Welcome! This blog documents my experience as a Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellow with the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development during my studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed are solely my own and are written to share experiences, introduce issues, and initiate conversation. Thank you for reading!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Vibrant colors of Liberia's lapa

Lapa hanging from the rafters of a Lebanese-owned fabric store in the "waterside" district of Monrovia. Waterside, right along the coast, is the place to go for everything needed to make an African attire: lapa, lace, intricate embroidery, and tailors. Lapa is a word Liberians use to refer to both the fabric and the measurement of it - buying one lapa is the equivalent of buying 2 yards.

Who knew picking out an African dress would be such an adventure?! For the Western eye, walking into a fabric shop to pick out "lapa" is a visual treat: bright colors and endless patterns. After three dress-making trips, I still feel overwhelmed by the process and rely heavily on the opinions of Liberian friends for advice on the right colors, the right design for the selected lapa, and bargaining the right price.

Once you have selected your lapa (which is automatically sold to you in a 3 lapa = 6 yards quantity), the next step is to design. You can purchase "posters" which show off about 20 different African dresses, modeled by a nice curvaceous African woman. Using these designs as inspiration, the task is to select the neck line, embroidery design, sleeves, and skirt style. As time goes on, we are all getting slightly more adventurous - realizing that even if we are white Westerners, Liberian dresses don't look good unless you go all out.

The best part of the shopping experience has turned out to be my coworker Matilda. After a few weeks of admiring her fashion sense in our office, I finally stopped her and pleaded for help. Now she's become the "Waterside" tour guide for the entire group of interns. She has helped Molly, Yesenia, Yue Man, Zach, Jesse and Rupert manage the chaos of fabric vendors and successfully select and design our African wear.

But the real key is that Matilda connected us to the best-known-secret tailor in Liberia (nicknamed Five-o-Four)! We have overwhelmed him with orders after he successfully dressed Yesenia and I for the Cabinet Retreat. Amazingly it only takes a few measurements, a few days, and clothes come out better than we'd hoped and fitting like a glove. Pretty amazing given the conditions under which he works.

Sewing machines belonging to him and about 20 other young men line the sides of a back alley. The informal sewing industry in Liberia is heavily male-dominated. With no electricity, the tailors at this "shop" do all their work on old foot petal sewing machines. They are sheltered from the daily rain by sheet metal propped up by the roofs of the adjacent buildings. Each of them pay the owner of the alley to set up their sewing machine and do individual business.

Needless to say, a Saturday excursion to buy a Liberian outfit isn't exactly a trip to your local Gap. But the adventure is well worth it and by the time we leave Liberia, Matilda and Five-o-four will be well on their way to establishing a successful business as the Liberian Outfitters to the Westerners.

Molly, me, Matilda (the African dress designing master), J R (our trustworthy lapa judge who critiqued our fabric selections on a scale of 1 to 10), and Yue Man


Rupert Simons said...

I'd like to rectify the gender bias in Emily's post by pointing out that the excellent team of Matilda and five-o-four also do men's clothing. My delivery of blingtastic shirts arrives tomorrow. I can't wait . . .

CaribbeanJewel said...

Great article... How much would each Lapa cost?

CaribbeanJewel said...

Great article... How much would each Lapa cost?