When one thinks about Yves Saint Laurent‘s muses, numerous incredible women come to mind: his original in-house model Victoire Doutreleau, the fantastic Catherine Deneuve, the voluptuous Laetitia Casta, the flaming Amalia Vairelli, and of course Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise. But one must not forget about Dakar born Guinean model Katoucha Niane, otherwise known as the Peule Princess.
Katoucha Niane was born in Senegal, in a family of Guinean political exiles. The woman that the fashion industry would later adopt as one of its original runway panthers grew up in Mali with her uncle’s family. At the age of 9 years old, Katoucha suffered the barbaric rite of genital excision – her mum, whom she never blamed for it, was the one who took her to her aunt, a doctor, to prevent a more gruesome circumcision. This episode would mark her for life, and it is the moment she became a rebel, in her own words. Still a teenager, she was married, birthed a child, and emigrated to France where she finally found freedom from the traditional, often backwards African society.
In the early 1980s, Paris was the Eldorado for black models, fashion’s newfound muses for influential couturiers. Katoucha was first discovered by Thierry Mugler, who later booked her and Djimon Hounsou as the faces of his fabulous S/S 1988 campaign, lensed by the designer himself in Tambouctou, Mali. This could have been her both a middle-finger to the Malian patriarchal culture. By the mid-1980s, Katoucha had already modelled for Azzedine Alaïa, Christian Dior, and Paco Rabanne amongst others, becoming the hottest girl in town, and the symbol of what the press dubbed the “black attitude”. Christian Lacroix was very fond of her allure and gave her the honour of opening his glamorous shows many times. “I wanted her to wear everything. She would give another dimension to my work,” he confessed. But it is her rencontre with Yves Saint Laurent that propelled Katoucha’s modelling career. The pair became good friends, and the Peule Princess would walk his runway shows with both fierceness and grace. In 1994, she put an end to modelling to focus on other business ventures – she launched a fashion line in Paris for a season, but her investor bailed out after her very erotic first fashion show in October 1994. Katoucha was also a fervent activist, and the spokesperson for the fight against female circumcision, a mutilation still performed on young girls in many Subsaharan countries, Muslim or not.
After attending a party on February 1st of 2008, Katoucha Niane returned to La Petite Vitesse, her houseboat near the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. It was the last time she was seen alive. Three days later, her untouched purse was found on her houseboat’s deck, and on February 28th, her body was found in the Seine river. Officially, she died from drowning, but mystery still surrounds the exact conditions of her demise.
Today Katoucha lives in our memory and through her three children including Aiden Curtiss, who happens to be a terrific fashion model.
Words by Pierre A. M’Pele