The in-demand designer
discusses the allure of cowrie shells and her home city of Dakar

I meet Sophie Nzinga Sy by the pool at one of her favourite hangouts, the delightfully crumbly Hôtel Le Sokhamon. The sun is setting over Dakar and the harmattan winds are high yet we still enjoy the misty Atlantic Ocean views from this cliff top vantage point while the designer shares her plans to establish a fashion school nearby. “It will be small but top notch. We have the land and have begun to build. Now we’re looking for partners,” she says. “We have some great designers here, including Adama Paris and Selly Raby Kane, and the scene is growing but what we lack is production and education. I hope to open in 2017 as an incubator that can grow gradually.”

These ambitions are well suited to Zinga who has already achieved an impressive amount in her 28 years. Born in Dakar, she grew up moving around Africa, the Caribbean and the US with her parents, who worked in economic development. She too studied economics followed by fashion at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. She launched her label in 2012 and opened her atelier in Dakar the following year. Since then she has showcased in Milan, Johannesburg, Paris, New York and Lagos and been recognised by both the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative and Vogue Talents for her ladylike womenswear. “My aesthetic is feminine minimalism,” she says. “I fuse different cultures into key pieces that give the modern woman confidence.”


Zinga sources her materials for the mainline from all over the world and is as fond of Malian tie dye as she is of French Alencon lace. Each collection is 100 per cent made in Senegal and retains her “refined African touch.” Past seasons have been inspired by everything from ancient Abyssinia civilisation to the velvety textures of rose petals and have cemented her reputation for romantic evening attire.

"My aesthetic is feminine minimalism.
I fuse different cultures into key pieces that
give the modern woman confidence"

For SS16, Zinga explores the African cowry shell - called Petaaw in her native Wolof tongue - which holds deep religious, cultural and economic significance. “Centuries ago, a very special cowry shell was used as currency exchange. Besides also being valued as an adornment enhancing women’s beauty, the cowry shell is one of most used tools by traditional spiritual leaders for fortune telling.” Clean silhouettes including satin tunics, neoprene pencil skirts, silk jumpsuits and chiffon cocktail dresses come in a soft colour palette of cream, orange and sky blue. These are embellished with hand painted, printed and applique shells, their soft porcelain-like finish shape reimagined through Zinga’s contemporary take on ceremonial style.

SS16 also sees the introduction of her diffusion line Zinga by Sophie Zinga, which Lupita Nyong'o debuted on a trip home to Kenya this July. The easy breezy collection celebrates Senegalese fabrics such as pagne tisse and bazin. Bringing both collections to consumers next year isn’t the only thing she’s looking forward to. Zinga is also expecting her second child, planning a bridal line and is reaching international audiences via the new e-commerce platform Oxosi. But when she does have downtime, it’s her beloved Dakar that she turns to. Here’s her city short list:


FOR ART… “Villages des Arts houses workshops for local artists. It’s really interesting seeing them working in their living environments. El Hadji Sy is internationally known and one of my favourites painters.”

FOR CULTURE… “L'Institut Français next to Place de l'Independence has a library, cinema and outdoor café and also hosts exhibitions and performances.”

FOR FURNITURE… “it has to be Ousmane Mbaye in Soumbedioune. He makes furniture out of recycled iron.”

FOR FOOD… “La Fourchette restaurant near Marché Kermel serves a mix of French and mediterranean cuisine.”

FOR COFFEE… “Layu is a cute spot in Almadies, which also sells books, accessories and small goods such as iPad cases.”

FOR CLUBBING… “Duplex in Ngor plays afrobeats and is great for dancing.”

FOR LIVE MUSIC… “Just For You in the University district has live bands most evenings and attracts a young crowd.”

Portrait and landscape photography Jackie Nickerson
Lookbook photography Ibra Ake
Words Helen Jennings

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