory Coast. Then things changed. The economic crisis and the political upheavals have had devastating effects on business and led to a significant decline in sales. There has only been an encouraging turnaround in the country in recent months.
He remains optimistic about the future of African fashion. In spite of his success abroad, he does not give much importance to showing or selling his fashions abroad, mainly because the most important market for him is Africa. All it needs now is to convince Africans to buy.
Nowadays, the designer is keen to share his knowledge which he considers a baton he can pass on. His advice to up and coming designers is to learn their craft well and be ambitious. He encourages focusing on pret-à-porter business model as he says it has a greater future than haute couture.
If there were three words I would use to describe Pathé Ouédraogo, it would be hard-working, forward thinking and creative.