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Made in Africa: how much do we value this label in fashion?

All that goodness attached to African textiles is valuable, but more for the purpose of international marketing, not for Africans. We do care, but an organic tag doesn’t quite make the sale; we also want fashion, style and quality and we don’t want to wear “charity”.

The manufacturing origin of any item of clothing comes with baggage: associations and assumptions, some advantageous, others not so much. This is regardless of label, price or style. You hear Made in Italy and you automatically assume certain things. The same goes for Made in India and Made in China. Although newer to the mass retail end of fashion manufacturing, the Made in Africa tag already comes with its own associations (we ought to be establishing Made in Uganda, Made in Nigeria, Made in Kenya, etc. tags, but that’s another story). Going by what is projected in the media, the Made in Africa tag is synonymous with fair-trade, ethical projects, organic cotton and charity – goodness.  All that goodness attached to African textiles is valuable, but more for the purpose of international marketing, not for Africans. We do care, but an organic tag doesn’t quite make the sale; we also want fashion, style and quality and we don’t want to wear “charity”.

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In the past few years, the interest in African fashion has grown on many levels, and continues to grow, from street level to the African-inspired collections by world famous design houses, celebrities wearing African-print, and magazines celebrating African fashion; signs of African haute couture coming into its own. As a result of the spotlight, many fashion-conscious people, including myself, started rethinking items in their wardrobes; the dresses gathering dust on the lowest shelves were suddenly high fashion, especially after a minor alteration here and there. But African haute couture has been around for ages; African women and men have designed and worn one-off custom-made pieces that didn’t need a “Made in Africa” tag to define them. It’s interesting that it took international validation and interest to bring it back to us, but I suppose that’s the nature of fashion trends, combined with our weakness for seeking foreign approval, products and values.

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At the basic level of raw materials, we have the quality. The hand-picked African cotton being used in the Diesel-EDUN Studio Africa collection wasn’t chosen solely because it’s grown by African farmers whom the collaboration is supposed to benefit (along with those who make the clothes), but because it meets the quality standards of the brand, the reputations of its founders, and the investments (in EDUN) of luxury group LVMH. Your eco-conscious and trend-driven international consumers may be dazzled by “born in Africa” denim, but most African consumers in Africa will most likely never see a pair of Studio Africa jeans unless they make it back to the continent’s many secondhand markets. We’re missing a broad range of choices. Not all Italians wear Versace, or French Lanvin, but your regular French or Italian has more options than secondhand or designer.

The platforms for large-scale textile manufacturing in Africa are there, but in serious need of investment, and the entire industry needs to be supported and protected by the right policies. Up till now, textile industries across the continent have been suffering and struggling as a result of secondhand imports and low-cost Chinese textiles. Some might argue that it’s only fair people on low incomes can afford to buy a pair of Levi jeans, even if they’re only secondhand, but how are local textile industries supposed to develop and survive when our policies allow for the importation of secondhand clothes that can be sold for less than locally-made clothes? When you can buy a pair of secondhand jeans for $3, why would you buy a $40 pair because it’s made in Africa, when no one will even see the Made in Africa tag?

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The above Made-in-Africa t-shirt from EDUN LIVE retailed at $35, and the proceeds went to Concern Worldwide US to support the Horn of Africa drought relief efforts. This t-shirt is not for me; if I were to buy this, I would feel like I was eating a meal from a UN aid truck. I don’t want to promote the fashion of my continent and my country through charity, wildlife and donations. I want to promote it because it makes me look good, feel good and is worth my money. But by rebelling against a particular image of African-clothing, I’m failing to support African fashion. Of course not everything made in Africa is “African charity”, but old habits die hard. I recognise that I am the problem, not international investors, not Ali Hewson and Bono, not Diesel, nor China, but me, the brainwashed African consumer. I am the reason my Chanel bag is kept in a dust-proof bag and my African sandals are thrown around the house and I am this way for a number of reasons.

The fashion industry here in Uganda – as it is in most other countries on the continent – is new and developing, but it is developing slower than it ought to because we have been trained to value the international before homegrown, accepting particular markers of style, fashion and status. This “imported is good” mindset will continue to hold back local development of the local industries until designers and textile manufacturers find ways around it, or until we as consumers come to our senses. Ugandan apparel brand def.i.ni.tion knows the cost of this mindset. The brand aims to make their products 100% African, with designs that speak to the African market; they do not design for international appeal. Aside from the various concerns about textile sourcing and pricing that they and other designers struggle with, it’s a smack in the face for them to continually come face-to-face with the Ugandan attitude to local products.

In Uganda, the word “local” is often used to describe something substandard or backward. For the most part, apparel isn’t seen to be trendy or of good quality unless there is a visible foreign label on it. But some are fake, and most are secondhand; only a handful are store bought.

def.i.ni.tion is trying to change the perception of “local”. Our images, symbols and statements all relate to the local experience. Your t-shirt can be trendy, good quality and local. We have to convince Ugandans that buying a t-shirt with a message and image they can relate to is just as good (possibly better) than buying a t-shirt with a Diesel label on it.

Ugandan musician Maurice Kirya wearing def.i.ni.tion Run KLA [KLA = Kampala]

So where do we go from here? We do need the Studio Africa collaborations of the world to spotlight African cotton, we need investment, sustainable development projects, technical manufacturing educational and practical development programs. Even more importantly, we need to make our local needs a priority, and recognize our individual role in the process. Our policy makers need to understand that if they sign a contract that increases imports of Chinese textiles from 7% to 60%, they can’t throw up their hands in despair when the local textile industry goes belly up. And as a consumer I don’t need to be coerced into buying Ugandan for the sake of it, but I do need to be nudged, guided and reminded to give the bulk of my loyalty to local designers and manufacturers.

Just as Diesel spends a great deal of time thinking up strategies for retaining the coolness and rebellious image of their brand, so must African designers and manufacturers. When I look at a brand like Kayobi Clothing, I have to admire the way they sidestepped the “foreign is best” mindset by creating designs that you wanna wear because the graphics and texts are like insider code, which, as we know, is one form of coolness.  So it’s possible to find ways around that mindset, but we still have a lot of pride-building to do and cultural hang-ups to discard. Made-in-Africa for Africans is our ship, one in which we can sail or sink. But we need to believe in the value and merit of African-made – without validation from abroad – and then we will start to sail.

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