An unexpected treasure


—This post is the first of two fashion stories. More or less. The second is an illustrated version of an overly long Facebook status update made a few days ago.

This story has been written with the assistance of  my misplaced notes dated 23 December 1999 referred to in a post entitled, “Miscellany” from October  last year, and includes some description verbatim.

It is just eight days before the dawn of the new millennium. We are in Accra, Ghana, on holiday with family who have recently joined the privileged ranks of the working expatriates.

We know nothing of this world apart from fragments about the birth of African liberation ideology plucked up like occasional stalks of grass to chew on idly, as we did when wandering barefoot through the savannah bush of our childhood.

When I say we know nothing of this world, I mean that we know nothing about this part of Africa. We were born so far south of this place that this fact is only partially relevant.

The Accra we have inhaled so far is teeming with colour, life and diverse forms of livestock, and friendly, well-informed folk with a philosophical bent and a talent for street trading which they practice with persistent gusto.

Enough of the touristic rapture, for we are not so much here as tourists, but as tag-along company for family on their first Christmas away from home. We learn that the lady of the house has a fitting for the dresses she has had made for New Year’s Eve.  Yes, dresses!

I cannot for the life of me think whether I actually have anything suitable in my suitcase for anything but the most casual New Year’s Eve party.  But then, clothes and I have a relationship which is only skin deep. I love a well-made garment, the tailored look, a stylish cut and any fabric that does not smack of the truly synthetic. But, I am no fashionista, although I am quite happy to watch the world’s fashion shows parade past me through televised rose-coloured glasses. Besides, I have not been too successful in actually finding clothes that I like over the years.  More than a decade later, I still kick myself that I was not extravagant enough to spend US$30 on the sexiest designer-label Italian white woman’s shirt I have ever seen. It was waiting for me in a pristine, air-conditioned boutique in an Accra side street, unlikely as that may seem. A small consolation is that I did wear it for two minutes.

Nevertheless, this particular day was not about me. It was about the three possible dresses my non-blood relative had custom-designed for the fast-approaching millennium festivities by none other than the famous fashion designer, Kofi Ansah. His reputation had even reached my anti-fashionista ears long before we found ourselves parked in the gateway of his double-storey home and studio partially concealed by lush, dense tropical overgrowth. It is 6.00 p.m. The slow onset of dusk – as near to the Equator as I am ever likely to get – and the soft, humid air caresses the skin, almost as a reminder that this precious time before night comes is as fleeting as all the others always are.

Someone emerges from the house and opens the gate at a measured pace which I guess is adopted so as not to induce undue perspiration in this unmitigating heat. Our three-dress customer greets the young woman and announces that she has come to discuss evening wear possibilities with Mr. Kofi. We have arrived early, and she says so to the gate-opener and ever so respectfully asks whether Mr Kofi is still available, and whether we should wait. I have never heard our lover of evening dresses speak in such dulcet tones. Whilst I endeavour to keep an even expression, my interest in catching a glimpse of the possibly elusive, but very important personage of Mr Kofi has suddenly shot into the stratosphere.

We wait in the vehicle a few minutes, after which the same young woman beckons us to enter the studio on the ground floor of this grand but not ostentious home via heavy gravel on the drive underfoot.

The studio is dominated by a huge cutting table. There is a full-length mirror in a wooden frame on castors, and likewise on wheels, a clothing rack stuffed with patterns, originated on site, by the looks of it. Extensive shelving holds a profusion of fabrics of every description and colour. Tucked under the cutting table are cottons and buttons in apparent disarray, fairly bulging out of stackable plastic trays, coincidentally in the colours of the Ghanaian flag – red, gold and green. I should add here, by way of information, that although I am fairly capable, I never cared much for sewing as a hobby. I feel the first twitches of my natural impatience beginning to kick in.

My visual inventory-taking is interrupted. A young woman enters the room with two extra wooden chairs, invites us to sit, then leaves and closes the door behind her. Hot and airless. I muse aloud as to whether we are being hidden from view, or whether someone has arrived whom we are not allowed to see.  I decide the latter, because that line of thought promises far greater intrigue. My companions decide to let my attempt at conversation join the loose threads on the linoleum, which oozes boredom.

The three of us wait. We wait. I play memory games. The kind where you look at a picture depicting say, ten different objects, then you look away from the picture and have to name as many of the objects as you can in, oh, 30 endless seconds.

Photos adorn the walls in chaotic frames. A newspaper article in Dutch behind glass proclaims, “The African Style”. There is a photo of Kofi on his haunches adjusting the dress of a stunning model.  I notice now an oval mirror hanging on the wall, over which about 20 different semi-finished garments have been draped – including a waistcoat in authentic kente, which we later learn is destined for the incumbent Minister of Energy.

There is much here to accost the imagination: a busy workroom; a blurring of the straight lines which must have existed once; order nevertheless detected in apparent disorder…

The door finally opens and in steps Kofi. Poised, neat, the impression of a performer – the control and air of a ballet dancer in the sense that Nureyev was a ballet dancer. He wears a simple – yet designed – grey T-shirt, black jeans, belt – black. Gold chains on his wrist, complement a few unusual rings which one can never quite see clearly enough because his hands move expansively and expressively all the time as he speaks.

There is no pretension here. Just energy of the creative spirit harnessed, ready to burst forth as inspiration readily accessible. What is striking is that he is intense, yet calm. A man in love with his art, yet master of its passions!

After introductions, a brief development of ideas session with the client, he makes a remark about all the hustle and bustle just before a fashion show.  The big room we are in is needed by his models and protégés. Kofi leads the one to be adorned and us in single file up some stairs, to the left, then to the right into a room in one corner of the house, with a window in each wall. Standing at a certain position against the opposite wall, one can look out of both windows at the same time in the fading light.

It is thus that I escape from the tedious business of measurements, and adjustments and this and that, and helpers coming in and out of the room with garments, the details of which I seem to have no memory whatsoever. Negotiation of price takes place and I am amused by further evidence before me that good negotiators are the same the world over.

Kofi explains that we will need to wait a little longer while he prepares his invoice payable upon collection of the garments. We travel along corridors which flank a quadrangle of some sort and are invited to make ourselves comfortable in what simply has to be called a drawing room.

The Amazing Graces
I confess with some shame that I have no idea who the artist or artists of these pieces is or are, nor the name of the wood from which they have been carved.
I hope that this odd pastiche has been put together in such a way as to respect the privacy of Mr Kofi Ansah, while reveal the beauty of these three amazing ladies, two of whom provide you with the benefit of both an anterior and posterior view.
The fabric in the top left corner of this image is part of a photograph taken in one of the many textile shops dotted around Accra, does not bear any direct relation to fabric designed by Kofi Ansah himself.

I am immediately struck by the dignity and intrinsic beauty of every single thing in this room. There is a sense of history emanating in unison from all objects, pictures, every piece of furniture. The room is large, rectangular.  The three statues, easily seven feet tall, and in circumference about half the waist measurement of the skinniest international model, are a feat of equilibrium in themselves. They stand in the centre of the room dividing yet uniting the two carefully mapped out conversation areas, each of which has an eclectic composition of hard and soft furnishings. There are photographic portraits of family on the wall. I am delighted at this understated yet powerful display of a deeply-rooted African identity casually overlaid upon remnants of a bygone era that without question have been in this family for a number of generations. Here is someone who knows how to hang pictures! How wonderful it must be to have a heritage such as this!

I am overcome with awe and fascination, and feel privileged to have been an accidental witness to this artistic feast. I sit in several different chairs to absorb different aspects of this space. Then I stand, as tall and as straight as I can next to the ladies, hoping that for one brief moment I might hear them breathing their magic into the ether.


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