Magician of the desert: Alphadi

Born in Timbuktu in Mali just before the country's independence from France, Alphadi sees fashion as a vehicle for unity and prosperity.

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Portrait of Alphadi – a smiling man wearing black glasses, a shallow, rounded, striped hat, a layered shell necklace, rings on his fingers, and a black jacket with white patterned detailing around the shoulders.
Portrait photograph of Alphadi. © Alphadi

Alphadi (born Sidahmed Alphadi Seidnaly) uses his designs to showcase and celebrate the beauty of the African continent, its rich histories and cultures. Apprenticed to master couturier Mister Ouseman Chirfi between the ages of seven and twelve, he learnt fashion design at an early age and later studied at the Atelier Chardon Savard, Paris. With global ambition, he has opened boutiques all over the world, including in Casablanca, New York, Accra, and locations in Martinique and Spain.

In 1998 he founded the Festival International de la Mode Africaine (International Festival of African Fashion) or FIMA, supported by UNESCO. The first event, hosted in the Tiguidit desert in Niger, included designers such as Chris Seydou, Pathé'O, Oumou Sy, Yves Saint Laurent and Kenzō. Over 5,000 people from more than 52 countries flew to the desert to witness Alphadi's fashion and culture extravaganza.

Alphadi's work draws upon cultures and design practices from across the continent. Kuba cloth – originating from the ancient Kuba kingdom of central Africa – is a common feature in his collections. It is made from woven raffia, with the intricate decoration achieved through cut-pile embroidery. Designs are stitched onto the cloth and then raffia fibre is drawn through with a needle and snipped with a knife to make a dense pile, creating a plush, velvet-like effect.

Bustier halterneck top and skirt ensemble in beige and black
Bustier, by Alphadi, 1993, Niger. Museum no. T.60:1-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It was important for me to show the beauty of the African continent ... [to] show the diversity of our cultures and the strong history of each of them ... I want to be able to represent them all but it will take a couple of lives. One continent, 54 countries ... Every African has a different story to tell.

Alphadi, 2021

This dress was created as a homage to Tuareg jewellers and their historic metalwork practices. Inspired by the strength of women, the metal breastplate represents the woman as a warrior, the harsh metal contrasting with a billowing layer of printed cotton cloth.

Dress made from gold metal bodice with centre in diamond shape, and black and gold long patterned skirt
Dress, designed by Alphadi, about 1988, Niger. Museum no. T.2440-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Using a strip of Téra-Téra cloth on the jacket, Alphadi updates this classic skirt suit. A handwoven fabric traditionally made in Tera, Niger, this vibrant cloth is used historically to cover brides on their wedding day. Alphadi references this history, creating a design to represent a strong woman, fully independent and dynamic, pursuing her dreams.

Suit ensemble consisting of black  jacket and skirt with panels of cloth woven in orange, white, green, red and black. The back of the jacket has a large panel of decorative embroidery in red, yellow, orange, white and black.
Skirt Suit, designed by Alphadi, 1993, Niger. Museum no. T.58:1-2022 and T.58:2-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From hats to waistcoats, Alphadi is regularly seen wearing his own designs. He often wears a shallow, rounded hat decorated with embroidery – a style which is popular in many regions in Africa – known variously as the hula, fílá or kofi.

Left: Model wearing an ensemble consisting of hat,  jacket and skirt which are black with panels of cloth woven in orange, white, green, red and black. Right: a man (Alphadi) and woman wearing shallow black and white patterned hats
Magazine spread, 1993. © Alphadi

Discover more about the Africa Fashion exhibition.