Some version of this piece has been in my draft for almost a year. Time they say fashions us with opportunities, but I think I’ll just settle on the notion that this write-up decided to walk out of the shop a la mode during the end of the Ramadan fasting season.
The skill with fabrics and the magic of weaving seamless art to adorn our bodies have been well documented in the lore and legends of humanity. If you look closely enough, you can make out a pattern, and then trace the strands running through the tales in our different cultures- from the emperor’s naked march to Arachne’s humiliation that threads down to Anansi’s antics at the fancy dress party; the allure of clothing has always been an integral part of society.
As a youngling, I remember my mama spinning on her Singer Sewing machine which always made an odd but soothing ‘’chooka chooka chooka” sound. My curiosity was always piqued by this fascinating object that I saw as a toy that was forbidden to me which only heightened my need to play with it. I eventually learned the prick of the needle wasn’t as exciting as my toy soldiers.
One could not miss the trappings of a tailor in ‘90s Sierra Leone, they always had a measuring tape draped around the neck, a pencil between teeth, and paper in hand for recording measurements. Almost every big neighbourhood had a tailor shop with dedicated or disgruntled clientele, the cosmopolitan nature of Freetown lends it a unique perspective. You could see clients flipping through couture magazines, viewing wall posters of beautiful outfits, or in deep conversation with the resident clothier on their choice for the big day.
Tailor shops were always brimming with potential customers, and indeed there was a time the reputation of the whole profession took a big hit. The stories are many but eerily similar, but they usually went down like this. A client visits a tailor shop with clothing material in hand and design in mind, confers with the tailor, pays half or all of the money upfront, and happily leaves after they have been assured their clothes will be ready at a particular date. As the delivery time draws near, the client checks in with the tailor but is told that they are away on an emergency or some other excuse. The variations of the excuses become more ridiculous over time, and finally, the penny drops- “Me Tailor Disappoint Me” (My Tailor did not deliver). This phrase became synonymous with the profession, and the truth was a good number of the men and women of the couture craft had developed a knack for taking more work than they could deliver to clients. It all came down to a lack of manpower, tools, and greed.
Everyone did not react to “disappointment” with forgiveness, it was not uncommon to see scuffles at tailor locations as irate clients resorted to physical punishment or a strange sight to see a bodybuilding ‘’strenk man” type approaching a tailor shop with a client or a tailor retaining one for their protection. The infamous wedding stories with the bridal party storming shops are countless or the tailor jumping out of windows for dear life are near comical but have a basis in truth. These tensions peaked high, especially in eventful or festive seasons.
I am sure every family has a few tales of their tailor encounter(s) in Sierra Leone, there’s a very interesting one in mine. My brothers had their school celebrations’ coming up and naturally, they had made the stop with mama to have their measurements taken and payment completed at a tailor joint months in advance. Yes, by now, you know how this is going to play out, it was a whole slew of excuses from the outfitter. The first day of the celebrations arrived and my siblings had written off the idea that they would make it to any, as that very morning they had visited the shop and their materials remain untouched. Luckily for them, our dad who left work early that day had seen other students from their school in ceremonial attire and as soon as he arrived home without sitting he asked mama why my siblings were still home. As soon as he was told why, he told the chauffeur not to park, hailed his security detail, and out they went again. Papa always with the flair for the theatrical for good measure stopped at a police station and added extra personnel. Boy, did that tailor get it heated at the shop. His work was put on hold and would have been carted away if not for the pleas of the other senior garment makers. Finally, dad let down and it was agreed that one police should be left stationed next to the tailor and he was to do no other work until he completed my brothers’ suits. Yup, as you may have deduced, he did deliver and all was well, he even became a good friend to the fam.
Eid Ul Fitri or Pray Day in Sierra Leone is a religious but very dazzling affair. It’s pure joy to behold all the spectrum of colours and artfully designed attires as Muslims wear their best to crown the end of the holy month of Ramadan. I still recall after prayers at the stadium every pray day, greeting friends and family, it was quite common to overhear the “Oh, e nor able kam pray, e tailor disappoint am for e klos ” (They were not able to make it for prayers, their tailor failed to finish their outfit on time) or the many last-minute botched outfits you notice with some of them coming apart in the seams, sadly some do fall apart with loose threads trailing in the wake of the adorners as they make their hasty return away from the stadium vicinity.
The couture profession has transformed over the years for the better and that transition has given birth to new age stylists who are reshaping the perception of their sector. Bespoke designs with personal touches, Afrocentric clothing, and a taste for creative innovation, these locals’ brands like Madam Wokie, Nyapuii Threads, Klos, Rhophys Couture, and Mumini Fashion Empire to name a few are ambitious, hungry for growth, and ready to carve their destinies and share of the market. They currently enjoy generally positive reviews about their professional conduct and timely delivery from clients for the most part. The recent uptick of online shopping places like SHEIN has however made them be in direct competition to win the minds of the youthful demographic that has set their sights on eye-pleasing but reasonably priced apparel.
The fascination and evolution of clothing will always shape the interaction of the nation and the insiders in the industry, in the words of Sierra Leone internet sensation King Tommy– “This game ya so, udat nor able make e nack ten Rakat and turn tablick, na for pull hand…the game get yagba!”