September 18, 2012

STUDENTS’ STORIES | From West Africa to the NYC runway: a Cornell fashionista lives the dream

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This article is part of students’ stories, a series profiling students across campus.

When Matilda Ceesay ’13 received the opportunity to work for her long-time hero –– Belgian-American designer Diane von Fürstenberg –– at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City, the fiber science and apparel design major said it was a dream come true.

Ceesay was born in Gambia, a country in West Africa, and lived there until 2002, when she moved to Missouri shortly before starting the sixth grade. Ceesay was raised by her grandmother, who had a reputation among friends and neighbors as a fashionable diva, she said.

“A lot of people say they’re not surprised that I’m a fashion major because [I was raised by] her,” Ceesay said.

Ceesay also named von Fürstenberg as her inspiration to pursue a career in design. She said she admires von Fürstenberg not just as a designer, but also as a businessperson and philanthropist dedicated to helping women express their femininity.

Ceesay said she especially admired von Fürstenberg’s ability to create outfits that are both elegant and appropriate for any occasion.

“I was very blown away and amazed by her,” Ceesay said.

This summer, Ceesay worked as an intern at the headquarters of von Fürstenberg’s company in New York City.

On one occasion, Ceesay said, von Fürstenberg invited all of her employees, including the interns, to her house to discuss the theme of her collection and the overall direction of the company. When Ceesay told von Fürstenberg that she was her inspiration, the designer gave Ceesay a hug and kiss, Ceesay said.

Ceesay’s internship came to an exciting conclusion at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. On Sept. 9, she was able to work backstage at the show, helping fit and dress the models and assisting with any last-minute issues that arose before the event.

Ceesay said her own design work is influenced by her Gambian roots, as well as a dedication to preserving what she refers to as the “true African culture.” She uses many prints reflective of the continent’s history –– designs that she says are declining in popularity because “people are so consumed by what’s going on in the Western world.”

On campus, Ceesay has been involved in the Cornell Fashion Collective’s runway show each spring since her freshman year. She is currently the organization’s alumni relations chair.

Last spring, Ceesay created a collection themed around “the story of Africa.” All of the fabrics in her collection were hand-dyed in Africa, she added.

One of her most innovative pieces, Ceesay said, was a garment she created in collaboration with a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design. Together, Ceesay and the associate created a bodysuit containing insecticides protecting against malaria — a disease that kills a child every minute in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to CFC, Ceesay is also involved in a project called Days for Girls, a non-profit that makes reusable feminine hygiene products for girls living in third-world countries.

At some point, Ceesay said, she hopes to return to Africa and give back to the people and culture that shaped her upbringing. She said she would like to work as a consultant for other African fashion designers, helping them develop their own lines and create a market for their work.

“I think there’s a lot of talent and a lot of inspiration in the continent,” she said. “But what’s missing is the structure, the discipline and the understanding of what actually goes into creating a successful line.”

Original Author: Rebecca Friedman