Sarah Diouf is a fashion industry veteran, helming two publications and creative director of her own label Tongoro, her point of view is one that very few on the continent, and indeed overseas, share – it’s easy to see her communications background in the clarity and strength of the branding of her label Tongoro. It’s all clearly well thought out, precise – and quickly strikes a chord within the woman Sarah is trying to dress.
Tongoro pieces are easy to wear, instantly covetable and best of all affordable for her target audience. The deceptively simple construction of pieces like the Ngor dress, belie the remarkable craftsmanship of these seemingly breezy dresses and separates.
Meet the impossibly chic founder of Tongoro & Ifren Media Group, as she tells BNStyle about her motivations, what excites her in African fashion at the moment and what’s next for her brands.
Can you tell me a bit about the Tongoro brand’s evolution ?
After year of working on the core aspect of the brand, Tongoro launched in May 2016.
My goal was always for it to be e-commerce. Digital communication being my forte, I knew I would capitalize on the online communication to bring traction to the site and generate sales. And I did.
Within the first year of activity, we’ve made a full return on Capital employed and grown a strong customer base over the world (the USA being a primary market with 69% of our sales, followed by the UK). The brand gained a lot of attention and press as it is one of a kind : I am proud to say Tongoro is the first affordable African fashion brand [of Senegalese origin]. As we are always working towards improving the quality of our production, this year, our objective will be to start developing brand awareness within top African cities through pop up events.
We’ve seen a few articles and interviews on you and identity seems to be a recurring theme. Can you tell us a bit more how this translates to your work.
I believe Identity is the most important currency of our times ;
It will always be difficult for someone who doesn’t know who they are to position themselves in front of others. I always cultivate identity, mine, and pour it into my work.
I dig, do research, and embrace every form/aspect of it.
I am African ; I am Central African, Congolese, and Senegalese, yet I was born in France, but grew up in Ivory Coast for the most part of my childhood, which has always been my country of heart.
Growing up, identity was a sensitive topic for me as it was always difficult to explain where I was coming from. Especially when facing people with a strong and/or closed mind about multiculturalism.
Even amongst us Africans, not being 100% something, I was often subject to [mockeries] and jokes that were quite hard on me.
I didn’t understand that holding that much diversity was actually a strength that would serve me later, as to speak different languages when navigating between West and Central Africa.
I use all of my cultural backgrounds in my work ; Tongoro is a Central African word, it means star in Sango, The designs and lightness of the brand are mostly inspired by the Senegalese culture and Dakar’s lifestyle, and there are a lot of words of Lingala that I also use to name some items.
All of this resonates with different people, and brings value and meaning to the Made in Africa label I am trying to build.
Do you have a specific woman in mind when you design?
The Tongoro girl / woman is one of a kind ; I think of her as someone who loves to go on an adventure; She’s feminine, playful, full of character, and never afraid of trying new things. She’s a lover of prints and statement pieces.
The Mburu bag has been an especially big hit. Do you feel pressure to create the next Mburu bag—something equally as popular?
Not really, I create with meaning rather than expectation.
the MBURU bag is such a unique statement piece but it also carries a particular story :
Youth employment in #Senegal is a real issue. You see all these young guys on the streets trying to sell anything ; cashews, toys, fruits, phone credit (…) because to hustle is to keep going as long as you’re alive. It so represents the very essence of our dignity ; the ability to wake, get out and fight for ourselves.
And because of that, I believe it will always remain our signature piece.
How does the design process work with you?
I need to go out and be on the move, travel, and see new things. Inspiration can come from anything. But mainly from my surroundings. Once I am out there and in the right state of mind, I just let my mind wanders and whatever comes, comes.
What inspired the launch of Tongoro?
Most of the successful African brands had positioned themselves as luxury, which comes with a high price point not everyone can afford.
African fashion is the fresh air everyone wants to breathe, but not quite ready to spend too much on — at first, especially with this common doubt about the Made in Africa quality.
And aside being a creative, I am very business oriented ; I wanted to come up with something simple and bring African fashion to world in a way that was never done before ; a clear branding, fashionable pieces and affordable prices
How do you see the Tongoro brand evolving in the next few years?
I can’t tell too much, but this year will be quite exciting and determining for the ones to come, if everything goes as planned. So stay tuned.
Why did you launch Noir?
NOIR is my second magazine, I always dreamed of having a beautiful premium/luxury style magazine catering to women of color ; and NOIR is the bridge between black women ; African women, AfroEuropean women, AfroAmerican Women. I created this magazine to gather them all around topics, thoughts and conversations we all have in separate classrooms. It’s time to all come together and also show the media world that we won’t wait to have a Black Vogue. We can create our own.
No one can tell our stories better than us.
What’s Next (short to medium term) For Tongoro?
We’re working on a pop-up sale in Abidjan and event in Cape Town in the first [quarter] of 2018.
What was your first job?
Part time Saleswoman ever Saturdays at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche in Paris (equiv. Saks o Bergdorf Goodman) I was working in the home department. I literally discovered the world + meaning of Luxury there. 4 years as I was studying. Best experience of my life.
Tell us about your Childhood
I grew up in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire with very open-minded parents. Being respectively pilot and stewardess, I had a childhood filled with traveling. It definitely had an impact on my lifestyle and the way I see things.
Personal Business Philosophy
Tomorrow the sun will rise and we’ll try again.
Major style differences between Paris and Dakar
Black and White (Paris) VS Color color color (Dakar).
Typical Work Day
No day is the same, but the creating process looks like this : I go to the market, get samples of all the fabrics I like, get back to the atelier, discuss design and possibilities with the tailors, then calculate the cost per item and future pricing.
Within 2-3 days, when the items samples come out, I get a model to try them all, we mark up the fix to be made when needed. And all those who are validated go to production.
Then I start mood boarding for the visuals, and go scouting with my photographer.
We shoot the campaign and packshots for the website on different days.
Once everything is live, sales are open.
When orders come in, we prepare the packages and call DHL for pick up.
Anything comfortable. I am t-shirt and leggings kind of girl.
Who’s inspiring you in African fashion right now?
I love the Oxosi.com platform. I think they’re doing an amazing job with content, presentation, branding and selection.
Your personal style is envy-inducing. Tell us one trick you use for instant glamour
I think knowing your body and dressing in sync with your shape is very important. Then you can develop and master key tricks to get that instant glam. For a woman, I think having your neckline out and showing a little bit of leg always works!
Ametis Mango Butter, Avène Cicalfate face cream, Evian Water Spray, Bio Oil.
My Cosmopolitan Magazine Award for my work with my first digital magazine Ghubar. (2010)
Moving back to Dakar, Senegal to develop my business (2016)
3 things people don’t know about you.
I don’t work that much.
I know how to sew.
I played drums for 2 years.
Go To Accessory
Earrings,Earrings, Earrings !
Your Advice To Someone Wanting To Pursue a Fashion Career On The Continent
Fasten your seatbelt.
The Best Career Advice You Have Ever Received
Manage your time wisely.
What Do You Wear When You Want To Feel Glamorous
Red Lipstick + Statement earrings
What Are You The Most Proud Of
My accomplishments. Doing things people told me I could never do. Always getting up when I fall.
On Balancing Work And Personal Life
I am the worst person to ask this to. I am working on it!
What Do You Love Most About Living In Dakar
The peace of mind and hearts it brings me. I am home.