Swag in Sierra Leone: Fashion in Freetown profiled

Where will that Zara blazer you bought for winter be in three years? Your closet? On a rack in a St Vinnies shop?

Or perhaps will it be being worn by a Sierra Leonean, having been picked up from the markets, tailored into a vest, and matched with a multicoloured Africana print.

The regions we consider fashion destinations do not often venture beyond the world's major cities.

In the West, we are fixated by the filtered images of fashion bloggers and photoshopped models which perpetuate the short-lived trends of high fashion; a life of luxury, and mass production.

But the fashion industry rarely recognises trendsetters outside the global hubs of New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and London.

A new web series, Fashpack: Freetown, commissioned by ABC Arts, delves into a fashion scene that is rarely acknowledged: Sierra Leone's capital city, Freetown, a fashion hub of its own making.

The six-part short documentary series profiles Sierra Leonean fashionistas who define themselves through the outfits they repurpose from "the junks", markets full of second-hand clothes that were rejected and exported from the Western world.

In Freetown, fashion is about swag and the joy of transforming yourself.

From a feminist rapper called Empress P with her magenta mohawk and cape, to a street preacher dubbed Great Hero wearing a military jacket bedazzled with badges, Fashpack: Freetown shows how Sierra Leoneans use style to ignore the overwhelming everyday challenges.

"The little bit of money I have I use to make myself decent," says Slim, a purveyor of swag and distributor of branded sneakers in Freetown.

'When I first got there it felt like everyone was in costume'

Sierra Leone is mostly known for its bloody civil war of the 1990s, its extreme poverty — with more than 60 per cent of the population living on less than $US1.25 ($AU1.65) a day — and most recently as an epicentre of the Ebola virus which claimed close to 4,000 lives between 2013 and 2015.

But beyond this the country has a vibrant fashion culture marked by Africana prints, used clothes cast off by Western countries, a tailor on every corner, and a style motivated by the desire to stand out, be outrageous, and create unique identities.

The series' host Jo Dunlop originally moved to Freetown in 2011 to work on a maternal healthcare project with UNICEF.

"I'd never worked in West Africa before and it's very different to East Africa. West Africans are very flamboyant and loud. When I first got there it felt like everyone was in costume," she says.

She started a blog, Freetown Fashpack, to document the wild fashions of people who strut through the city amid dirt roads and ramshackle taxis.

The blog gained some international attention and she spent the latter part of 2015 with a camera crew documenting the leaders of the style scene.

But filming in a country trying to recover from Ebola and struggling with a 70 per cent youth unemployment rate has its challenges.

"[Freetown is] like this broken down, hectic, shambolic, little metropolis in a very small country — not a particularly big population [6.3 million]," Dunlop says.

Everyday challenges make shooting unpredictable

On the flight into Freetown, co-director Benn Sutton read an interview in the in-flight magazine, with a pilot who described the landing in Freetown as one of the most challenging, because the airport is not set up for autopilot.

PHOTO: Empress P proclaims herself to be Sierra Leone's queen of hip-hop,. (Supplied: Jo Dunlop)


"Reading the story prepped me for Sierra Leone. It's raw. And you're never on autopilot," Sutton says.

When Sutton and his fellow co-director Tony Norton arrived, the city had flooded with rain.

It continued for weeks, despite the wet season having ended.

"A lot of the roads leading downtown are mud, and Freetown is on a hill so they just wash away," Sutton says.

Everyday challenges made shooting constantly unpredictable, and Dunlop says most people live without running water, the power is always unreliable, the infrastructure abysmal, and corruption inherent.

"And then there are the bigger problems. People are dying of so much preventable disease," she says.

"There's so much death. I think even before Ebola you noticed it."

In Sierra Leone it is not uncommon for women and children to die in childbirth — the country has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world, with 1,100 maternal deaths for every 100,000 children born, according to a 2014 United Nations report.

"Everything is too much in our country. Teenage pregnancy is too much, raping is too much, poverty, you know — everything is too much," rapper Star Zee says in the series.

Sierra Leone fashion 'wild, boisterous and serious at times'

But Dunlop says in spite of all these challenges, people still have a very flamboyant and creative way of dressing.

"You'd think that fashion and style would be pretty low on your priority list when you're dealing with these huge problems — serious problems — but despite that, people still pay a lot of attention, and show a lot of pride around the way they look," she says.

Sutton wants to take two preconceptions — that poverty equals drabness and that fashion is a superficial pursuit — and flip them.

"The series focuses on people who use fashion in interesting ways, whether it be to recreate themselves as a larger-than-life character or improve their position in the community," he says.

"But that doesn't mean fashion in Freetown isn't fun. It's wild, boisterous and serious at times too."

Bold patterns, bright colours and anything unique is the Sierra Leone style.

"Bossing" — playing the part of who you wish to be — is an important element.

Several characters in the series openly discuss sacrificing meals to save money for their wardrobe.

'A new outfit from the junks can be transformative'

It was made national decree by the President, Ernest Bai Koroma, that African fabrics should be worn on Fridays, and on a weekly basis the entire city becomes a power clash of prints.

While in Australia we tend to reject fast fashions to clothing bins once the trend has expired, in Sierra Leone, they start a new lifespan, often being customised.

Australia exported $US68.7 million ($91.3 million) worth of used clothing to developing countries in 2013 according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Observatory of Economic Complexity, with $US14.7 million ($19.5 million) of that going to Africa.

"In Australia I think a lot of people use fashion to blend in," Sutton says.

"In Freetown people use fashion to stand out, to express who they are, and 90 per cent of the time that has nothing to do with wearing expensive labels."

Towards the end of the series, Dunlop says the swag Sierra Leoneans walk with brings power to make people listen: an item of clothing can send a memo about pride and belief in a place many others have abandoned as hopeless.

"A new outfit from the junks can be transformative," Dunlop say.

"It can bring extra tips, extra kudus, and perhaps most importantly, it's a jubilant middle finger to Freetown's everyday realities."

Fashpack: Freetown streams on ABC Arts on iview until 15 May.