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The City of Joy
A new collection of fabrics has been launched worldwide and showcased in their home country by the women they were made for – the women of the City of Joy, survivors of the catastrophic, ongoing conflict in the DRC, which, it has been said, makes the country one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.
City of Joy is a transformational leadership community for women; survivors of brutal rape and mutilation by soldiers and civilians, who use women as weapons of war. Located in Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it provides a place for them to overcome pain and stigma to emerge as confident leaders, ready to go back to their communities and pass on the message that power can come from pain.
During a visit to the City of Joy, Gabriela Sanchez y Sanchez de la Barquera, designer for specialist fabric maker Vlisco, was asked by the women there if she would design prints for them that would honour the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Denis Mukwege, the surgeon who, with his team of doctors, has physically healed them. Awed by the strength of the women she met there, she created the City of Joy Collection, which tells the story of the women who have made the journey from suffering to a place of love and hope. The fabrics are marked by the words ‘Love’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Strength’ and reflect their healing and renewal through sisterhood, love and mutual respect.
The collection is made up of five printed super-wax fabric patterns in bold, bright patterns, with approximately 100 different, vivid colours, created using the old techniques of wax printing. The fabric designs, which depict a journey from pain to power and sorrow to joy, pay tribute to the vagina and the natural beauty of the Congo region. All the profits from the sale of the collection will be donated by Vlisco to the City of Joy.
Five female African designers have been working with 15 graduates of the City of Joy to create empowering and personalised garments using the new fabrics. The garments were first shown locally at an event in Bukavu held in honour of the women who have turned pain into power.
The collection will be showcased to a global audience by the women of the City of Joy at a gala event in Kinshasa this evening (November 25). With sexual violence a defining feature of the civil war in the eastern part of the country, the event aims to put an international spotlight on the issue. Currently more than 150 victims of sexual violence are admitted each month to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu and over 55,000 women and children have been treated there since 1999.
City of Joy is run by Congolese staff and was founded by writer of The Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler, Christine Schuler Deschryver and Dr Denis Mukwege. It opened in 2011, providing a place for women to heal themselves from their past trauma through therapy and life skills programming, while giving them essential support needed to help them move forward in life. Since opening, 1,294 women have graduated from the City of Joy.
Dr Denis Mukwege, Noble Peace Prize recipient and co-founder of the City of Joy, said: “As long as I have the opportunity to help, I will do it. I did not know when I opened my hospital that I would have to devote my life to fighting sexual violence as a weapon of war. This scourge is global and if my voice, my work and my actions can change the fate or life of even a woman somewhere in the world, I will continue to do so.”
Gabriela Sanchez y Sanchez de la Barquera, the Vlisco designer behind the collection, said: “The first thought that came to mind when I met the women of the City of Joy was ‘Is there anyone stronger than you?’ The collection aims to capture their journey from the darkest of places to a place of hope and love. It also portrays the great strength that comes from sisterhood. The designs suggest the beauty of the vagina and the respect it deserves, and they depict the forests and rivers and wildlife of the Eastern Congo – a place of fear but also joy.”
Christine Schuler Deschryver, Co-Founder and Director of City of Joy, added: “Taking part in this process has been a very positive experience for the women involved. They have been the driving force in the project and that is reflected in the vivacity and colour of the fabrics and the originality of the designs. It’s vital that the world’s eyes are opened to the atrocities that are taking place here and it’s beyond inspiring that the women who have suffered most are those brave enough to take a stand today.”
David Suddens, CEO of Vlisco, said: “To visit the City of Joy is at once a humbling and uplifting experience. It is shocking to see how such young women have been so abused and damaged. The statistics are horrifying – and yet we meet confident and strong women who have overcome their past. Men need, at long last, to face up to their responsibilities. They need to say to their fathers and brothers and sons and grandsons and friends that the violence against women must stop. This is a problem for men that needs to be addressed now.”
Eve Ensler, Co-Founder of City of Joy, added: “We are so thrilled by this amazing project of Vlisco in collaboration with the amazing women at City of Joy. It’s a project about healing, colour, life force and a celebration of women’s bodies. It highlights the profound beauty of Congolese women who embody the rising energy of the new world. We thank Vlisco for their stunning fabrics and style but mainly for joining their creativity with the struggle to free the women of Congo from violence so they can shine in their true beauty and power.”
The Fashion Designers Behind The Garments
Tolu Coker is a British-Nigerian fashion designer, textile designer and illustrator based in London. Her work has been internationally recognised by publications and platforms such as Vogue, Love Magazine, Dazed, Hunger, An0ther, WWD, NME, LVMH teams, and even the Tate.
Her global client base includes names like Rihanna, Stefflon Don, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. Her work extends beyond the medium of clothing, with her illustrations, documentaries and fashion films being commissioned by brands and outlets including Vogue Italia, Diesel, Swatch, Illy Caffè, Vice Media, American Express and Dr Martens.
Aisha Ayensu is Founder and Creative Director of the award-winning fashion brand Christie Brown which is known as a key player in the rise of contemporary African fashion since its inception 11 years ago. Christie Brown has had extensive coverage across global fashion and main stream media such as Vogue, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar UK, the Financial Times, CNN and BBC. With Christie Brown, Aisha is determined to steer a vibrant fashion industry forward on the African continent.
Bubu Ogisi is a multi-disciplinary artist and creative director specialising mainly in abstract space installations, garments and textile design. Bubu Ogisi is the Creative director of the contemporary women’s wear brand, IAMISIGO and is one of the four members of the art collective hFACTOR. I A M I S I G O has been worn by supermodel Naomi Campbell and a list of other celebrities.
The brand has been featured in a number of publications Elle SA and Vogue UK to name a few. Bubu Ogisi creates wearable art pieces with unconventional materials and heritage textiles traditions from all over the African continent and conveys lost heritage stories as a form of silent protest to post, neo-colonialism portrayed through visuals and short films. She also specialises in abstract space installations and space design. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, she now resides between Lagos and Nairobi.
Rebecca Zoro was born and raised in the Ivory Coast. When Rebecca decided to embark on the adventure of design, it was important for her to find the right name for her brand, one that contains all the emotions that she wanted to convey. As a child, her father called her by the name of YHEBE, which translates to love and sensitivity. This is embodied in the clean lines and simple, modern and elegant silhouettes, which are the signature of the YHEBE brand. Since its formation three years ago, Rebecca’s creative work has launched the ready- to-wear brand firmly into the public eye.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Abiola launched her eponymous fashion brand in 2017 after her studies in Paris. Abiola’s collections are made with locally printed and sourced fabrics and are inspired by modern African women who are constantly on the go. Her designs are crafted to be functional, elevated with a focus on craftsmanship. She has worked at notable brands like Givenchy and Lanvin. In 2018, she was named as one of five designers to watch, writing that she “not only has the talent but the gumption to take on the bigwigs of Nigerian fashion.
Born in Curacao, Anbasja Blanken is a women’s wear designer whose power lies in the way she sees the world. Inspired by her earthy upbringing and the extraordinary strength of her mother, Anbasja drapes the work she creates in the same thing - ease and power. Her signature, pants, reflect the strength and confidence of the women she designs for.
Vlisco is a Dutch printer of wax fabrics. The company has existed for 174 years and first sold fabric into West Africa at the end of the 19th century. Wax printed fabric, which was originally intended for the Indonesian market, became a part of African culture. This was thanks to the African women traders, who not only bought and sold the fabric and advised on colour and design, but also created names for the different prints and told stories about their meaning.
African women then bought the fabrics to turn into garments that expressed their identity. The market for Vlisco prints in Africa is an example of mass-customisation and individual self-expression that has existed for over a century. This is not fast fashion but sustainable made-to-measure on a huge scale.
Vlisco still has its home in Helmond in the Netherlands, where the craft of wax printing is passed on down through generations. The design team is international and chosen for their individual and varied style. The imaginative designs come from the designers themselves, but the interpretation and expression are purely African.
Vlisco has donated all of the profit from the sale of the fabrics to the City of Joy where the women want to build a textile and fashion school. The school will teach the craft of African textiles with a creative, forward-looking perspective. 512,000 US dollars have been donated by Vlisco to start the school. Vlisco would like to encourage other donors and partners to join them in doubling this amount. As a next step, the designs have now been reprinted in different colours and with a completely different look. If the original design is still the same, the creative direction is more modern – just as the school is intended to be.
Taking part in this process has been a very positive experience for the women involved. They have been the driving force in the project and that is reflected in the vivacity and colour of the fabrics and the originality of the designs.
– Christine Schuler Deschryver, Co-Founder and Director of City of Joy
Tolu Coker | Aisha Ayensu | Oritsegbubemi Ogisi | Rebecca Zoro | Abiola Adeniran-Olusola
 Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20 Report https://giwps.georgetown.edu/the-index