Michaela Engst
Cameroon: a surprising country

Michaela Engst
Michaela Engst | Photo: A.Schücke

For some years now, the African fashion industry has been making waves in Europe. What do you think accounts for this?

We feel the need to broaden our design scope and include international influences. Many designers are inspired by African fabric as well as Indian and Asian and I think it is a normal process, that at certain times, after we have exhausted our ownresources, we look elsewhere. When some creators, especially fashion experts who set trends, depict something, this thing evolves and is recreated several times by others.It is therefore usually interesting to integrate influences from other cultures when working with European outlines. Some of the reasons could be these: we always look for ways to combine this with that; many people travel and get inspired, and art and culture play an important role; there are also several artists in African countries who influence the inspiration of the travellers in question.
You are in favour of sustainable fashion and fabric which is biologically produced. What should one pay attention to if one were to follow in your footsteps?

One would have to do a lot of research, especially if one is as well adelivery person,because there are a lot of differences. When one comes across certified fabric such as those certified by ©GOTS, it is good to use. Smaller certifications or organisations exist as well. Most fabric is the product of fair trade and these materials are not necessarily ecological.One should as well pay attention to the material used: where can it be found and where can we find the best quality for the fabric which we intend to use. The main thing is to be rational: one shouldn’t just go all over the world taking pride in the fact that one is in favour of “sustainability” but once we have decided to fight for it, we need to keep tothe choice. It is a matter of the seriousness with which we approach the subject; we shouldn’t follow any particular trend, we should do it only if we are sure of ourselves. I think in the end that is all what it is about. There is a big difference depending on whether we find ourselves in Europe, in Germany or in another European country or Africa. I think that if Cameroonian designers want to purchase their bio cotton, they should be able to find it here, and maybe already dyed. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about transportation, thatis, if it is actually transported to where it is dyed traditionally. The Cameroonian textile plant CICAM obviously does not use local cotton; it is imported and that poses a problem. If I don’t have access to ecological fabric, I have to work on my design for long. I need toendeavour to create a reasonable design and maybe avoid creating Summer-Winter collections,but I would ratherproduce at intervals, producing small quantities where everything is proper, according to my work capacity and according to needs. If I realise that there is a certain trend, I can follow the trend or react to all what is going on around me. If I plan my season about a year before time, then I will be unable to react spontaneously to what is going on at that precise moment. When one is still a beginner, one shouldn’t bother too much about quality. If we cannot getbio produce, then we should bet on the design. It is really important to make good clothes which can be worn, which is perfectly normal. If we know with what material others fabrics have been made, and if they are of poor quality, why should we hang on to the price? It is thus better to produce less, but more efficiently. I wouldn’t want toxic substances to contaminate the body because as a designer, I have decided to use a particular fabric. I think it is very important and should be applied. As designers, it is our responsibility to decide and to orient the client.
During the outline of your “Elite” collection, you asked yourself where our society was headed. Have you found an answer to this question?

I think the answer is broad. I continue to believe that the society is at that level where sensitisation about quality requirements has increased even if it is not enough, but demand is high. More people want to see hand-made work; they prefer quality over mass production. This applies to clothing as much as food and other objects in general. But I believe there will be a split and that is a stage that will take some time because continents are so different and policies differ across the wold. I don’t know if one day everything will be in harmony and if products will be sustainable, high-quality and factory-made.
After a 10 day sojourn in Cameroon, what image and memory will you take to Berlin?

Organised chaos [laughs]. I must nevertheless say that I am here withthe Forum for Fashion and Design, in a context where everything is organised given that we don’t have much time left. This may not correspond to the ordinary conditions under which things are done here. Yves Eya’a and his team have done wonderful things. He works hard and is motivated all day. That is why I say it may not be Cameroon, per say, which is represented here. I’m a little confused at this level. Anyway, I have noticed that people here are very open and welcoming; if they are interested in what one is doing, they are kind and available. That is what struck me. I didn’t have any unpleasant experience.
How do you foresee the future of the fashion industry in Cameroon?

I think that the young fashion designers with whom we worked have a bright future ahead of them. There are so many things to develop, as much in fabric as in quality. They have many ideas and a huge potential to develop in several ways. The market isn’t saturated here the way it is in Europe; everything is still open here. All what is here: magazines, fabrics, textile design and development are all sectors which are not developed here, where they can spread out to. For that to be possible, they should be ready and able to say “this is how we go about it”. That is how they will be able to direct everything to various directions, which is wonderful. It is everybody’s dream and that is why we are happy working with young fashion designers here because we feel we can really change things, make things happen here. It is very important for designers to seize the opportunities they have here. It is new and difficult because they have to make the first steps, thus they don’t have role models to look up to for orientation. They have to forge their own paths and this necessitates a lot of will and perseverance. If they succeed, then they have a lot of chances here. It is very pleasant when one can achieve what one desires. That is why I think there is a huge potential here, especially for the future. It is not just about superficial aspects of the fashion industry, but many other sectors related to fashion. There are several possibilities of creation and employment and thus possibilities to boost the economy. It is immense, if they believe this here, it will be wonderful.