Sierra Leone may not be as synonymous with style as say Paris or Milan, but when Aussie aid-worker Jo Dunlop found herself in the West African country’s capital a few years back, its “bold, brave and utterly original” sartorial spirit swiftly caught her attention.
“Freetown style is unlike any other city in the world,” says Jo. “I became aware of the fashions soon after I arrived and started admiring some of the more traditional outfits people were wearing in my office. Then when I started venturing onto the streets, it was hard to ignore the magnificent street style.”
Despite more than 60 per cent of the population living on less than $US1.25 a day, the country maintains a thriving fashion culture – and a tailor on every corner.
“Fashion helps people face the everyday challenges of living in Sierra Leone,” says Jo, who documented the stylings and stories of residents on her blog, Freetown Fashpack, in the hope of showing a different side to a country so often associated with poverty, corruption, war and disease. “Sierra Leone has certainly suffered all these challenges but it is also a place where people are living their lives with creativity, resourcefulness and resilience and this is often expressed in the way they dress,” she says. “In a place like Freetown where most people are poor but have found a way to enjoy fashion and create their own personal style, it gives people a real sense of pride.”
Here she met Great Hero, a preacher whose eclectic wardrobe ranges from “military garb to thrifted safari suits” has earned him celebrity status. “When he leaves his house he is treated like a rock star with crowds following him around and calling his name ‘Hero! Hero!’”
Jo was also particularly taken by Mariama – a single mother and bartender with a keen eye for pre-loved fashion. “She has a genius way of customising her clothes and pulling together an outfit using a clever mix of old clothes she has found at the ‘junks’ market [a second-hand market made up of the thrift store rejects from the US, Europe and Australia] and traditional Africana fabrics.”
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Jo arrived in Freetown in 2011 to work on a maternal health project, embarking on a four-year stay that in 2014 would see her in the midst of the Ebola crisis, working alongside hospital staff against the rampant spread of disease that claimed 4000 lives. “There was so much to do and it felt like the world was abandoning West Africa through fear,” says Jo, remembering how several airlines cancelled flights and NGOs were starting to retreat. “Being there at that time was a very emotional experience, there was so much death and suffering but it was also incredible to witness the local health care professionals so bravely step up and responding to the crisis. Their courage and resilience was inspiring. The blog was a great way to share the more human stories of the outbreak – there were so many people doing incredible things to support the emergency response.”
Freetown Fashpack inspired a six-part documentary series, Fashpack: Freetown, and Jo’s photographs have since been exhibited across Australia, where she is currently based. “It would be nice if the exhibition and series has entertained and surprised people by exposing a really positive side to a country they may not know much about. I hope it shakes up the tired old narrative that Africa is a ‘basket case’ by showing that Sierra Leone is a unique country with a beautiful and vibrant culture with lessons it can teach the rest of the world. I also hope it has planted Sierra Leone on the international fashion radar – Paris, London, New York – FREETOWN!”