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Matilda Ceesay
College of Human Ecology

Class of 2013

By the age of four, Matilda Ceesay ’13 knew exactly what she wanted to wear. And she wasn’t shy about telling adults how she wanted it made, either.

“My mom knew to be quiet when I started drawing on the tailor’s croquis,” says Ceesay, explaining the flat sketches of the human body used by the family’s tailor back in Kotu, The Gambia, to show designs. “What I drew may not have been legible, but I still could show him what I wanted and tell him how I wanted it made.”

Transformative design

While Ceesay still loves designing clothes, it is only a starting point. The fiber science and apparel design major points to Kenzo Takada, one of her favorite designers. Takada brought the Japanese aesthetic to the forefront of the international fashion scene by creating an unmistakable style now recognized around the world. Ceesay wants to do the same for Africa. She’s set her sights on telling the story of a distinctive African aesthetic that goes beyond the traditional prints and colors associated with the continent. In the process, she plans to elevate the status of the women who live there.

Growing up, fashion design as a career was unheard of in Ceesay’s homeland. The idea that she could make a living—and change the world for the better—doing what she’d always enjoyed dawned on her only after she’d come to live in Missouri. In ninth grade, while writing a paper on Diane von Furstenberg, Ceesay discovered the convergence of women, fashion, and power.

She likes to tell the story of how von Furstenberg chose a career in fashion to maintain her own identity and financial freedom after marrying. Von Furstenberg started her empire by creating dresses intended to signal the wearer’s power—formerly the sole province of the business suit.

“Diane set out to use fashion to liberate all women from the standards set by men,” Ceesay says. “I was so excited when I realized that, as a woman, I could be respected, strong, and powerful—and promote the independence of women, too.”

Ceesay has already put her talents to work addressing one cause of the disenfranchisement of poor women: school days missed due to menstruation. Days for Girls, an international nonprofit, distributes reusable feminine hygiene kits in 21 countries to young women who have no access to that basic necessity and, as a result, must stay home during that time each month. Time away from the classroom perpetuates inequality.

Using her unique understanding of production processes, Ceesay, as project manager, set up an assembly line in the apparel design studio so efficient that volunteers turned out 54 kits in a single day. “That was the proudest moment in my entire Cornell experience,” Ceesay says. “I was elated.”

Design for life

She has also shown how the fashion industry can impact global health. Ceesay teamed up with Frederick Ochanda—a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, who is from Kenya—to tackle a problem common to their home countries: malaria, a disease from which members of both of their families suffer. The mosquito-borne illness kills 655,000 people annually on the African continent.

Ochanda developed a mesh fabric with insecticide bonded into it on the molecular level. As a result, the mesh contains three times as much insecticide as the bed nets used in African homes. Ceesay then designed an outfit, featuring a hood and cape, made from the fabric. The bodysuit ensemble provides daytime protection from disease-carrying mosquitoes in a form that lasts much longer than skin-based repellants.

“We made the prototype to inspire the industry to keep improving technologies to fight malaria—and to show that it’s not only doctors responsible for solving this problem,” Ceesay explains. “I’m a designer, and I did something about it.”

While Ceesay is quick to look for ways to take responsibility for situations she sees, she knows one designer alone cannot bring about the transformation she so ardently wants for Africa and its women. Ultimately, she wants to join forces with other African designers to create an organization modeled on the Council of Fashion Designers of America, as a means of building a thriving fashion industry.

“You can’t have a self-reliant continent if it doesn’t produce its own clothing,” Ceesay says. “Imagine if there was a viable African apparel industry, so that people could buy their clothing at home rather than in Europe and the United States.”

And, what if Africa’s women made the apparel?

“In Africa the inequality of women is an even worse problem than in the rest of the world,” Ceesay says. “Giving resources and job skills to women so they can make their own livelihoods would be a great thing.”

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