Meet Diarra Bousso: One of Senegal’s most promising designers

Written by Helen Jennings, CNN When Diarra Bousso was a child she dreamed of being

Written by Helen Jennings, CNN

When Diarra Bousso was a child she dreamed of being a fashion designer, artist, mathematician and ballerina when she grew up. Today she’s achieved three out of four and added teacher to the list, too. With her Senegal-based brand Diarrablu she uses her gift for algorithms and equations to design artisan-made womenswear, including a bikini modeled by Kendall Jenner in Vogue, all the while supporting local leatherworkers, textile makers and tailors in Dakar.

Dall 2020 by Diarrablu. Credit: Diarrablu

A self-confessed “nerd” who “dreamed a lot,” Bousso acknowledges the early influence of her father, who hails from a family of artisans but became a banker and entrepreneur and her always well dressed, education-focused mother. “In our house, style was not about money or class, it was about how you behaved and treated other people. My parents made sure I was rooted in our Senegalese heritage,” she said on a phone call.

Bousso attended private schools in Senegal and Norway and studied mathematics, economics and statistics at Macalester College in Minnesota before going on to be a bond trader on Wall Street. “I enjoyed my job at first but then got depressed because the artist inside me was dying and I wasn’t doing anything for my community,” she said. “I also felt isolated as the only Black woman, the only African, the only Muslim, and decided to leave.”

Diarrablu's Sustainable Collection, 2020.

Diarrablu’s Sustainable Collection, 2020. Credit: Diarrablu

She chose to return home where, in 2012, a serious accident left her with partial memory loss and unable to walk. She used her recovery period to explore fashion. “The accident gave me a blank slate. I was born again and just happy to be alive,” she said. “My lack of awareness of my former career allowed me to re-invent myself as a designer. By the time my memory returned, this was who I was.”

She started out with a blog featuring her one-off designs but knew nothing about how the industry worked. She traveled to China and Turkey to learn about supply chains and to New York and Paris fashion weeks to network. Back in Dakar Bousso developed the brand but struggled with her reliance on the limited textiles available from local markets. Needing a new challenge, she relocated to California to study creative mathematics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, where in 2015 she hit on the idea that has come to define Diarrablu. “I started using mathematical code to create textile patterns. The programming takes time but once it’s done, I can come up with thousands of iterations just by changing a few numbers.”

Dall 2020 by Diarrablu.

Dall 2020 by Diarrablu. Credit: Diarrablu

Bousso’s approach has since become democratic and precise. She puts the textile designs on Instagram and asks her followers to vote for their favorites. The winning designs get made into clothing samples and posted again for pre-orders. Cloth is printed and shipped from around the world (US, Turkey, China, Italy) to Senegal where her family oversee the team of craftspeople who make the pieces. She designs with the seasonal fashion calendar in mind but produces these monthly drops throughout the year. This sustainability-focused process ensures she’s never left with unused materials or unsold inventory.

Going further in her pursuit to be an ethical brand, Bousso incorporated recycled and biodegradable fabrics into her Spring-Summer 2020 collection, as well as sandals made from leather scraps. “In the West sustainability is such a trend but for us (Senegalese) it’s the status quo,” she said. “You don’t produce what you don’t need. My tailors possess ancient skills and ways of cutting based on circularity and zero waste.”

The Spring Summer 2020 Resort collection by Diarrablu.

The Spring Summer 2020 Resort collection by Diarrablu. Credit: Diarrablu

Also speaking to longevity are her timeless silhouettes. Kimonos, palazzo pants and jumpsuits echo West African boubous and wrappers in their fluid sizing and ability to be worn in multiple ways. “I love the idea of selling style, history, heritage and innovation all in one garment,” she said. Her fuss-free attitude has paid off with the brand seeing a 900 percent upsurge in 2020. “During Covid-19 I have responded to what my customers want, which is elegant, comfortable and conscious clothing.”

For her Autumn-Winter 2020 collection, she has made a bit of time to indulge her imagination. “Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t travel so I would take walks near where I live (near San Francisco) and see the magic in the small things. My prints have become very abstract and dreamy with some African-inspired elements. It’s important to be to be seen as a Black-owned brand with a strong point of view.”

The Spring Summer 2020 Resort collection by Diarrablu.

The Spring Summer 2020 Resort collection by Diarrablu. Credit: Diarrablu

This intention is echoed in her first collection of fine art, entitled “Gént” (Wolof for dream) featuring prints of her minimalist paintings and illustrations that frame Black women in fantasy locations. “The purpose is to bring a ray of sunshine while addressing the need for more inclusivity in the art world. Gent is a celebration of Black muses, black travel and black love.”

On top of all of that, Bousso works full-time as a teacher at a Silicon Valley high school. “I am a fashion person from 4am to 8am and a math teacher from 8am to 3pm. I sleep from 3pm to 5pm and then I am artist from 5pm to bedtime,” she said. And with that it was 7.59am and time for her to go and begin a Zoom class with her first students of the day.