Having been an apprentice for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Cor Raniero Gattinoni, you would think that founder of prêt-à-porter brand AKEWA, Francois Aveyra, is one very tough and proud individual. Reserved but always smiling, Francois is quite the opposite. A happy soul who enjoys life, loves nature, and is not pretentious, his friends and family describe him as a confident and trustworthy person who brings sunshine and good vibes into their lives. A bit of a loner sometimes, Francois loves people who are as reserved as he is, and maybe the quiet time is what gives this creative genius all the inspiration and motivation he needs to churn out exotic and colourful designs which celebrate contemporary African creativity.
Says Francois, “I love making clothes, bags and accessories which represent my story. My products represent who I am… a mixture of different cultures.”
When he was a young stylist in the 80s, Francois made a name for himself working at Parisian events which were attended by the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Serge, Gainsbourg, Andy Warhol, and Claude Montana, among many other stars.
Based in Marrakech, Morocco, the yoga-loving design guru took some time to tell us his life story and about his exceptional achievements in the fashion industry.
You were born to a Gabonese father and a French mother. Can you briefly tell us about your childhood, and life lived between the two countries?
I grew up in France, and I would travel to Gabon, Central Africa, over the summer holidays. Flying between those two worlds brought me a lot of exposure, compared to my friends. By that time, most of my friends had never been on an aeroplane. I loved travelling and I felt so privileged. My father was a very traditional man, and through visiting his side of the family, I was introduced to Gabonese music, dance and spiritual traditions, all of which intrigued me greatly. From my childhood, I attended and assisted my father in many spiritual ceremonies; I loved it, and I felt so powerful with him.
How and when did you decide that fashion was what you wanted to do as a career?
I was close to the beach with a friend one day, and we were talking about fashion. She was supposed to start work as an assistant to Guy Laroche, a great haute couture designer in France. Suddenly, I had a revelation, and I decided right there that I wanted to attend Fashion School in France. My father refused at the beginning, but after a few months of fighting, he accepted the idea. I had always felt so attracted to dance, music or acting, and I would have probably chosen a career in the arts, but life and destiny brought me to fashion.
Before that, I had actually started law school, and after doing just one part of my studies in Bordeaux, France, I stopped because I realised that becoming a lawyer wasn’t meant for me, and I went to Design School in Paris.
My mother is a hairstylist and I spent most of my early years behind the hair salon doing hair on some dolls (laughs). My grandfather was a painter, and so from seeing him work, I started to draw at a very early age. I spent most of my time with my grandma who was very elegant and smart. She was a great influence to me. She played violin so well, and we would watch black and white movies together. I believe I got most of my artistic and creative influence from my entire immediate family.
As your career progressed, you decided to leave Paris. Which country did you go to first, and what did you do when you got there? Which other countries did you eventually work in as well, and what did you do there?
When I completed Fashion School, I started working for small brands like Naf Naf, but my dream was to work in Italy, because I was so impressed by Armani and Versace designs. I was able to realise my dream, and in Italy I worked for Cor Raniero Gattinoni in Rome, who had clients like Ingrid Bergman, Anita Ekberg, etc. Her mother, Fernanda Gattinoni, was very famous in the 60s during the ciné cita period. A lot of American productions were produced in Italy at the time.
After a while I moved back to Paris, and then London, because I wanted to discover the world and to feed my spirit of creativity. I eventually settled in Morocco in 2016, where I’m based now. By the way, soon after I was done with Fashion School, I founded my first brand in Gabon, LEAMONO, in association with Albertine, who was the daughter of the president at that time, and her cousin Ursula.
As the years went by, you managed to grow in your career and you became the owner of an artistic agency. Can you tell us more about the agency and the work you did, and what motivated you to start that business?
Having worked in different sections of the fashion industry, I learnt so much over time. Among other things, I worked as a Booker in various modelling agencies, I was once a stylist for advertising and magazine agencies, I worked as a Casting Director, and I also worked as a Press RP in English. Armed with all this experience, my global vision of fashion, and sheer curiosity, I then decided to create my own agency representing talent which included fashion photographers, stylists, hairstylists, makeup artists, illustrators and directors.
I am naturally someone who loves to take care of others, and if someone is feeling bad, I will do my best and exert all my energy to make that person feel better, and achieving that goal gives me a lot of satisfaction. Hence I created the agency because to me it was only logical, seeing as my job was concentrated on looking after others. I enjoyed being the ‘orchestra chief’ or ‘conductor’ of the whole operation.
I totally loved my job, being everywhere, doing production, and applying the vast knowledge I had gained over the years. Choosing talent, mixing them up, and developing them with an artistic vision of their career was the highlight of my vocation.
Your business grew from strength to strength, and as you mentioned earlier, you were privileged to work as a Model Booker and Stylist for some of the most prestigious agencies and influential people in the world’s largest fashion capitals such as Rome, Paris, New York, and London. How did it feel to have made a name for yourself and be recognised, reflecting on how far you had come from when you were a young man in Libreville, Gabon with big dreams?
To me, whether one comes from Africa, China, the countryside, or a small city, if you have big dreams, the feeling will be the same. When you do things with heart and passion, everything comes naturally, step by step, because obviously one does not wake up with a crown on their head overnight.
My dream was not really to be recognised, but to do what I wanted to do passionately and to meet with people and share my knowledge, as well as learn new things. Above all, I wanted to do what makes me happy, and that was the most important thing to me.
Can you tell us about the birth of the brand AKEWA? How and when was it born, and why did you choose that name? What does it mean and what is its significance?
AKEWA was born in Marrakech. Initially, I was just supposed to help a Moroccan designer and disappear (big laugh), but I started working for a friend in decor for 6 months before I then decided to create shoes and bags which I sold to friends. Soon after, I was now selling the products online, and when I realised it was going well, I decided after a year to open a physical store and that was when the brand explosion happened (smiles).
AKEWA is an expression of gratitude. It means ‘thank you’ in my Gabonese language which is called Mpongwe. The context is “thank you to life, and thank you to freedom”. I feel very attached to the notion of freedom, because for me, it signals a rebirth.
Did working with big brands and big names such as Mick Jagger, Carla Bruni, Madonna and Grace Jones have an influence on your decision to start your own fashion brand?
As I mentioned earlier, my biggest goal from a young age was to discover the world; I was so attracted to the fashion and creative industries, and I wanted to be part of that. I arrived in London at the young age of 17, and I was at Kings Road with the unconventional hub of young and fashionable creatives during the punk era. The stars did feed my curiosity, and yes they definitely influenced me – they were a light to my path.
Everybody was very simple at the time, we all shared the same feelings and moods. Life was also very simple back then – there were no iPhones or other similar gadgets to capture and expose you in a bad situation. Everyone was very cool and we all minded our own business.
I had my own type of ‘swag’, confidence and personality, and even though I wasn’t famous, that worked for me because the doorman would always let me in at events (laughs).
Where do you see the brand AKEWA in the next 5 years?
Well, Covid-19 has been quite a hindrance, but I hope that it will soon pass and everything will be going well again in a couple of months, because what I want is to see AKEWA all over the world.
I’m working on a perfume right now, and I’m also preparing the “Who’s Next – Paris” ready-to-wear international exhibition for January 2022. I trust God that all will go well.
You are also into philanthropic work. Can you tell us about your involvement with Refugees Got Talent? What is your role there and what inspired your decision to become part of it?
When I first arrived in Marrakech, I shared my flat with a friend who runs a refugees association called Global Migrants Africa. I immediately felt a lot of concern for the people he was working to assist, and I lobbied my network of friends and colleagues to support the initiative.
The organisation supports a lot of artists and sculptors by lobbying an African market for the products, and I decided to invite potential customers to purchase the products. I also collaborated with another association to find ways in which they can provide dance classes for young children. We even got the likes of Léonore Baulac, a French ballet dancer who is an étoile (star) at the Opéra National de Paris Ambassador of Associations, to come and assist.
Also, most of the members of my teams at my atelier (design workshop) and shop are actually migrants from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Cameroun.
What words of advice would you give to a young African who has dreams of making it big in the fashion industry just as you did?
That is very simple; NEVER GIVE UP, AND FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!!
To see more of Francois’ alluring designs, follow @akewa_african_lifestyle on Instagram, and @AKEWA.STYLE on Facebook.
Interviewed By Tholakele Dlamini
Fashion By Flamingo – Connecting Cultures Through Fashion
Using fashion as a platform that can give another approach to African culture, more than academic studies and
news reports can.
Ever wondered how studying Psychology and a love for Fashion Design mix? Pia Martin, a German national now residing in Kenya, decided to blend her studies with her love for African fashion, and through her startup, Fashion By Flamingo, has been working to empower African designers in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. Read on to find out just how she has been doing this.
What inspired you to study Psychology, and since moving to Kenya, how have you been able to merge your studies in Social & Intercultural Psychology with your quest to collaborate with African designers?
I think studying Psychology means studying life. The knowledge I’m getting is not only preparing me for a specific job, but it helps to reflect on who I am, as well as helping me get to know the world around me.
Since moving to Kenya, I noticed that many organisations try to help local disadvantaged people with money, and that indirectly keeps the image alive that staying poor is a necessary condition for one to receive support. I think that to motivate people to achieve growth, foreigners should not be perceived as sponsors, but as business partners, opening doors for opportunities to show one’s talent. That would unveil mentorship opportunities for people, and help them realise that the better the quality of their work gets, the more value it has. The driving factor would therefore be motivation and the message would be that “effort makes a difference”.
How did you get into fashion and what made you so interested in showing off Africa’s rich culture to the European market through fashion?
Since I was a teenager, I loved the creative process of tailoring an outfit, or styling what I had in my wardrobe to express my personality. In the context of my brand, the idea is to use fashion as a medium – a platform that can give another approach to African culture, more than academic studies and news reports can.
Someone who is seeing or wearing something from one of my collections is already exposed to a piece of African culture; the colorful Ankara prints, Maasai beadworks, the shaping of a dress, or just the natural local materials – all that is not a verbal approach of explaining a culture, but a beautiful reminder of the story behind each unique piece of fashion in my shop.
What products are synonymous with your brand?
More than having one specific product, our signature is to come up with designs that are unique statement pieces with a touch of African culture, that might be the materials, colours, or the design.
One of the main goals of your startup is to empower talented African designers. What or who inspired that decision?
As a brand that stands for African designs and myself having been raised in Germany, it was clear to me that I can’t be authentic if I do all the designs by myself, but that I have to be open for collaborations with local designers, tailors and other brands to create something truly authentic.
I might have the advantage of understanding what my customers are looking for in an outfit, the need of a good quality product and how to style it, and I’m also profiting from feedback that I get from my European family, friends and customers, but at the same time, I don’t have all the knowledge of the best local materials, the traditional designs, and the creative influence of African cultures. That is why my approach is to collaborate and come up with a collection that can connect cultures, African-inspired but made for the international market.
You are passionate about the fashion industry using natural materials that are created in environments which do not violate ethics codes. What can you tell other designers to encourage them to follow the same guidelines, and what needs to be done to not overlook this topic in the fashion industry?
I had a meeting with a Kenyan lady who does great beadwork, and when it came to agreeing on a payment, I asked myself, from what she usually earns, how can she be able to pay school-fees for her children and still pay all her other bills? So it made me reflect that it should not be the goal to take advantage of artist’s skills by getting them to do a job done and underpaying them, but rather, artists should communicate and explain to customers why their products are more expensive than others, because they were produced in fair conditions.
Interestingly, most European clients would understand that and even appreciate knowing that they are buying a product that has neither exploited the environment nor the people who created it. In fact, it’s often not out of bad will at all, it is simply very transparent for a client to know the history of an outfit throughout the production chain until it’s being sold.
What I would tell other designers who might fear that they can’t make any gain if they improve production and material standards is that it matters to communicate and explain to customers why the selling price is higher. It also depends on the client’s target market. Not all clients are actually able to buy expensive clothes, but those who have money mostly need to see and understand why it’s worth paying more, and that there is an ethical reason for the price range, and not just a greedy salesperson.
What would you like to have achieved through this startup in the next five to ten years?
Although fashion trends are always changing, there are still things I’m learning with time. I would love to connect with designers from more countries (currently we only have collaborations with Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya). I would also love to work with the same teams for a longer time and keep improving the designs and quality, and try to control the process from where the materials are made to make the final product better over time.
Besides the marvelous and enchanting fashion, what else draws you to the continent of Africa?
Connecting cultures became more than an academic interest to me; it’s the consequence of the lifestyle I have chosen when love led me to settle in Kenya. Now, some years later, my man and I are expecting our firstborn child. As an interracial couple, we both bring our cultural backgrounds together and try to take the best from both sides as we build our own family.
How can people connect with you or support your startup?
They can view our products and DM us via our Instagram page, @fashion_by_flamingo.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Miss Eloquent – Zimbabwean Beauty Taking Africa By Storm
Miss Eloquent Africa is a Beauty Pageant that seeks to empower African women to embrace their beauty, and be proud of being African.
What do you think of when you hear the word, eloquent? Confident, well-spoken, talented or maybe star-power? Well, all those can be used to describe Ellain Qhawelihle Ncube, aka Cocoa. The Zimbabwean beauty is a finalist in the Miss Eloquent Africa pageant, a fairly new pageant that is empowering young women and celebrating culture across Africa through what has been dubbed ‘Africa’s Biggest Night of Beauty’. The 20yr old former Miss Curvy Varsities, actress, model and writer is no stranger to the spotlight.
Cocoa has won two awards thus far in her career; one Best Supporting Actress award from the Nash Drama Competitions and another from Isiphiwo Sami Drama Competition. Cocoa’s career has grown under the watchful eye of Fingers Modelling Academy, being groomed by Ma’am Sarah Mpofu Sibanda. Cocoa’s talent has landed her a scholarship to study Physical Theatre at the Zimbabwe Theatre Academy, under Mr. Lloyd Nyikadzino.
We sat down with the Bulawayo beauty to talk about her success so far in her fight for the 2021 Miss Eloquent Africa title, and everything in between.
Where were you when you got the news you were one of the two finalists to represent Zimbabwe at the Miss Eloquent pageant? Walk us through the moment.
Right; now this was the most exciting moment of my life because it came when I had lost all hope of making it through. I was on my way to a photoshoot with @AndilePhotography, and it was the last day of voting, of which I had not been checking my profile because I knew I had the lowest votes.
I then decided to just check them that afternoon before the shoot, and wooow…. I had the second-highest votes, which was a huge shock to me. I couldn’t believe it until that evening when the organiser Mr Stanley announced the finalists, and my name was right there. Given the opportunity, I would relive that moment, because it’s the best thing that has happened to me in 2021.
Tell me, how does it feel to be representing your country in such a huge way?
It’s really amazing because I have not only been given an opportunity to represent my country, but also my city Bulawayo, my family, and also the curvy beautiful women out there in Zimbabwe and in Africa as a whole. So, I am so excited and also looking forward to representing my country with confidence, dignity, pride and hope that one day Zimbabwe will be a pioneer in the arts sector.
Was pageantry ever a part of the life plan for Cocoa?
Yes, my modelling career began when I was doing my A’ Levels. I have always been inspired by beauty queens such as Ashely Morgan, Sipho Mazibuko, Catriona Gray, Zozibini Tunzi, who dedicate their time and skills to creating a peaceful, safe, and healthy environment for everyone, thereby making the world a better place for everyone.
Can you summarise for me what Miss Eloquent basically is?
Miss Eloquent Africa is a Beauty Pageant that seeks to empower African women to embrace their beauty, and be proud of being African. This year’s theme is “Our Africa, Our Pride”. The theme is to promote Africa’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and ultimately promote tourism through pageantry.
You are the pageant’s local license holder for next year, what does that mean?
It means that next year I and my fellow queen Nicole Mandimutsa will be responsible for organising Miss Eloquent Zimbabwe.
The Miss Eloquent pageant aims at empowering young African women, promoting African cultures and uniting Africans. How do you plan on taking these aims a step further if you win the title?
Many African women succumb to the fact that they can’t do things because of what society says, and also in many cases, images of Africa are always negative and focused on war, corruption, poverty, to mention a few, and yet there’s more to Africa than all that negativity. Therefore, If I’m to be crowned Miss Eloquent Africa I will dedicate my time, skill and energy to changing that mentality through my 2021 project “Action of Hope.” I will do this by educating young boys and girls of the beautiful African traditions, cultures and beliefs, and help them explore their talents without judgement. Hopefully, through this project, we will see more beautiful images of African children and adults embracing their cultures, because we need the world to see how beautiful Africa is.
I also want to use the Miss Eloquent Africa platform to advocate for mental health, my work with Ingutsheni Central Hospital, the mental health referral institution in Zimbabwe, has opened my eyes to this serious issue. According to the WHO, mental illness could be a deadly pandemic by the year 2030. In my opinion, it’s better to raise awareness and be safe than sorry.
Pageantry essentially is putting yourself out there, and with increased use of the internet, cyberbulling is definitely a thing. Has this yet to become something you have gone through?
Fortunately for me, I have not yet experienced cyberbullying, but it is something I am very well aware of.
On that note what advice would you give other women out there on how to handle cyber bullying?
I am not going to pretend to have all the answers, but from the things I have seen and heard, it looks like a horrific experience. My advice to women is, “Don’t take online chatter so seriously, don’t put your worth in the hands of strangers. Not everyone will like you, some people are just broken, and need to bring you down to feel better about themselves.”
The matter of colourism is one many in Africa are starting to talk about and become aware of. What is your take on it as a woman in pageantry?
First and foremost, every skin colour is beautiful! l personally don’t care about skin colour, because the truth is beneath every skin colour, you bleed red, and we are all human beings. However, we can’t avoid the fact that there is discrimination among African people based on skin colour, which is very disheartening. I always ask people, “How do you expect to fight against racism and win, when you are busy promoting colourism, tribalism and all that?”
In order to fight against related issues like racism, Africans should unite! We should embrace our beauty, our cultures, and be confident enough to show the world how beautiful and amazing all shades of our melanin skin are. An African proverb says, ‘In order to fight an Alien and an oppressive culture, you must first embrace your own.’ We need women to rise, take up space, and accept their unique and beautiful skin colour.
It definitely is a time of development and change within the pageantry world; the Miss SA pageant announced this year that the competition would be open to transsexual participants. What’s your take on such change and what it means for the industry?
First of all, instead of calling it change, I think I would prefer to call it progress, because really when we look at South Africa’s modelling industry, it has been developing quite well. From acknowledging that curvy women are also women who deserve a shot at being Miss SA, to crowning a queen with short natural hair who has inspired thousands of African women around the globe to feel secure about having natural short hair, and now also accepting transsexual individuals… that is a whole lot of progress.
I think it is great that they are using pageantry to promote equality, unity and peace in Africa, because for a long time and up till now, the LGBTQ community struggles to fight against societal discrimination, and it is because people are too ignorant. Just because someone is different from you doesn’t make them any less human. I applaud South Africa for taking a stand against discrimination.
Where can we go to show our love and support of you as you vye for the Miss Eloquent crown?
Those who would like to know more and be a part of my projects can reach out on those platforms, also for sponsorship. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
We are rooting for you Cocoa!
Interviewed by Hazel Lifa
Paxwear – Contemporary Swimwear Made in Kenya by Idah Aluoch
I wanted to make something that people could relate to; fitting, comfortable, and stylish enough bikinis, using vibrant colors.
It has always been Idah Aluoch’s dream to start a swimwear brand. After many years of hard work, her dream has finally come true, and she is designing and supplying contemporary, high-quality and high-end swimwear across Kenya and East Africa.
This is Idah’s story of how and why she started designing swimwear.
You earned the name Pax as a nickname from your mother. What does it mean, and what is the significance of giving your brand the same name?
Pax means ‘Peace’ in Latin. Pax was the Roman goddess whose symbol was used for peace after the Greek wars. I decided to name my brand Paxwear to make all the girls and women feel empowered and allow them to show their inner beauty and confidence through the vibrant, timeless, and fashionable bikinis, regardless of the labels put on us by society. I believe it takes confidence to wear bright colors and stand out; Paxwear gives exactly that!
What inspired your decision to start designing swimwear?
I always loved fashion and dressing up at a very young age, from about ten years old. Growing up around the Lake Victoria region in Kenya, we used to swim bare, with no swimwear. Having moved towns, we now owned a TV and I could see people wearing bikinis, and I got intrigued in not only wanting to own one, but also to make one. At that point, knew I wanted to make something that people could relate to; fitting, comfortable, and stylish enough bikinis, using vibrant colors.
Paxwear designs are inspired by the rising sun and just like it radiates through the skin and brings out the brighter and powerful side of you, Paxwear is designed to ignite the fun, vitalise and beam the confidence in you by focusing on fabric, fit, and functionality.
Did you attend any classes to learn how to design?
Not at all, everything I am doing now is all self-taught and done with passion.
Coming from a culture and society where skimpy clothes were not really allowed, you struggled for a while with the decision to tell your family and friends about your dream to design swimwear. How did you finally gather up the courage to tell them and to start designing?
Yes I did, and I am against some of the labels put on women regarding clothing by society. I was worried about how I would tell this to my parents and what society would think of me, but I was wrong. During my final year in University, I told my parents about the idea and they were all in to support me, as well as my friends. At this time, I was also doing modeling part-time, so they knew about my strong interest in fashion. This made it easier for them to understand, and gave me the courage and confidence to start strong. I also had a vision and some sketches drawn for the designs I wanted to come to life as my first collection, which did very well.
How did they react to your announcement, especially your family?
They were so happy and very proud of me for confiding in them and starting Paxwear. I am very fortunate to have the most supportive family I could ever ask for and they have been there for me ever since.
You started modeling and participating in fashion shows when you were still in high school. What was it that interested you so much about the fashion industry, and was your family supportive about your modeling career?
I loved dressing at a young age and I remember having fashion shows with my sisters in our house corridors at the age of around 10. I wanted to become an inspiring and empowering woman to others through fashion and my parents supported me by encouraging me to keep going and often changed my wardrobe. I also contested to be the face of both my high school and University and they reacted positively to the news.
Where did you attend university, and why did you choose to do a degree program in nutrition?
I studied at the Technical University of Kenya and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Nutrition and Dietetics. I loved sciences, especially Biology, and performed well in them. Having a passion for modeling made it an easier choice for the program since I knew it would help me understand my body and health in the fashion industry better.
During your studies, you gained a lot of knowledge about fitness. How did that impact your career in fashion design and modeling?
Yes, that’s correct, and that has helped me to incorporate the knowledge of fitness and most importantly understanding one’s body, to make athleisure wear; a lifestyle that everyone dreams of when you wear Paxwear for all types of women.
There is a pandemic around the world of models not eating much at all to stay skinny, in some cases leading to life-threatening disorders like anorexia and bulimia. How are you spreading the knowledge gained from your studies in nutrition and fitness to other models to help them stay healthy?
This is a sad truth and I have gone through the same to ‘fit in’ the modeling world. I use the Paxwear platform to showcase body positivity, empowerment, and aim to be as inclusive as I can to make every woman belong and not to allow themselves to be victims of the societal beauty standards.
You live in a coastal country which for the most part is always sunny, and I can imagine that is good for your swimwear business. How are you managing to keep up with orders coming in from all over Kenya, and from some other East African countries too?
The weather here favours my brand and also inspires me to create more. I do ship the bikinis worldwide on order with Aramex and DHL services and even better, I have a Paxwear size chart that helps my customers in getting their right fit. All orders are done online on the Paxwear page, and sometimes by email at email@example.com.
Do you have a team that assists you with producing the swimwear, or you are the ultimate ‘sole trader’?
I am a solopreneur; however, I always reach out for help if need be.
As orders are increasing, how do you maintain the quality of your products?
By ensuring customer satisfaction, I listen to their needs and also ensure Paxwear is ethically produced and delivers exactly as promised.
What makes your products stand out from the rest, and what principles do you use in business to retain your customers?
Paxwear is a contemporary made in Kenya swimwear brand showcasing women’s confidence and empowerment using vibrant colors. The bikinis are designed to beam and ignite the fun in you by focusing on fabric, fit, and functionality. My passion for Paxwear lives by integrity, perseverance, and being innovative to make a relatable brand for all the women and girls out there.
What are your words of advice to a young African who is inspired by you and might want to pursue a career in fashion and/or modeling?
If you cannot stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it and trust the process, always.
Check out Paxwear designs on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, @paxwear.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
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