An African Spin On Corporate Casual

The storefront isn't much. The proprietor doesn't advertise. Passersby in gritty Treicheville, the tailors' quarter of Abidjan, hardly give it a glance. Often enough, though, a diplomat's shiny Mercedes stands at the curb, or an African beauty emerges, laden with shopping bags bearing the company logo: Pathe O. Inside the small shop, Africa's leading couturier plays to a packed gallery of clients, showing off his signature shirts, which he drapes lovingly over an arm. These roomy creations, made from West African printed cotton by designer Pathe Ouedraogo, are worn tail out in deference to the climate, and are hot everywhere in Cote d'Ivoire, indeed throughout West Africa. "All of a sudden, everyone wants to dress African style," says Ouedraogo. "In 10 years, African fashion will take over."

At stake, says the couturier, is a continent's self-image. African casual has not been an easy look to sell to Africans, but after more than three decades of hard work, its champion is on a roll. Ouedraogo became a favorite of Nelson Mandela, who adopted the Pathe O look as his own, in 1994. Other trendsetters took a cue from Africa's most revered politician, and ditched their suits. Since then, Pathe O has taken off (though the owner won't detail sales, saying only, "Thank you, God"). "Before, no African chairman of a company or head of state had a choice," says Ouedraogo, 50. "When people attained power, it was over--they learned to sit, they learned to talk, they wore expensive, uncomfortable, three-piece suits. Everything that was African was mediocre. It's a complex. But now that's finished. We African couturiers reached an acceptable level. People noticed. And now it's in the street."

This self-made man once worried about getting fed. At 17, after just five years of formal education, poverty drove him from a tiny village in his native Burkina Faso onto the road. He ended up in Cote d'Ivoire, one more illegal immigrant in West Africa's financial center. On the way to the capital, he and a brother worked on construction sites and as field hands. In Treicheville, he stumbled into his life's work when a tailor offered him an apprenticeship--work, a bowl of food a day and a place to sleep on the floor.

After 11 years, he went out on his own--with a backroom shop and a rented sewing machine. As his business grew, he began to travel to Burkina Faso and Mali to work with the artisans who use traditional cotton-dyeing techniques. Ouedraogo's designs are not strictly traditional--some use the old patterns only as decorative trim--but all are distinctly African. Women of the West African elite, accustomed to shopping in Paris, were the first to find him. "He quickly got very well known in all of West Africa, especially for women's clothes," says Mamadi Diane, president of Amex International, a Washington-based consulting firm, who travels frequently to Africa. "His dresses are fine for an evening at the White House, no problem."

Ouedraogo's big break came after he was discovered by South African singer Miriam Makeba, who lived out part of her long exile during apartheid in West Africa. She began wearing flowing Pathe O dresses onstage. When she returned home in 1994 to attend Mandela's Inauguration as president, she brought a bundle of Pathe O shirts as a present. Mandela fell for one model in particular, gold-hued with huge curlicues. That long-sleeve shirt and others like it--not all Pathe O--became a trademark.

Ouedraogo's business boomed. He now has three boutiques in Cote d'Ivoire and others in Mali, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. He dreams of marketing his label worldwide, but says that's a distant prospect. Ouedraogo does not have the money to launch a global label, or the wherewithal to raise it. And despite a new U.S. tariff holiday for African clothing, he says, African governments have no interest in building a serious fashion in-dustry. "In all of Africa, there's not a factory that can produce a shirt like this," he said, ges-turing to one of his racks. "We have enormous possibilities in Africa--but we couturiers are artists." Still, some of his proteges, such as Nawal El Assad, Gilles Toure and Habiba Soukele, have made their own names. It will be up to younger designers like them to export African casual, he says. "What I've done is to open the door."