'Made in Africa' does not mean inferior

LONDON - This week I have been thinking about the fashion world, and how it is becoming ever more global. The African influence has proved it is more than just a trend and has become part of the melting pot.

According to Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozanni, many Africans still aren’t aware of the international value of what they produce, unlike the Chinese.

But in spite of this lack of awareness, there is a  potential for Africa to mimic what China, Italy, Brazil and Romania have done. These countries have organised and developed their textile industries in a way that had a knock-on effect on the design, branding and retail side of their respective fashion industries.

Sozanni goes on to say Africa’s main problem is distribution, but also points out that there is potential for Africa to develop something akin to the “Made in Italy” brand and reputation that is taken everywhere as a sign of style and craftsmanship.

Organisation of the textile industries, maintaining and building on technical skills, and distribution through regular mid-high end retailers (where they can be stocked alongside other brands, which, besides volume, sales will help build brand name recognition.)

China has been the world’s factory for decades. Initially, it was mostly about low-end products, but a manufacturing ecosystem connected to global markets tends to develop a momentum that pushes skill levels and manufacturing know-how higher.

You hear “Made in Italy” and you automatically assume certain things. The same goes for “Made in India” and “Made in China” labels.

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 Zimbabwe”, “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.

All that goodness attached to African textiles is valuable, but more for the purpose of international marketing, not for Africans.

Eco-conscious and trend-driven international consumers may be dazzled by “born in Africa” denim, but most African consumers in Africa will likely never see a pair of “Made in Africa” jeans unless they make it back to the continent’s many second-hand markets.

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 second-hand imports and low-cost Chinese textiles.

Reading the Economist Intelligence Unit for 2012, there is an article that reflects that local textile industries cannot develop or survive when Africa’s policies allow for the importation of second-hand clothes that can be sold for less than locally-made clothes.

Indeed, when you can buy a pair of second-hand jeans for $3, why then would you buy a $40 pair because it is made in Africa, when no one will even see the “Made in Africa” tag? (well that is our African mentality).

It continues to sadden me that the African fashion Industry will continue to develop even slower than it ought to because Africans have been trained to value the international before home-grown.

While being the nature of fashion trends, I think we exceedingly seek international validation .We have a weakness for seeking foreign approval before

accepting particular markers of style, fashion and status.

In a previous column, I spoke about how our policy-makers need to understand that if they sign a contract or policy that increases influx of Chinese goods, they cannot throw up their hands in despair when the local fashion industry goes flat!

Consumers need not be coerced into buying African products for the sake of it. Just as Levi spends a great deal of time thinking of strategies for retaining the coolness and rebellious image of their brand, so must African designers and manufacturers.

Africans must change their mindset. Zimbabweans must change their mindset! Made-in-Africa for Africans is the gold ship, one in which we can sail or sink. Consumers need to believe in the value and merit of our locally-made — without validation from the West.

Finally, in this world, it is odd to think that a designer who stitches his/her clothes by hand is given significant credit while those who sew up garments in factories might as well not even exist. I guess it is because factory gear is inherently “inferior’’. One could make the argument that designing high-end clothing is markedly different, as the true artistic genius of the designer is justification enough for superior treatment...Hameno!!

*Pamela is a Zimbabwean fashion journalist and fashion accessory designer based in the United Kingdom. She can be contacted at pamsamasuwo@live.co.uk

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