AT HOME: With Annica Öjermark Haque + Abi Diatta, Dakar

I met Annica through her husband Nicolas Haque, who is a foreign correspondent based in Dakar, Senegal. I loved working with him when I was a producer at Al Jazeera - he always had the interesting stories! I noticed photos of gorgeous kids wearing bright, bold, wax print fabric clothing popping up on his Instagram feed. I was intrigued! Senegal was one of our favourite spots during our West Africa adventure – and I’ve always felt a strong connection to the culture. I soon realised the designs were Annica’s and that she had founded a fabulous kids clothing business called Bapribap. I was instantly hooked and wanted to be involved – so I reached out and asked if I could be a distributor. Thankfully Annica said yes.

What initially drew me to Bapribap was the fabric. Striking prints that you never see in Australia ... or most places, really, and 100 percent cotton. When Annica told me she hand selects the fabrics from her local markets in Dakar, I loved Bapribap even more. 

I also loved the fact that each fabric print tells a story. I've now learnt that in C’ote D’ivoire the fabric choices express rivalry between co-wives. In Nigeria however, the fabric expresses unity between women. So interesting.

And finally, I loved that Annica was a mum of three, who was collaborating with Abibatou Diatta, an uber cool Senegalese fashion school graduate, and a small team of local tailors in their artelier. Bapribap is the perfect example of knowing who makes your clothes!

In my chat with Annica she tells me about her search for the elusive 'magic fabric'; why it’s easier to set up a business and raise a family in Dakar than you may think, plus, how it feels to be featured in Vogue Italia's Bambini. (Fancy!)

I also spoke with Abibatou who explains her love for cutting fabrics, and why her best creative ideas come to her in her dreams at night.

LET'S CHAT - ANNICA

Annica, you’re half American, half Swedish. How did you end up starting a beautiful children’s clothing line in Senegal?

I’ve actually lived outside of the US and Sweden for most of my life. I grew up in Zambia and Zimbabwe during my formative years from age 6 to 16, and I also spent a year at a boarding school in Swaziland, so it feels pretty normal to be where I am now. We moved here almost five years ago from Bangladesh and I started the business almost as soon as we settled in. I moved to Senegal feeling quite determined to start something of my own, I just had no idea what it would be. What with all the fabrics and a photogenic three-year-old daughter who I didn’t know where to shop for… the beautiful light and bougainvillea everywhere… looking back on it now, kids clothes was really the most obvious and perfect idea! As soon as it came to me I started researching it and found that there was a gap. I couldn’t find kids clothes in wax that I’d be happy to see my kids wear every day and that would also work in with their wardrobes.

Was it super tough starting the business in Dakar? Or was there an element of freedom because you didn’t really know anyone?

I found it easy to start a business here; it all just sort of fell into place. Though I don’t have much to compare it to! And yes, the freedom of being completely anonymous and not knowing a soul really did free me from fear of judgement. I felt I could try something and potentially fail, or to go through all of the embarrassing trial and error until I succeeded.

Ok, so what does ‘Bapribap’ actually mean?

It’s a funny word isn’t it! It's one of my favourite Bangla words. It literally means “Pappa! Oh Pappa!” and is an exclamation that can be anything from “WOW” to “OMG!!” We lived in Bangladesh before moving here and my husband’s parents are from Bangladesh, so the place and language are part our family culture.

Can you talk us through your design and creation process? What inspires you?

Well, the whole reason I started this business is because I was inspired by the fabrics, first and foremost, but also by my children, and by Dakar. I have always been a textile lover and especially textiles featuring organic or botanical prints. I always loved Marimekko and Josef Frank. The fabrics in Bangladesh were also a dream. Many of the waxes we choose are called java prints, a nod to their Indonesian origins, and my favourites are big bold florals.

Since we began, the fabrics are what inform the styles of clothes we choose to make. I pick the fabrics and the styles, often together with my business partner Abi, and then once we’ve all worked together on a new pattern or style, the atelier takes it from there.

Can you tell us about Abi and the rest of your team and your gorgeous atelier?

Abi and I met fortuitously within a month of me moving to Senegal. She was an energetic recent graduate from fashion school and like me, really burning to do something. She has an enormous amount of energy for Bapribap! She manages the atelier and cuts almost every single piece of clothing we make. She is a star with those scissors! Amadou Diallo joined us soon after and is our dedicated head tailor. He is also hilarious and extremely loyal! Madjeng is our second tailor in the atelier, who joined us about a year ago, and Sadibou works offsite now but has been with us for a good three or four years. Khadijatou is a wonderful young woman who helps us maintain order in the atelier and sews many, many buttons and irons A LOT.  

I am not sure it is gorgeous, but the ambiance in the atelier is really wonderful. It's located in the ‘Amitie’ or Friendship neighbourhood of Dakar, and I’ve always though that seemed appropriate. The atelier sits alongside a shop I share with my good friend Martine, called Minibap. It’s where the clothes hang, along with a lot of other products from Senegal and the region.

Gosh, that sounds beautiful. Righto, now to the wax-print fabric. What are you looking for when you’re souring from the Dakar markets? What stories do they tell?

Abi and I have become pretty good at spotting the loveliest waxes in super crammed market stalls. We are always looking for what we call “the magic fabric”. All of the fabrics are amazing, but sometimes you find a truly magical one. Those moments are the best! There is lots of neck craning and an enormous amount of visual (and other!) noise involved. You do have to know what you are looking for and feel strongly about your choices. Many people find it very overwhelming.

Wax prints do often tell a story and many of the classic prints have a history spanning well over a century, back to when they were first produced in England and Holland, using techniques and designs of Indonesian batik. They do carry the story of their origins, and of a colonial global history, but they are better known for the meanings and stories they have acquired here in West Africa, by the people who know them and wear them so intimately. For example, the jumping horse fabric that you picked for Kasbah Trade is a Vlisco classic known as “I run faster than my rival”. In Côte d'Ivoire that same horse fabric expresses rivalry between co-wives. In Nigeria however, the horse fabric expresses unity between women. In Senegal, people don’t seem to give much meaning to the fabrics.

I loved visiting the markets in West Africa. They were pumping with activity. For those who haven't experienced anything like it, can you set the scene of you, trying to bag a bargain.

I’ve always loved busy vibrant markets; the sounds, the smells, the colours … you are forced to engage even if you haven’t a clue what anyone is saying. There is no such thing as personal space in a market! It is certainly overwhelming, but it's always so rewarding. Abi and I have about ten shop stalls in three or four markets that we go to over and over again. It's as if we have found the guys who share our taste.

We know most of the vendors by name and have a relationship with them by now so it's easy. We know our fabrics and the prices so no bargaining is every really needed. Abi loves a good haggle and I hate to bargain, I really do! Early is definitely best, though we are rarely organised enough to plan ahead. Luckily the atelier is well located, close to the biggest fabric market in Dakar, HLM. Whatsapp helps too! We often save ourselves an unnecessary trip to the market by simply asking if they have what we are looking for.

There seems to be a big swing towards buying hand-made items and a desire to know exactly how and where our clothes are being made, doesn't there?

Yes, this shift towards handmade and knowing the maker is really incredible. That the clothes we wear, when we buy handmade, can connect people in such different places… it's quite powerful. I hope that the girls and boys who wear our clothes feel confident and proud in them. I hope they feel inspired by the prints and the colours and if they are old enough to understand the story behind the clothes, I hope it piques their curiosity.

I’ve always hoped that people love the clothes because they are bright and beautiful and not just because they come from Africa. Having said that, I do hope that the clothes can connect people and start conversations that otherwise would not have been. Even if it’s just a very small connection, I hope that it’s a positive one, and that Bapribap can, in some little way, be part of a dialogue that fosters acceptance, appreciation and unity.

You’ve also featured in Vogue Italia’s Bambini. Impressive! You must be incredibly proud and excited to know Bapribap’s designs are being sold around the world!

Yes, that was a really proud moment! I myself feel like a global citizen more than anything else, and Bapribap really is informed by the idea that children everywhere, all around the world can, and should, enjoy wearing these uniquely African fabrics. So the more widely we sell, the happier I am. I just got an order from Iran yesterday! That was a first. ☺

What is your most memorable business lesson? Do you have a mentor?

I think I’d have to say that my most memorable lesson is pretty simple; just keep at it until it works. The Annica before Bapribap sometimes gave up quite easily. Even just a little bit of criticism or failure would be enough for me to close down an idea. There were a few moments like that in the beginning where I wavered and almost pulled the plug. Having the courage to continue was a big lesson. And being broke helped too, haha. There is nothing like the fire of necessity under you! I remember this moment where my husband said to me, “Annica stop messing around, and just start selling. Just do it”. I don’t have a mentor, but I’d say that my husband has always been my biggest supporter and sounding board.

What do you love about Senegal?

I love everything except for the dust and the construction sites! The ocean, the music, the light, the fabric, the markets, the food. There is a real culture of sharing in Senegal that I just love. Meals are always served communally, including our atelier lunches. One big bowl to be gathered around, each person with their spoon in hand. If anyone passes by, they are invited to join. There is a lot of generosity and respect amongst people. People always acknowledge each other and there is a real humanity in that. It would be considered rude not to say to every person that you meet, “Bonjour, Ca va?”. Bonjour is not enough in Senegal—more connection is needed! It is also an incredibly child friendly culture. I’ve never seen anything like it. People love children and engage with them in such a natural comfortable way. It’s been such a relaxed place to raise a family, and we’ve always felt super safe here.

Are you living the life you thought you would lead, as a child?

Amazingly, YES! But of course, I could never have imagined it all.

What makes you angry?

Injustice, inequality, and racism.

What are you dreaming of for the future?

Expanding and improving Bapribap and Minibap, developing an adult collection with a friend, starting a surf brand with my husband… and about a million other creative ideas for the future. There is so much I want to do, but never enough time!

LET'S CHAT - ABIBATOU DIATTA

Abi, you and Annica seem to have a great partnership and share that strong ‘can do’ mentality. Are you from Dakar? How did you come to meet Annica and join forces with her?

I am from the region of Cassamance, but I've lived in Dakar for the past 20 years. The first time I met Annica, I had come to her house to help my Aunt Djenaba, who works as their housekeeper. Annica didn't speak any French, only English. I loved her children, we immediately got along. Djenaba called me a couple days later to see if I could come back and help Annica make some clothes. Annica's husband did all of the translation, and that's how we started. I knew how to make patterns and Annica had many ideas about what to create and how she wanted the fabrics to be cut. After a bit of trial and error we figured out how to do it together. And she learned French (laughs) so she could communicate with me!

You studied fashion design. Where did you study?

I studied fashion at a school called ‘Universe de la Mode’ here in Dakar. I was there for three years and studied pattern making, sewing, dyeing, embroidery, drawings. Everything about fashion!

Do you have a creative process?

No, there's definitely no creative process, just lots of random creativity. Creativity comes into your head without asking it to. Actually, it mostly comes at night or in my dreams, but creative ideas can come at any time.

Who or what inspires you in life and in fashion? 

I feel inspired by Annica of course! And by the kids. (Abi just turned to Annica and asked for the umpteenth time if she will give her her youngest child, Cassius!! Abi says she is his 'd'euxiemme maman'. Annica says, 'I told you it's a sharing culture!') And also by the fabrics. Going to the market and finding gorgeous fabrics makes me crazy with happiness and inspiration. I am inspired by the process too. I love cutting these fabrics and seeing them come to life. I love making surprises for Annica.

What do you love?

Children!!! And I loved being a child in Cassamance. Life was so simple and beautiful and we were crazy kids, totally free. We really didn’t have the disturbances of money or technology and it was wonderful.

What makes you angry?

People who think they are better than others, just because they have more.

Are you excited to see your creations and the fabrics of Senegal make it into homes in Australia?

Oui! Absolutely. I’m so happy. We all are.

What do you love about Senegal?

Of course I love my country. Lots of beaches, maybe not as many as Australia, but still!! I haven’t been to enough places to compare.

Are you living the life you thought you would lead, as a child?

No, I never thought I would be a dressmaker. I thought I would sit in an office and have a ‘real job’.

What are you dreaming of for the future?

I want to be “une grande stylist”! A fashion designer!

THANK YOU ANNICA AND ABIBATOU! I ADORE YOU BOTH.

You can follow these fabulous women of style at @bapribap @shopminibap and @aby_diatta