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‘Dakar is a very vibrant place where people burst with creativity.’

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Photo>>>Sarah Diouf

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Feature by Divya Bala

For fashion entrepreneur and designer, Sarah Diouf, the road to helming a Beyoncé-approved brand has been far-flung. Raised in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, her journey then took her to Paris, before landing in Dakar to seed her label, Tongoro.

Sarah’s career spans self-publishing, including founding two magazines in Paris titled Ghubar and NOIR — both celebrating African and Middle Eastern talent and creativity — to the establishment of an internationally-celebrated fashion brand, Tongoro, in her adopted city of Dakar. The latter was worn no less than seven times by Queen Bey, and seen on Naomi Campbell and Alicia Keys, to name a few. Having grown up in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast and studying in Paris (where she was born), Sarah now feels most at home in Dakar, describing it as the place she truly belongs. We chat with Sarah about her city’s culture of hospitality, its spirit of serendipity and stellar seafood for her Dakar Travel Playbook.

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On growing up in Abidjan

I was born in Paris but grew up in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. I moved back to Paris when I was 12 because the political situation in Ivory Coast got very delicate and I had to leave the country to push through schooling. I have these beautiful memories of just running around and going to the beach. Ivory Coast is such a beautiful country and it’s very different from where I’m living now, but I think it’s more dynamic. It was very different from Paris because obviously, European life is very different. And there’s so many things that I missed — the space, the air, the quality of life. But I learnt a lot from both environments.

On forming your relationship to creativity

I feel like Abidjan forged me as a person, then Paris forged my point of view as a human in the world. In Paris, I had this magazine which was amazing — it helped me enter the fashion scene, I grew up and had so many amazing encounters and built up my network. In terms of my own life, it was a crossroads where I was in Europe and gaining skills and education in school but at the same time, I had memories from my childhood, the environment I grew up in. I feel like I managed to create something out of the sum of all my experiences living in Abidjan, living in Paris. And now, Dakar is kind of a homecoming moment because my parents are both half Senegalese, but I never lived here. And I feel like it was serendipitous for me to come back to a place where I have parts of my origin.

On your path to Dakar, via Paris

When I was in Paris, I met one of my best friends who is 100% Senegalese and we started working on the magazine together. She decided it was time for her to go back home to Dakar. I was hesitating between Abidjan and Dakar because my father was still in Abidjan. My friend knew this and invited me to stay with her and her family for a few weeks. So I booked my flight and for three weeks I had the most amazing stay, and I remember, on the plane back to Paris, I started crying because I felt like a part of myself was being taken out of me, and this is when I realized that Dakar was where I belong — where I needed to be. One thing led to another, the stars aligned, and I came back a few months later and started making clothes for myself. Going back to Paris, attending fashion shows, people saw my looks, asked me about it and the rest is history. I launched Tongoro in 2016, about a year after the last issue of NOIR. I never expected to launch a clothing brand but it came together pretty naturally.

After growing up on the Ivory Coast and Paris, and now based in Dakar, Sarah feels most at home by the beach, enjoying the unique mix of rich culture, dynamic creativity and relaxed lifestyle to be found in her adopted home and its community. First, fourth and fifth rows of Dakar all shot by Malick Welli, rows two and three courtesy of Sarah Diouf.

On Beyoncé wearing Tongoro

Beyoncé wearing Tongoro was definitely a highlight and will always be a highlight, because it didn’t happen just once, but seven times! And it’s always like a ‘pinch-me’ moment but it was also monumental because there’s so much more meaning behind it. She’s the biggest star on the planet, she could be wearing all those amazing luxury labels and for her to be supporting Tongoro like that, is pretty amazing.


I think getting our very first studio in Dakar was also a highlight, following the Beyoncé momentum. About a year ago we moved into a new space. So the evolution of the brand has been incredible, and every day I’m like, ‘Is this real? Did you really create this out of nothing?’ It’s a beautiful journey and I’m honestly enjoying every single moment of it.

On finding community in Dakar

My experience of finding community in Dakar has been very enriching, I’ve met so many creatives. That’s kind of what I love about the city, Dakar is a very vibrant place where people burst with creativity, with so many people doing so many things. And I love that nobody really operates within a single box, people explore and enjoy creative expression. At the same time, the creative landscape is very small, because it’s kind of a small city. You have a few people who are known for what they’re doing — whether it’s arts, fashion or music.

‘I love that nobody really operates within a single box, people explore and enjoy creative expression.'

On first memories of moving to Dakar

I have this very particular relationship with the markets. I love going there, even if I don’t need anything. It's so vibrant, a bit noisy, it’s dirty — but it’s where life happens. I was at a market in Dakar before living there when I realized, ‘Oh wow, I could do this, I could love it here’. Also the beach, something that is inherently part of the culture here — those little postcards that reflect life here. It’s pretty amazing. Seeing the ocean is just so good for the mind. It’s just a very nice, pleasing place to live.

On how Dakar inspires you creatively

Creativity is part of the culture. When you look at the women on the streets, where I get a lot of inspiration from, they’re always dressed in those vibrant colors — it’s not to impress anyone, it’s just how we live. There’s a freedom linked to creativity here and it does feel like a safe space [for creative expression].

Sarah’s collections for Tongoro Studio are powerful and empowered designs that draw on the women in her local Dakar community, as well as African culture. Beyoncé first wore the brand in 2018 over several occasions. Then in 2019, the multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning music phenom put Tongoro on the map when she wore a bespoke suit and durag in her music video for The Lion King’s ‘Spirit’. Images courtesy of Sarah Diouf.

On culture shocks

I can’t say that I experienced a lot of cultural shock. One thing that you have to fight against, especially as a young, African woman living in a mostly male-dominated society — Senegal is a Muslim country — is this patriarchial organization of things. It can be difficult at times to be heard as a woman. Especially when you’re young and tailoring is mostly a male-dominated field here. Having to teach those men new techniques and having them relearn those from their decades-long practiced skills, asking them to scratch everything and create new processes, is very hard. Today, Senegal has an impressive rate of female entrepreneurs and slowly things are changing for the better. I think we’re going towards a nice balance.

‘Dakar is 100% part of my work, it’s part of the brand identity. I always describe Tongoro as an African essence with a modern twist.’

On how Dakar and it’s culture inspires you creatively

It’s 100% part of my work, it’s part of the brand identity. I always describe Tongoro as an African essence with a modern twist. And when I see the women that I keep describing on the streets, there’s effortless elegance but also a lot of pride in the way they carry themselves — this is what I’m trying to translate into the garments. I think pride is a common thread in all African cultures. Within the rites and traditions of the 54 countries and 2000+ ethnic groups and tribes lies the essence of African culture, which we’re very proud of. That’s the main element that inspired me. I always get amazing feedback from women saying that every time they wear a garment, they feel like queens. And there’s this element of lightness, something very regal about the shapes and the way pieces move, and that’s something I strive for.

On showing a friend around Dakar for the day

In the morning, we’d probably go for a little run on the Corniche, which is by the sea. It’s one of the main roads in Dakar and you get to see the sea and everybody works out there in the evening, but it’s nice to have a run there in the morning. Then we’d probably have lunch at this very cute boutique hotel called Seku Bi, that I love — their octopus is to die for. I go there every Saturday to have lunch, it’s my self-care time. Then I’ll probably go to Mamelles beach just to relax and enjoy the sunset around drinks. At night, I’m a homey kind of person, so I stay home a lot! But probably dinner at La Pointe des Almadies, a little spot in Almadies where you can find the most western point in Africa. It’s a place where you can eat the best seafood in Dakar, fresh from the sea. There’s a nice vibe, different little spots and it’s a way to support local business at the same time.

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Diouf’s favorite Dakar haunts range from the casual, such as Sandaga Market, to the über-chic, like Le Lagon 1 that stretches over the waterfront. Second image of Sarah outside her Tongoro Studio courtesy of Sarah Diouf, all other images shot by Malick Welli.

On the best terrace for a sunset meal

Le Lagon is a restaurant I love that is located in downtown Dakar. I love their terrace situation because you’re having lunch or dinner over the sea and it’s such a great feeling. All the food there is amazing. It’s a little bit more of a chic place but it’s very chill on the weekends as well.

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On the tourist trap not to miss

It’s Africa's highest monument. It’s a special place to take pictures, it’s very touristy but it’s a must-go place if you’re visiting Dakar. The statue is very impressive and if you get to climb all the stairs, you get to read a message that was left to the African youth from our last presidents, which is very, very inspiring.

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‘Le Lagon is a restaurant I love that is located in downtown Dakar. I love their terrace situation because you’re having lunch or dinner over the sea and it’s such a great feeling.’

On your relationship with Dakar

I think it has changed over the years. When you come to a new place to live, you’re much more excited, there’s everything to do. Today, even though it’s home, it’s also more like my workplace. So when people visit, for example, they want to do all the things and I can’t because I’m exhausted from the week! Whereas, every time I travel somewhere, I want to do all the things because I’m not at home. I just love it. I think this is where I need to be. This is where I belong. And there’s no place I’d rather be at this stage of my life.

On a creator in Dakar you are inspired by right now

I’m very inspired by Alioune Diouf who is a painter. I recently purchased one of his works. He was showing at the Selebe Yoon, an art gallery that opened about a year ago. The space is spectacular. I am obsessed with Alioune’s work, it’s so beautiful. It’s very vibrant, so colorful and there’s just so much meaning behind the paintings that are worth exploring and asking about and I really invite you to take a look at it.

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With strong connections to her creative community, Sarah enjoys visits to the contemporary art gallery and artists residency, Selebe Yoon (meaning “the crossroad” in Wolon), where she can support local artists such as one of her favorites, Alioune Diouf. All images shot by Malick Welli.

On a window or aisle seat

I always ask for a window seat, I don’t know why. I love seeing the plane take off and land and being in the middle of the sky, it’s a beautiful sensation.

‘I am obsessed with Alioune Diouf’s work, it’s so beautiful. It’s very vibrant, so colorful and there’s just so much meaning behind the paintings.’

On a song that describes Dakar

I don’t know if the song described Dakar, but it’s one of my favorites and it’s by our most famous singer, Youssou N’Dour. It’s called ‘Birima’ and I just love this song. So Birima was actually a king celebrated by his people for having a big heart and the song itself — the rhythm, everything is just, it sparks joy in me when I listen to that song. So I think that one sentiment I can feel about Dakar is joy.

On Dakar in one word

Serendipity. 


It just makes sense. In French we say, heureux hasard, a happy accident. You’re looking for something and you cross the road, you ask for directions and you discover something new. Then it leads you to a bar and you learn new music and someone compliments your dress and they say, ‘Come have thieboudienne [a local fish and rice dish] at our house’. Because teraanga [‘hospitality’ in Wolof] is something that is really part of the Senegalese culture. If you’re just by yourself and you’re walking in an arts market, people can literally invite you to their house to share a meal because it’s part of the culture, it’s how we love. And I think serendipity is the word for Dakar, at least from my point of view.

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DIOUF

‘Dakar is a very vibrant place where people burst with creativity.’