Meet the French designer solving the world's biggest issues through fashion

For French fashion designer and social entrepreneur Sakina M’sa, her craft transcends the traditional realm of fashion and serves a greater mission to provide tangible solutions to social, cultural and environmental issues. 

"In the 21st century, we can no longer work with old patterns of capitalism," M'sa said to Mic. "We are now living in a society where we have to share, to be true to ourselves, to be authentic and sincere. I wanted to build a new kind of business, one that is human-centered and based on sustainable development."

Sakina M'sa

M'sa, whose roots stem from the African island nation of Comoros, grew up in a multicultural town in Marseilles, a port city in the South of France. Because of its history as a commercial trading center, Marseilles, the second largest city of France, is a hub of immigration, attracting migrants of African and Arab backgrounds. It is this vibrant spirit of multiculturalism that M'sa brought with her when she relocated to Paris, where she established her namesake label in 2002.

While many American tourists might traditionally imagine Paris as the ultra-glamorous City of Light and haute couture, M'sa's version of Paris offers a different side. 

In large contrast to famous Paris fashion boulevards such as Avenue Montaigne or the Champs-Élysées, M'sa chose to establish her studio in the Barbes district. Similar to the melting pot of Marseilles, the Barbes area of Paris is home to ethnic enclaves, rich in diversity from immigrant communities. While the raucous nature of Barbes can instill apprehension to some outsiders, M'sa describes it as "colorful, lively, and full of 'joie de vivre' (joy of life)."

Sakina M'sa's collection

"Even if [the people] are poor, they are happy," M'sa said. "We always had a smile. We live together peacefully. The media sensationalizes the poverty, the [problems brought by] immigration, but [Barbes] is full of life. I want to nourish this mix of cultures." 

Indeed, her love of cross-cultural connection is one of the main pillars of her brand, which one can find evident in each piece. "My designs are patchworks — they are always done with many different colors, different materials," M'sa said. "It's a reflection of the diversity of the world."

Moreover, her pieces are made with sustainability and women's empowerment in mind, values that are embedded into her company DNA. Through partnerships with local associations, M'sa uses her company to provide employment opportunities to marginalized women who have difficulty finding work because of health issues, inadequate housing and challenges with illiteracy. By employing them in her studio, women can learn new skills in dressmaking and receive mentorship, which then leads them to bigger opportunities for long-term employment.

Her social impact approach earned her a social entrepreneurship award in 2010 from the foundation arm of Kering, a French luxury conglomerate that owns brands such as Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent. Kering supports M'sa's ecological approach by giving her access to high-quality fabric scraps from the company's factories, which she then recycles and repurposes into new fashions, all made in France.

Sakina M'sa

In 2015, M'sa opened Front de Mode, the first ethical fashion and luxury concept store in Paris, housing other ethical French brands such as Christine Phung, Veja and more.

When asked about her reaction to today's turbulent socio-political climate, M'sa said she is worried, but remains optimistic. With a far-right French candidate gaining traction in the polls for the country's upcoming election, many who share M'sa's progressive views are apprehensive that France may follow the same road that elected Donald Trump as president of the United States.

"I worry for the American people and I am afraid for French people too," M'sa said. "I will vote against Marine Le Pen, no matter what. I will still fight… we are very worried, but we are going to work. At Front de Mode, we don’t only show pictures of 'beautiful models' [on our social media], but we show social statements, political statements, etc. 

"We aim to be an example, to make dialogue with people who don't resemble us. It's the intelligence of the heart, not the mind."

Sakina M'sa

M'sa's approach is as simple as initiating meaningful conversations with unlikely people. 

"I want to talk [with people of opposing views] heart to heart," she said. "The problem is not immigration. It is misunderstanding. We all have the same battle: the desire to transform France to be the best it can be for all of its citizens. The most important value for me is love- no matter your ethnicity, your social, or cultural background.'"

With a new collection coming soon, M'sa is ready to take her mission-driven, human-centered fashion brand to the next level. "We had no money when we started this adventure, but we have grown so much," she said. "I want to open franchises in France and elsewhere. We want to share our values and express that fashion is not superficial, but something profound: it is political, and it reflects our society."