Burkina Faso’s French knicker-makers

By Alex Duval Smith


Burkinabe tailor Oscar Dao raises the presser foot of his sewing machine, severs the white thread and carefully slides out a pair of dainty, pink lady's underpants.

"It is a real pleasure making such beautiful items, of such high quality," the burly 36-year-old enthuses.

At his treadle machine, on the terrace of the Copromof workshop in the capital of Burkina Faso, Mr Dao is at the forefront of an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny revolution.

Amid a West African cotton crisis and at a time when many European fashion houses have moved their production to cut-price Asian factories, French lingerie label Atelier Augusti has opted to manufacture its entire range of women's cotton underwear in Ouagadougou.

The owner of the workshop, Therese Tiema, has in the past two years taken on three extra staff - bringing her complement to nine on 15 machines - to handle the lingerie company's orders.

As discreet as its products, Copromof is based in a small, four-room house on a quiet residential street of suburban Ouagadougou.

''We have made 3,000 pants, vests and bras for Augusti so far," says Ms Tiema, 52.

"We still do individual tailoring but we are trying to move away from that market to just working on large orders.

image captionAs well as the French lingerie work, Therese Tiema takes on local orders such as making school uniforms
image captionAll the pieces are cut individually for the prototype order of 300 bikini-style knickers

"We do school uniforms, bags and shirts for other bulk clients. The challenge is to keep the workshop ticking over while also having the capacity to react fast when an order comes in from Augusti."

On this Friday morning, it is all hands to the pumps as Copromof's staff work on an order for 300 bikini-style knickers in pink and grey cotton.

''This is a small order, a prototype model, so we are cutting all the pieces individually,'' says Ms Tiema, sitting at a large table on the terrace.

Embarrassed giggles

She smoothes the fine, pink fabric then places two cardboard patterns over it - front and back.

She chalks the outline then yields her scissors to it.

''This is a size 36. I am cutting the front, the back and the gusset.

"The gusset is a different fabric. It has to be durable but also very soft because, you know, we ladies are sensitive," she says to embarrassed giggles from the staff.

''This order is relatively simple,'' she continues.

''With most of Augusti's creations, after the cutting stage, we send the fabric to the screen-printer, Alphonse Dedui, who adds Augusti's designs.

"This adds two or three days to the process.''

The state electricity company is on-side this morning.

Machinist Amsao Sankare, 18, takes the three pieces of fabric to an overlock machine at the back of the workshop.

Once she has run a rough seam around them to prevent fraying, Ms Sankare settles at her own machine - one among four rows of electric machines - to finish sewing the pant together.

image captionAll the French lingerie is made from cotton imported from neighbouring Mali

Ms Tiema cuts three lengths of white elastic to measure - the waist and both thighs.

Just over an hour after Ms Tiema first put chalk to fabric, Mr Dao sews in the elastic and label.

It is a process that will be repeated 300 times in the coming week before Ms Tiema can package up the order and take it to the post office for despatch to France.

Bikini Faso?

Atelier Augusti is the brainchild of sisters Julie and Claudie Ramirez who first visited Burkina Faso six years ago after their mother married a Burkinabe man.

"To us it was not a choice between manufacturing in the Far East or Africa," says 27-year-old Claudie Ramirez.

"It was always going to be Africa, though obviously the Far East would have been cheaper," she says.

''The quality of workmanship is high in Burkina Faso and we can easily travel there from France and oversee production.

"We want to know the people who work for us.

The sisters want to work with 100% cotton - which they buy from the large Comatex textile factory in neighbouring Mali, she says.

image captionOscar Dao says his treadle machine is "easier to control than an electric one"
image captionPower cuts are frequent in Ouagadougou and can affect business

"However, we have to send the elastic and the ink for the screen printing from France. The quality we require simply is not available in Burkina Faso."

The lingerie is on sale on the internet and at four outlets in France, including one in the capital, Paris.

Selling Augusti products in Burkina Faso would be ''complicated'', says Claudie Ramirez, because the price - a minimum of 18 euros (£14; $25) - is far higher than most Burkinabe women are used to paying.

Ms Tiema partly agrees: "In the market you can pick up Chinese underwear for next to nothing.

"But it is synthetic and horrible on the skin."

The veteran dressmaker explains that there are second-hand items - known as "France au revoir"' - which are sometimes made of cotton.

"But I do not want to wear someone else's pants," she says, adding that design is also an issue.

"I am sure there would be a market for beautifully made, high-quality cotton lingerie which is cut to our African shapes.

"We just need to get our act together."

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