Senegalese footwear brand, Nio Far, wants to get mud all over your shoes. Mud cloth, that is. From afar it would appear that founder and designer, El Hadji Malick Badji – alias Milcos Badji – has simply created a footwear of contemporary style. But it’s the use of the mud based fabric known as ‘Bògòlanfini’ (often referred to as Bògòlan) that gives this footwear ethnic depth, rich in meaning. Currently they have a capsule collection of Nio Far released in limited edition. However, we’ll look at their popular ‘Nnéma collection’ to better understand this merger between indigenous and modern style.
“Nnéma”, which means comfort, is a collection that features handmade sneakers, made from leather and Bògòlan. This mud cloth, which has particular significance in Malian culture, is made by taking hand woven cotton and dying it in a painstaking process using branches, leaves and river mud. The patterns and colours that form on the fabric are no coincidence, with each delivering a unique story or meaning. They could communicate anything from character and social status to the community’s history, so customers are encouraged to thoughtfully shop for these kicks. Some of the meanings include:
- Circle = Represents family
- Comb = Used to represent snake bones as a symbol of Bravery
- Warrior’s belt = Valour and nerve
- Zigzag with triangles on it = Community
- The iguana’s elbow = Good fortune
Nonetheless, Milcos Badji decided to make the shoes even more redolent with meaning by stitching African proverbs into the patterns as well. The shoes are available in moccasins, platforms and basketball models and unisex. This is a significant point as it’s meant to reflect the importance of balance in line with African spirituality. Traditionally, the Bambaran men of Mali would weave the cotton cloth and the women would dye and adorn the cloth with the different designs. The essence carried forward is that both men and women need each other to survive in this world.
As we mentioned earlier, these shoes are all handmade. Milcos decided to work exclusively with local craftsmen in Dakar to not only encourage the development of Senegalese craftsmen, but to also promote fair trade. After all, Nio Far does mean “We are together” in Wolof. On the other hand, the Bògòlan has its origins in Mali and Burkina Faso. Hence, Milcos works with artisans who have mastered the traditional know-how which is hundreds of years old. That involves extensive vetting to identify artists that not only know the craft, but respect the ancestral technique.
Since Malian creatives such as Chris Seydou and Ismael Diabaté began incorporating Bògòlan in their work during 1980 and 1990s, the cloth has received widespread popularity; both in Mali and abroad. In order to meet demand, mass production of the cloth commenced, which reduces the traditional significance to some extent. While the traditional process is arduous and can take up to three weeks, it carries the cultural and social significance that Milcos preserves and conveys through his brand. (You can read more about the process here.)
What’s intriguing about Nio Far is the layers with which it approached slow fashion. Apart from supporting the handmade trade, it calls the customer to think before they purchase. In one vein, the focus on quality material and finishes indicate that the footwear is meant to last more than a couple of months. It’s asking the consumer to think long term, invest and utilise it for time to come. But it’s also calling you to think about what message you want to convey. With meanings so intrinsically woven into the very fabric of the shoe, customers are encourages to look for meanings that strengthen their personality.
Mixing heritage and modern sensibilities is undoubtedly a challenge that will take you out of your ‘Nnéma’ area. But it’s a position Nio Far seems quite comfortable in.