It’s not all black and white


This article was created by Fredericke Winkler for J’N'C and illustrated by Frauke Berg. Thanks for giving us the authorization.

It would never occur to anyone to ask if Africa has influenced our taste in music on a global scale. There is hardly a musical genre that doesn’t have any African influences whatsoever. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, reggae, dub, hip-hop, the entire world of pop – what would we be left with if we set aside all the black elements in our musical culture? Sadly, a conversation on Africa and its influence on global fashion culture will have people floundering. Grasping at straws wondering whether Naomi Campbell might count as African (answer: no!) or whether second-hand clothes can be classed as fashion.

Actually it’s quite shocking how little we connect the idea of fashion to that of Africa. Despite Yves Saint Laurent growing up in Algeria, and the likes of Alber Elbaz who comes from Morocco. Or top models like Alek Wek and Waris Dirie who come from Sub-Saharan Africa. After all, Africa is not just the cradle of civilisation, it is also the birthplace of most of our clothing,  as well as being its last resting place: along with the USA and Central Asia, Africa is one of the top three suppliers of cotton – as well as receiving 400,000 tons of discarded clothing every year, primarily from the donation boxes on our street corners. Our lack of interest may stem from the fact that the continent, which at the same time is rich in raw materials as well as the poorest continent in the world, is known in the textile supply chain for its “textiles”, but not for its “fashion”. And it’s an unsexy topic at the best of times: giving us nothing but a guilty conscience when faced with the exploitation of Africa for the benefit of our western luxury. The fact is that African countries are never in a position to make a profit from their involvement with the garment industry, whilst at the same time being wholly dependent on it.

The struggle for the white gold

More than 20 million people eke out their living from cotton farming in Africa, for example in Burkina Faso, Benin and Tanzania. Their raw materials combine to make up 5% of the entire global cotton production. But the African cotton industry is on a very small scale: each farmer has small areas of land and is responsible for the sale of their own harvest. As they are left to their own devices and unorganised, it is increasingly difficult to remain competitive when up against countries like India and China – which profit from the cluster effect of banding together. On top of that, international cotton prices are kept artificially low through state subsidy of the domestic cotton industries in countries like the USA. Many development aid organisations and human rights initiatives have been campaigning against this for years and are pursuing economic parity.

One of the oldest initiatives of this kind is ‘Fair Trade’. The trade partnership with the fair trade seal is committed to promoting and improving the position of individual farmers, especially with the guarantee of higher minimum wages. In return, fair trade formulates social economic and ecological standards that the farmers have to adhere to. This is a commendable concept but it has one minor flaw: finding buyers for the comparably expensive raw materials is sometimes more difficult.

In 2005 the ‘Cotton Made in Africa’ (CMIA) initiative was founded by brands including the Otto Group and Tom Tailor. Their focus is on strengthening the competitiveness of African cotton. CMIA guarantees to buy the farmers’ produce if, in return, they take part in educational programmes. Methods and technologies for optimising harvests are taught as part of these schemes, whilst encouraging ecological farming methods. Advocates of this method see it as a pragmatic way of fighting poverty. Critics see in it merely a colonial-style method of securing access to large portions of raw materials and point to lack of transparency in the initiative’s structures. Either way, the project’s success again depends on the willingness to buy. The world cotton price, artificially low, remains at the core of international trade agreements.

Blind help?

It may be good for the farmers, but seen from a global perspective it is only a drop in the ocean. Because as long as Africa sells its raw materials on the world market in unprocessed form it will be dependent on the conditions laid down by the buyer. The likelihood of an equal partnership is close to nil until the continent can provide a functioning textile industry in its own right, a garment that has gone through the entire production process from start to finish including sale.  And that isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. On the contrary: after all, countries like Senegal and South Africa have heads up on the majority of the European countries because they have their own raw materials. The fact that Africa can look back on a long textile tradition shouldn’t be forgotten – just as much as the fact that this tradition was interrupted by colonialisation.

According to the Kleider machen Beute study, a publication by the agency ‘Südwind’ which propagates solidarity in trade policies, the main aim of the colonial powers was “an economic exploitation of the territory”. “To this end a functioning infrastructure was imposed,” asserts the author Hütz-Adams. “State-run factories were opened, trade monopolies agreed upon and mining and production rights handed out to private companies. Any domestic competition, if it existed, was banned or forced into bankruptcy, the local inhabitants recruited as cheap labour and only used as unskilled labour.” In the postcolonial 1970s, primarily in East Africa, there were attempts to revive the textile tradition, by subsidising textile trade as well as importing machines and expertise. “The textile industry served as an ideal development project: textiles are in high demand in every society. Especially in African countries development politicians are predicting rising wages along with an even higher proportional growth in the demand for textiles – the result of which will be a rapidly expanding domestic market.”

In the 1980s these state measures ended badly. “The structural assimilation programmes, which the World Bank and the IMF demanded as a prerequisite for debt relief, has forced most of the African states to discontinue subsidies for the textile and garment industry. In countries like Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Cameroon, costly textile factories now have to buy domestic cotton at the world market price and pay for spare mechanical parts and new machinery in foreign currency,” explains Francisco Mari, trade expert at the Church Development Service (EED) in an article for the Christian online magazine ‘Welt-Sichten’. The beginning of a vicious circle: once the subsidies were stopped, textiles made in Africa became too expensive for large portions of the African population to afford. Textile production fell into crisis. More and more textile factories had to close and suddenly the western choice of cheap second-hand clothing seemed very attractive. The result: a second large wave of closures. So in the 1990s, instead of having an independent industry, the result was two partial branches of the industry: the cotton farming industry for export and the trade in second-hand clothing. That led in part to a temporary stabilisation of the economic situation but had far-reaching consequences for the overall economic climate in the textile industry.

Fashion documents history

The term ‘fashion victim’ acquires a whole new meaning in Africa: whilst in the West one lamented the fashion dictates and flirted with one’s supposed victim role, the fashion destiny of the African continent was certainly sealed. The population had to swallow the textiles it was served on the plate either by colonialists or by studious second-hand-clothing-traders. The reaction of the people? Like elsewhere, the situation is taken as a convention and turned into a part of one’s vestimentary identity.

In Africa the trio of tradition, colonial style and western second-hand clothing forms the basis of a whole new shiny African fashion movement.For example the Congolese ‘Sapeurs‘ have taken on the dandy look of their former French colonial masters and combined it with the bright gaudy colours of their traditional folklore. The result: narrow trousers and close-fitting jackets, rounded off with eccentric glasses, pipes and handkerchiefs. Whether patterned or in clashing colours, as long as the suit fits perfectly, anything goes. There is even a community called ‘Le Sape – Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes’. In 2009 Paul Smith took up this elaborate style and made a collection out of it. The originators live mainly in the poorer areas of the Congo, and sometimes they have to risk their very existence for style. Their attitude is reminiscent of the proletarian Teddy Boys in England in the fifties, who would have rather gone without food than forgo the tailored handmade suits – however, this movement wasn’t quite as colourful as that of the Sapeurs. Just as teenagers will take the fashion conventions of their own parents and recode them within their own subcultures, the African fashion crowd is hacking the codes of their former oppressors and turning them into something new.What is known in Germany as ‘Humana’ (a chain of 15 second-hand stores throughout the country) is called ‘Mitumba’ in Africa, an imperative ingredient for a hipster-style.

The age of a new Africa

Mitumba is slowly but surely making it’s way onto the international catwalks. Especially in politically stable countries in Africa, a highly exciting fashion scene, far removed from any musty-smelling third-world shops, is currently developing. The most interesting newcomer can be found at Arise Fashion Week, set up by the editor of Arise magazine and author of the book, ‘New African Fashion’, Helen Jennings, and takes place once a year in Lagos. As part of its events and publications Jennings is showing a whole new face of Africa, whose prominence she has contributed to. At the Fashion Week she brings together brands like Christie Brown from Ghana, Tiffany Amber from Nigeria and Laurence Airline from the Ivory Coast, which can easily hold their own against the innovations of Western fashion capitals in terms of freshness and complexity, but – and that’s probably the secret of their beauty – don’t particularly want to.

The designers represented at Arise resist the temptation of pandering to the unwritten Western “laws” of fashion. Safari clichés and folkloric kitsch? Not here. Headstrong and self-assured, they stick to their own ideal of beauty. Particularly impressive is the incredible feel for colour. Traditional materials are at the focus but are also often deconstructed. In short: African fashion isn’t hiding from anyone. It has a strong and positive attitude. No wonder that many Arise designers have been showing their designs in Paris and New York to great acclaim.

More concentrated on the domestic market is Swahili Fashion Week in Tanzania. This is the turf, in part, of the established fashion squad, as well as remarkable newcomers. Unlike Helen Jennings who also supports designers who have left their African homeland, the founder of Swahili Fashion Week, Mustafa Hassanali, places the emphasis on strengthening Africa as a location. He is part of a growing community who want to introduce ‘Made in Africa’ as a seal of quality.

And it’s definitely high time: after repeatedly being sabotaged by the West over decades, the African textile industry may now finally have the chance to get on its feet – at least in those areas that are politically stable. And no one would lose out: the farmers could sell their cotton locally. A demand for local weaving mills and spinning mills and factories would arise. New workplaces would be created; locally finished products would be competitive in price. They could even be sold domestically. And at least the raw materials would not all flow into export but, instead, into a finished piece of clothing. In that way Africa could utilise the larger part of the supply chain for itself and increase its attractiveness as a fashion location. A utopian idea?

Well, one can certainly already buy new African fashion in Europe, thanks to Franca Sozzani. Together with the online store ‘Yoox’ the editor of Italian Vogue has established an online shop called ‘Discovered in Africa’. Sozzani is well known for her belief in Africa as a fashion location and has put her energy into bringing more diversity into the fashion world. And her readers seem to approve. The annual ‘Black Issue’ featuring only black models regularly exceeds all sales stats for the Vogue.

The 1970s belonged to the Italians, the 1980s was the decade of the Japanese, the 90s were US-influenced, and in the second decade of the second millennium, it’s certainly looking like Africa could show the fashion world that it really has what it takes.