On a recent morning, June Woodcock ducked behind a patterned curtain in a booth at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market and emerged minutes later donning a vivid orange ankle-length dress with loose sleeves—and a smile. Woodcock had ordered the Kaftan-like gown for a wedding she was attending that week, and knew her favorite market vendor, a man named Ali, could deliver.
“I like the African style—it’s unique and simple, not too much,” said Woodcock, a New Yorker of Caribbean descent who says she migrates to African culture because of her heritage.
For more than a year, Woodcock has been coming to Ali to commission unique African pieces. She is particularly fond of his designs because he adds a little bit of Africa—such as an embedded piece of mudcloth, a fabric native to Mali, which is traditionally hand-woven and dyed using plant extracts and, as the name implies, mud.
Ali said he gets much of his fabric, like the mudcloth, from West Africa. He also buys it locally from stores in Manhattan’s Garment District. He designs and sews his garments in his crowded booth on a small table with an old, built-in Singer sewing machine.
Despite the dim economy, the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market is bright with traditional West African merchandise. And although the surrounding neighborhood, aptly named Little Senegal, is home to many West Africans donning the customary attire sold here, some vendors are catering to a different clientele—Americans wanting to look more African.
This market of largely West African merchants has become a popular destination for some African-American New Yorkers who see its wares as a way to connect with and display their roots. And as the tourist season wanes and the financial crisis continues, some vendors are grateful for their faithful African-American following.
According to the latest census figures, West Africans represent one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in New York City and hold more retail trade jobs than New Yorkers in general.
Many of the vendors who rent stalls in the market were once street merchants evicted from West 125th Street by Mayor Giuliani’s administration a decade ago. Now, the 22,000 square-foot open-air market on West 116th Street, where the smell of incense wafts above the booths, provides more than 100 vendors with a sheltered venue for the their products—from clothing and jewelry to beauty products like shea butter and African black soap, made from the ashes of burnt leaves and barks and natural oils.
But despite the market’s location in the heart of busy central Harlem and its reputation as a major tourist attraction, some vendors worry that their customer base is limited to regulars and that the economy and in-market competition is weakening their business.
On this cool summer day, the dazzling merchandise can’t mask the bare corridors. Aside from other vendors, Woodcock has the place nearly to herself.
Ali, who agreed to be interviewed only if his last name was not printed, said he moved to New York nine years ago from Senegal, where the Boubou and the Kaftan, gowns for men and women, are worn primarily by Muslims but are growing in popularity among Christians. In Harlem, Ali is making custom pieces based on these Senegalese designs for mostly non-Senegalese women, particularly African-Americans, like Woodcock, who he said are looking to adopt a more African look.
Sanna Kanuteh, a Gambian vendor, agreed, insisting that most of his customers are Americans wanting to return to their roots through fashion.
“They want to remember their culture and where they’re from,” Kanuteh said, explaining that clothes stir feelings of nostalgia and make people feel in touch with their backgrounds.
Mame Dame, a vendor from Senegal, said the competition among merchants selling clothes is so tight, he opts for a niche product: handbags made of leather from Niger. He said that the recession is taking a toll on his business, and he hopes things change soon. Bags of all shapes and sizes spill out of his cluttered booth, several donning a Ghanaian symbol, which Dame translates as “Go back to your roots”—a phrase with special meaning in this Central Harlem market.
Photo – Katie Moisse