Fashion designers in Shanghai are a jiao a dozen. What is rare is a designer with an innovative concept — not copied, borrowed or recycled from a different era.
Born in Guyana to Haitian parents and raised in Paris, emerging designer Sheilla Constance Sidney arrived in Shanghai one year ago. Living in China inspired her interest in integrating traditional African and Chinese fashion.
Habesha, the name of her collection, means ‘mixed’ in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. Sheilla has spent a lot of time in North and East Africa over the years. Ethiopia, the only African country never colonized by Europeans, has special significant for her, in part because of the connection between Haiti, the first black republic to gain independence.
Habesha is made up of hybrid designs that infuse Chinese garments with African fabrics—a blending of very different cultures through fashion. The fabric is called superior wax which is a special type of cotton fabric from the Congo, Kenya, Senegal and Ethiopia.
“Chinese people love new things and are excited by new ideas. They enjoy fashion—exploring it, playing with it. Walls are certainly starting to come down,” says Sheilla, “but like many other countries in the world, China has little exposure to Africa. I want people to know that Africa is not just one country, but a continent made up of many, many countries. Habesha is my way of exposing people to something new… of exposing Africa.”
On Friday, March 7th, Shanghai got its first look at Habesha at Sheilla’s very first fashion show at the Hyatt on the Bund. Organized and sponsored by Solid Vodka, tickets to the by-invitation-only event were among the most sought-after in the city. Like Sheilla, Solid Vodka is up-and-coming brand that has been in China for a short time but has already made a big splash. They felt that young, innovative and new brands should work together, which is why they chose Sheilla to open their series of fashion events at the Hyatt. The lovely venue, Vue Bar on the 32/33 floor, was filled beyond comfortable capacity, but the show was a huge success.
“I wasn’t expecting so many people to come. I am really happy with how it went,” says Sheilla, who was particularly honored by the presence of the ambassador of Ethiopia, who flew from Beijing just to be in attendance at the show.
The men and women who modeled the designs were all friends of Sheilla—as mixed in nationality as the clothes they wore—from Ethiopia, Uganda, Chad, China, France and America.
Unlike some fashion shows that seem chilly and inaccessible, many of the models wore the designs in a playful way, with different personalities showing through in the way the clothes were worn. Runway faces occasionally broke into amused or self-conscious grins, brought on by hoots from the enthusiastic audience who were pressed against the runway for lack of space.
But it was Sheilla herself who stole the show wearing one of her own designs, a stunning black gown and black veil and headpiece.
When asked to explain the concept of her designs, Sheilla thought for a minute. “In Africa, women like to wrap their hair. The fabric belts that I used on the dresses were designed to be used as either head wraps or as belts. That’s the thing with different cultures—each has a different take on fashion and will wear something in a different way: an African woman would use it to wrap her hair but it is just as fashionable to wear it as belt (in Asia, Europe or America). Habesha is a celebration of these differences.”
Solid Vodka plans to host three more fashion events showcasing the designs of Shanghai’s newest and most innovative designers at the Hyatt on the Bund, so stay tuned.
Photos by Tandy Sean Arnold and Juliette McCawley