Thanks Tai Beauchamp for asking me to write this. This piece originally appeared on the Tai Life website here.
When I first arrived in Senegal at the age of 22 the first thing I noticed were the colors. The beautiful patterns of red, yellow, pink, and green draped gracefully across the tall, lean, statuesque women of Dakar. I still remember my first trip to the market with my host sister, Fama, to choose my own fabric. I was overwhelmed and exhilarated by the patterns, the smells, and the bustle of the market. But Fama taught me how to navigate the movement and the flow of the seeming chaos. She taught me how to build a discerning eye and sense of touch to determine the right quality, texture, and flow. She taught me how to survey multiple stalls to find just the right color and pattern to match my look.
When I finally had the chance to tailor the fabric to my shape and size, I gained clarity: fashion is a form of expression uniquely tailored to YOU. No matter how many J. Crew, Banana Republic, or even couture dresses I put on they would never make me feel as beautiful as the first dress I donned in Senegal.
A month after I had mastered the art of fabric purchasing and couture tailoring from Fama, I found myself far away from the bustling streets of Dakar in the small rural village of Darou Fana. The village was a simple and typical African village outlined by mud huts with straw roofs, one working water well, with a very limited food source of coucous-like grain and Mafa (a type of peanut butter). I spent close to one month in this village. I saw things that changed my life forever–children stricken with malaria and malnourished mothers who prayed they could feed themselves enough to birth a healthy child. One evening, as I was returning from the fields I heard a faint rhythmic beating. My friend Fatou grabbed my hand and led me to a circle the women of the village had formed. They had gathered their kitchen utensils and were pounding them intensely on the empty water basins. It created the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. I participated awkwardly as women jumped in and out of the circle dancing, lifting their skirts in entrancing ebbs and flow seemingly gliding to the beat of the music. My feet slowly found their step and we danced till the sun fell beneath the earth. In that moment, I realized style was not just about fashion but how you carry yourself, or choose to dance even, during the most challenging or uncomfortable situations.
At 35, I look back and realize how profoundly experiences like shopping for fabric and dancing in circles–and many more across Africa and Asia in rural places, void of excess material things– have shaped me. They have helped define who I am: Blair Emily Miller, a woman rooted in and committed to a life of service. These experiences have helped reaffirmed my purpose: to create and help others realize their potential. And whether I’m in the US, Nigeria, India, or Pakistan, I know for certain that style is not only found in the pages of W Magazine.