Senegalese entrepreneur and textile designer, Aissa Dione, has made it her lifelong mission to revive her country’s ailing textile industry, and in the process, create products that are highly desirable the world over.
Aissa Dione grew up in France originally, born to a French mother and a Senegalese father who was at one time the European boxing champion. She made the move to Senegal in her 20s to fulfill her ambition to work as an artist. Her career journey was to change when a client in Dakar told Aissa he couldn’t buy one of her paintings before his office was redecorated. Rather than wait, she offered to do the redecorating for him, approaching the project with her unique artistic flair but utilizing only local materials, tools and employees. As a graduate of fine arts studies, Aissa combined her own artistic knowledge with traditional local techniques, such as Mandjaque weaving, to fashion bands of linen used in home interiors and furniture coverings. To create just the right look, she even built a new weaving loom to prepare the fabrics she wanted to use. The result was a success and the local media took an interest in the work she had produced. Such media attention caught the eye of a prominent European designer who saw photographs of her fabrics in an article which appeared in an airline magazine, and soon she began receiving international orders.
"I began with this company in 1992. I was working from home with a single weaver. Before too long, there were 15 working with me and I moved to an area specifically designed for small and medium enterprises. I wanted to re-launch textile production – but in a different way."
She began her company, Aissa Dione Tissus, in 1992, and started in a small way, working from home with a single weaver. Before too long, there were 15 working with her, requiring a move to an area specifically designed for small and medium enterprises. Her ambition was to to re-launch textile production in the country, but in a different way. She was determined to bring the work of the country’s local artisans to an upscale international clientele. After all, she thought, Senegalese cotton was among the world’s finest, and her country’s weavers could create fabrics and colors of quality rivaling those coming from Italy. The skill of traditional weaving, such as Mandjaque, has been passed down from father to son for generations, and Aissa was stepping into a decidedly male-dominated industry. But she saw her business foray as preserving the country’s cultural heritage by showcasing traditional skills.
"I strongly believe in small-scale industries, as a way to bring development to West Africa. We grow a million tons of cotton in this region and we export 99% of that. If I can process that cotton here, at home, I can increase my revenue fifty or one hundred times."
Today, her workshop located in Rufisque, a small town outside Dakar in Senegal, weaves, dyes, embroiders and sews, and has a production capacity of 3000 metres of woven fabric each month. The business exports traditional hand-woven fabrics to luxury brand names like Hermes and Christian Lacroix, showcasing Senegal’s significant cultural heritage. Her philosophy remains to bring together design, know-how, and fabrication to transform African cotton into a woven thing of beauty.
“Spinning and textile industries have nearly all closed and traditional weavers are slowly but surely disappearing. It’s a huge paradox. While millions of tons of cotton are being grown in West Africa, you can barely find a metre of finished textiles.”
Aissa is passionate about her work and client demand is strong, but the business challenges she faces in Senegal frustrate her permanently. Aissa estimates she could more than quadruple production to meet existing demand. But she would need to employ more than her current 100 workers and Senegal’s restrictive labor laws, along with the difficulties she has accessing finance, make such an expansion too risky. Aissa would like to see regulations governing work hours and overtime made more flexible. She wouldn’t need to be so wary of hiring new staff if administrative constraints on dismissals for economic reasons, such as priority rules for dismissals, were removed. The onerous requirements for notifications, written submissions and meetings with third parties prior to dismissals are an additional burden.
Despite the administrative and regulatory obstacles, Aissa’s passion for her beautiful and unique textiles has continued to grow. She had found a market niche for unique and culturally significant luxury fabrics, focus on the Paris market where she feels at home. Aissa first won orders from leading home design stores in Paris specializing in the highest quality made-to-measure fabrics. The passage of the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides duty free access of African apparel and textiles to the American market, has also opened up and incentivized export to the United States for her products. After her textiles were featured in design expositions in Paris, New York and Johannesburg, Aissa’s business became increasingly well known internationally. Although a significant investment, these design expos helped show her product to buyers looking for a luxury product with a twist. Aissa now counts as clients Hermes, Christian Liaigre, Fendi, the New York department store Takashimaya, and Jacques Grange. Among those she has worked with are perfumer Serge Lutens and architect Peter Marino. There is no shortage of new demand.