The African designers turning western waste into fashion statements
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Yayra Agbofah, founder of creative studio The Revival, is taking me on a virtual trip through the narrow alleys of Kantamanto second-hand clothing market in Accra, Ghana, via FaceTime.
“Would you buy this?” he asks, as he scoops up a pair of bedraggled faux leather sandals from a giant mound of shoes. They’re riddled with holes, the buckles are broken and the soles are worn. He picks up a lone high-heeled shoe. “Where’s the other one?”
Agbofah visits the market to find items that can be saved from landfill and remade into desirable, fashionable clothing. For about 10 minutes he navigates passageways strewn with items in gutters, and past vendors peddling seemingly endless piles of old clothes. In Ghana, these are known as obroni wawu or “dead white man’s clothes”.
“Most of this will probably end up in a landfill by the end of the day,” Agbofah says. According to the Or Foundation, a non-profit in Ghana, around 40 per cent of it usually does.
The arrival of bales of old garments to places such as Ghana, Kenya and Uganda is not new; it’s a business that damaged many local textile industries decades ago. Every country varies, but the supply chain generally works the same: thrifted or donated clothes from countries including the UK, US and China are sold to exporters and importers who then sell them to vendors in markets like Kantamanto. It’s a profitable business that employs thousands and throughout the process there’s a string of middlemen who stand to make cuts. In 2021, some $211mn of used clothes was exported to Ghana.
However, the quality and quantity of the items have deteriorated as fast fashion has grown. In Ghana, clothes are now even washing up on the beaches, prompting an urgent conversation around pollution. “The system in the global north has found a way of sneaking in trash clothing to get rid of it,” says Ugandan designer Bobby Kolade. While many consumers like to think the clothes they’re placing in donation bins are finding their way to charities, they’re actually overwhelming landfills halfway across the globe.
Agbofah, whose tote bags made from recycled denim are sold in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum shop, is one of a handful of entrepreneurs across Africa who are turning textile waste into new, inspiring fashion and making powerful statements about the industry.
Kampala-based Kolade, founder and creative director of Buzigahill, didn’t set out to create garments from discarded fabric. But after interning for Balenciaga and Margiela in Paris, and launching his own brand in Berlin, he became disillusioned with the industry. He closed the brand, took a year off and came to the realisation that his future was not in luxury after all.
“For some strange reason, all roads lead back home,” he says. Back in Uganda’s capital Kampala, he furiously researched the decline of his country’s cotton industry. “Buzigahill is a reaction to the state of our industry. Up until now, it’s been a clothing dictatorship. With this project, we’re responding,” says Kolade, who had initially wanted to work with Ugandan cotton.
Buzigahill now releases four clothing drops a year called “Return to Sender”, made of reworked items that have been laboriously cleaned and deconstructed. The sharp panelled shirt dresses, colour-blocked patchwork sweatpants and oversized frayed denim jackets are sold through his online store, priced from $180, and shipped internationally.
“We have a really strong community of people here [in Uganda] who believe in what we’re doing,” says Kolade. “What would give me a lot of fulfilment is if I knew that somebody is buying this T-shirt because they find it cool, not because they can tell that it’s been recycled or repurposed.” His ultimate goal is to create a sustainable supply chain and employ as many Ugandans as possible.
Even though some countries, such as South Africa, have limited the import of second-hand clothes, items still find their way in. As a comment on how the glut of used clothes impacts manufacturing and the whole supply chain, South African surf and lifestyle brand Mami Wata recently launched a collection of repurposed sweaters in collaboration with vintage marketplace 3Thrifty5.
As a riff on the idea of returning the reappropriated items back to the places they have come from, some of the sweatshirts display return arrows and planes, with lettering that reads “Afrique Amérique” in French, because it is the official language of 21 African countries. The first drop sold out. “The impact of importing waste products affects the whole supply chain,” says Nick Dutton, co-founder of Mami Wata. “Designers aren’t encouraged to develop products, because a large portion of people are purchasing second hand, and that impacts requirements for local materials.”
3Thrifty5 founder Declan Gibbon notes that, “with the rise of thrifting in the west, shopping sustainability has ironically impacted Africa negatively . . . We are no longer getting the good stuff. There are no longer diamonds in the rough.”
Despite the unpredictability of what he can source for his upcycled fashion line Boie & Bill, Ghanaian designer Elisha Ofori Bamfo aims to create a strong signature and “create the same silhouettes that people now know us for”. In an attempt to stand out, the label incorporates African prints and bold colours, for example in its Blackstar Bomber jacket, which replicates the Ghanaian flag and was especially popular among locals, who purchase via social media or WhatsApp.
Other creatives have found themselves repurposing garments not because they’re fashion designers, but because they want to create awareness.
Sel Kofiga, interdisciplinary artist and founder and creative director of Accra-based Slum Studio, has created a limited collection of colourful hand-painted shirts and pants from used fabrics that display abstract scenes of markets in Accra in vibrant splashes of pink and blue. Kofiga’s pieces have been worn by Ghanaian celebrities including the musician Pure Akan.
Of their limited status he says: “Fashion has such a fast pace of production. People don’t create a relationship with the things that they get. I want people to wait for it.”
In order for any meaningful change to happen, the designers I spoke to told me they believe legislation also has to change, and that governments must limit the number of items arriving on African soil.
“There needs to be some sort of accountability from foreign governments and brands,” says Kolade, who has acquired a personal collection of Trump T-shirts. “Every time there’s a presidential election, it’s reflected here. The outcome of the Super Bowl affects what the people in Uganda are wearing too,” he says, adding that maybe — just maybe — he can one day work with Ugandan cotton, a dream he hasn’t given up on yet.
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