African wax prints take off overseas thanks to Laurenceairline's mod designs
Through her menswear brand, designer Laurence Chauvin-Buthaud is bridging cultures and making a sustainable and social difference in Africa and the world over
"My work is really like a conversation. A conversation between different cultures, different inspirations and influences and different fabrics, and I think it's also just part of who I am. I don't feel like I'm 50% African and 50% French. I feel like I'm 100% African, 100% French, and 100% human," says designer Laurence Chauvin-Buthaud.
"It's like a meeting of different cultures, concepts, fabrics and colours to create my own story. It's quite personal."
Chauvin-Buthaud is the designer of contemporary African menswear brand Laurenceairline - a brand which she started as an exploration and bridge between cultures across the world.
Born in Côte d'Ivoire and raised in France, Chauvin-Buthaud had two options - to try and work her way up the ranks in the country of luxury heritage houses and famous designers, or go back to her roots and make a name for herself by starting something of her own.
She chose the latter and opened her own factory in Abidjan.
Over the past 10 years, Laurenceairline has staked its claim in the industry as a brand with a refreshing take on African menswear. It strikes the perfect balance between clean, well-designed silhouettes and vibrant, eye-catching prints.
Although Chauvin-Buthaud admits she was not initially interested in using African wax prints - because she is a more neutral and minimal person - she took on the challenge.
Although Chauvin-Buthaud admits she was not initially interested in using African wax prints - because she is a more neutral and minimal person - she took on the challenge
"I was like, okay, this is part of my culture. I'm not really a fan but let's make it interesting. It was a good challenge for me because you used to see this fabric only in traditional clothing. I wanted to put these vibrant fabrics into everyday clothes and make something modern; something really well made that will change the perception people have about how things are made in Africa," she explains.
When talking about her design philosophy and process, Chauvin-Buthaud uses words like humanity and harmony and it becomes clear that she is a designer with heart. It's not just about the product on the hanger, it's about changing the narrative around fashion in Africa; it's about bridging cultures and, most importantly, developing the skills of the people in Africa and working sustainably and ethically from start to finish.
"I like to observe humanity. When I'm travelling, I like to talk to people of all cultures and ages, from different backgrounds and places, and I start to understand where we (humanity) are now. I try to share my vision of where we are now through my work."
In opening her own factory all those years ago, Chauvin-Buthaud has not only built up her own brand but is actively making a long-lasting social impact on the industry in Côte d'Ivoire. She saw that there was a lack of production education in Abidjan and made it her mission to train local people by opening a centre to equip them with sewing skills and techniques that match European standards.
"When I decided to manufacture in Africa, there were no educational programmes where I come from. I thought that if I was going to make something proper, it's important to start with education and to create a school where young people can learn and then integrate into production in our factory," she explains.
Sustainability has become an important focus for Chauvin-Buthaud and an essential pillar in her vision for the future of Laurenceairline. Her brand favours traditionally made fabrics, some of which are created in partnership with textile artisans in Mali and Burkina Faso. They increasingly use environmentally friendly and recycled materials like SEAQUAL - a polyester made from recycled plastic removed from the ocean.
They have also chosen short production circuits, working with factories that are geographically closer to limit the environmental impact of the brand's production.
"Do less but better" is the mantra Chauvin-Buthaud says she lives by in work and in everyday life.
Her latest collection is a retrospective and sustainable approach to the new. Using pieces from previous collections as well as used materials like plastic bottles, Chauvin-Buthaud transformed the used into a unique wardrobe for the urban explorer. She has deconstructed and reconstructed, reprinted, tye-dyed and even added plants which sprouted from the textiles and model's faces - part of a statement about being more connected and kinder to nature.
What's striking about Chauvin-Buthaud is that in a time when designers push for cult followings and popularity, she prefers keeping a low profile and allows her brand to speaks for itself. She's doesn't worry about the furore of social media, instead she opts to be meticulous about the clothes she makes and how they impact the world.
"When I started out as a designer, it was a time when the key influencers were people like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. It was a time when you could see how much work was in the clothes and it was a personal expression of aesthetic and beauty. I was trained to appreciate work and good intention.
"I think the focus is different now with social media. The industry has changed in terms of the relationship between the customer, the designer and how we communicate around fashion. It's unfortunately become more about marketing than about clothing. But fashion is a cycle, so I hope that we will go back to the more traditional and well made."