LONDON – During my visit to Zimbabwe last year, I went on a fact-finding mission of the clothing industry for the purposes of researching for my dissertation.
The obvious first port of call was the unavoidable second hand clothing markets, “mupedzanhamo” or “kotamai boutiques”. What was mind-boggling were the huge quantities and the ubiquitousness in most cities, townships and villages.
This got me to reflect on the days of my childhood and, never in that time had I seen such quantities of clothing. Then, clothes were more of a luxury to most low-income people. Some children from those families would only get to have and wear new clothes once a year at Christmas.
For the worse off, school uniforms were the nearest they could dream of having new clothes. Otherwise families, in particular mothers, had to “make do and mend” with what they had and I can remember the sight of children wearing clothes that had neat patches on areas that wear out quickly.
Decades later, the situation has changed so dramatically, with the clothes poverty long gone, thanks to the second hand donations from the West. The used clothing market had become a brisk trade and means of survival for many until the recent ban. Clothing is no longer a basic necessity or hard- to-reach consumer good for the majority. I remember discussing the issue with my mother and she talked of how she used to trade in used clothes for ploughing or weeding of the fields but now these are no longer needed with people now preferring groceries and cash.
In a nutshell clothing poverty is no longer an issue. Clothes are now mostly affordable and readily available, notwithstanding the floods of cheap apparel imports from Asia. The socio-economic benefits and disadvantages of this phenomenon are apparent. The once thriving garment and textile industries have been pushed into oblivion leading to the current contention between local industries, authorities and the informal sector. While the indaba continues, it is also an opportunity to dig deep into the other impacts of these trades. Consumption of clothing and the throwaway culture in the world and, in particular the West, has reached horrifying unsustainable levels with landfills mounting under the pressure of discarded apparel.
Recycling is one strategy that is being actively encouraged to combat the problem, through donations to charity for the Third World countries. While people are made to believe and feel that they are helping eradicate clothes poverty, I see it as another strategy of outsourcing their recycling and environmental challenges. Why not, if a large proportion of their industries and services have been outsourced with the clothing industry as the largest player. Now this leads to an interesting dichotomy, with the West having apparel manufactured in Asia, retailed, worn and disposed of in their countries, and in turn donated and shipped to Africa. How environmentally convenient!
Meanwhile in Africa apart from the socio-economic impacts, we have been pushed into nations of no manufacturing; nations of fashion laggards since we have to wait for the hand downs from the West and replicas from Asia once the needs of trendsetters have been met.
What is most annoying is how this is taken advantage of by fashion designers who, by adding salt to injury, create Africa-inspired designs and styles, leaving our own creatives with no room for ingenuity and innovation. This intrusion has led us into what I deem to be “fashion poverty”. One trend that is making headlines on the international catwalks and trend forecasting domains is patchwork-the use of different pieces of fabrics to make up a garment. Now is this not the use of fabric left overs that our mothers used to make garments and blankets from, back then. Marabhi, as they were referred to , were acquired from waste bins of clothing factories. Mothers would painstakingly join them together to produce garments or bed linen. Honestly my heart bleeds when I see designs (as in the picture below), inspired by our dying skills and lifestyles, being touted as high end couture and being sold at outrageous prices and years down the line, only to be discarded and shipped in a bale to Africa as a new trend.
*Dembedza is a holder of a BA in Hons international fashion business from Nottingham Trent University. She is into fashion consulting, branding, trends forecasting, design inspirations and theme development, market and customer researches as well as fashion directing.
First published in the Daily News.