Dakar designer Selly Raby Kane in Cape Town
Dakar designer Selly Raby Kane in Cape Town
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

Creative director of the Design Indaba's first after-hours event, Nightscape, Raby Kane is unfazed by the sparks flying from a blowtorch wielded by Senegalese metalworker Bassirou Wade.

She's fine-tuning designs for the Nightscape installation and checking in on the progress of her latest fashion collection, in production in Dakar.

"This jacket I'm wearing [it's a black and white geometric print with faux snakeskin trim] is a prototype from my new range," she mentions casually.

Usually based in Senegal, Raby Kane, Wade and painter Mansour Bah - she refers to them as "my Dakar dreammakers" - arrived in Cape Town at the end of January.

So what will the Nightscape experience hold? She is careful not to reveal too many details.

"I've written a story for the Design Indaba - I want it to be an immersive experience for people attending."

This isn't her first Design Indaba. "My first encounter with the Indaba was in 2015 when I gave a talk and introduced my Alien Cartoon collection. It was an amazing experience because it made me question what I was doing and the sense behind it. It made me ask myself whether there was a thread encircling everything that I do.

"Sometimes you think you're doing it out of instinct or, you know, it's just coming naturally. But then I realised ... there is a design behind everything I do."

Raby Kane's designs reflect a fascination with aliens and cartoons, otherworlds and urban legends. "I grew up watching fantasy, horror and sci-fi movies with my father.

"Throughout my life I have been nurtured with sounds and images and even now I inhabit a kind of parallel universe that is a place that keeps me away from Earth and all its troubles."

Raby Kane didn't have a typical childhood. "I was an activist for children's rights from the age of eight until I was 17," she says. "It was so random how I got involved. There's a radio station next door to my grandmother's house and when we visited her we would gravitate towards the studio.

"I became a reporter for Radio Guneyi, broadcast by and for children from Dakar. I went out and did radio interviews, I even went to the UN and when I was 13 I interviewed Kofi Annan during his visit to Senegal."

After high school she studied law and business administration in France.

"I finished my degree in 2007 but I realised that I really wanted to draw and design clothes so I went back to Dakar and changed career paths.

"It all happened very quickly after that - in 2008 I showed my first collection and in 2009 I met the Les Petites Pierres [small stones] collective.

"That was the most important year of my creative life and Dakar's new wave of artists created an electric and magical kind of energy."

Working in a collective comes naturally to her. "In Senegal," she says, "the urban collective culture is very common. It's not unusual to be in a collective but the Les Petites collective was unusual in that it brought together so many people from different places and with vastly different skills.

"Collaboration is a fascinating process and it is key to our success. We see it in everything in Senegal, even business models. The more successful ones are based on the idea of collaboration, so I really see it as the present and the future."

Together with the collective, Raby Kane staged spectacular fashion shows in urban spaces in Dakar, including a garage, the old Dakar train station and an abandoned warehouse.

In 2012 she launched her SRK brand, with its blend of pop art, traditional prints and eclectic streetwear.

Last year, Beyoncé was seen wearing one of Raby Kane's distinctive kimonos in New York, catapulting the designer onto the world stage. CNN was quick to interview her, dubbing her the "Senegalese designer to the stars".

Beyoncé wore the colourful appliquéd black kimono and a rainbow skirt from Raby Kane's Fall/Winter 2015 collection called Dakar City of Birds.

She has also made a virtual reality film, The Other Dakar, with Cape-based Big World Cinema. "It's just premiered at the Berlinale [Berlin International Film Festival]," says Raby Kane. "It tells the story of a little girl who discovers the invisible side of Dakar. It's my first film, it pays homage to my city and its urban legends."

From otherworldly fashion to installations at the Design Indaba and making movies, the storyline in Raby Kane's head seems to weave itself into everything she does.

"My work is close to rebranding Dakar and the rest of West Africa. We are the ambassadors of our countries, changing the perspective on our world. Creativity can do that," she says.

The welding and melding continues in the warehouse as the crew transforms Selly's Nightscape story into an immersive, alternative reality set to bring the night alive. Prepare for immersion.

The 2017 Design Indaba runs from March 1 to 3 in Cape Town. Nightscape, an outdoor city festival experience on the Artscape Piazza, is on from 5.30pm each evening. Details at designindaba.co.za

This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.
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