Words: Gene Sibeko
From ancient practices to modern fashion revolutions, discover how the continent leads the way in authentic, sustainable style.
In 2006, Egyptian academic and poet Tamer penned Yesterday I Lost a Button, Story of Garments, a collection of poems encapsulating the memories, desires, and personalities that African cloth and attire deeply imprint on our lives. An extract from the poem When Clothes Were Small details the journey of a pair of trousers, emphasising its utility beyond the realm of its original conception.
Africans have an inherent knack for repurposing and recycling clothing. So, when ‘sustainability’ emerged as a buzzword and became an increasing worry for the fashion industry, the continent’s artisans and creatives effortlessly aligned, presenting the world with historical practices that, although previously nameless, have always been a way of life.
Jackie May, the founder of sustainable fashion magazine TWYG, collaborated with Imiloa Collective to launch a platform named Africa Textile Talk. This initiative invites Pan Africans to discuss the burgeoning African textile ecosystem contributing to circular fashion. Initiated online in 2021 amidst the pandemic, it sought to attract gifted innovators across Africa. For its 2023 edition, May proclaimed that the once-digital event would transition to an in-person format. This announcement saw TWYG inundated with support from across the continent. With participation from esteemed designers and creators from Mauritius, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and the SADC region, this year’s event was set to disseminate knowledge from a Pan-African vantage point.
A significant group of individuals were keen to collaborate, formulating solutions for a sustainable industry – a sentiment acknowledged at the event. The goal is to modify consumer behaviour and urge the fashion community to sidestep the pitfalls of fast fashion. There is abundant technical know-how within the continent, rooted in ancient African practices, which the participating creatives are deeply familiar with. “The conversation about sustainability in fashion is often from the voice of the global North involving AI materials and hi-tech solutions that seem to happen in laboratories. However, here we are; we have so many beautiful practices happening on the continent. There is a lot that can be learned from what has already existed and is still applicable to sustaining our industry,” asserts May.
At this year’s talks, Kenyan-based textile artist Sunny Dolat utilised his craft to position Africa at the centre of global conversations. His keynote address, ‘African Textiles: Vessels of Memory, Identities, and Heritage,’ underscored the significance of “slow” textiles like Bogolan Fini, Kasai Velvet, Bark Cloth, and Kente cloth. These fabrics, primarily handcrafted, demand hours, if not days, to perfect, advocating for a fashion industry that’s gentler on our planet.
While there’s remarkable creativity emanating from textile waste across the continent, this progress is overshadowed by waste colonialism due to imported second-hand clothing that accumulates along African coasts or piles up in urban centres. Yvette Tetteh from The Or Foundation highlighted the perils of clothing dumping and the foundation’s countermeasures. Founded in 2011, The Or is a non-profit committed to halting corporate fashion practices detrimental to the environment. Operated by dual teams in the USA and Ghana, they reveal the alarming extent to which discarded garments litter Accra’s beaches. The organisation boldly challenges major fast fashion entities to rectify their adverse impacts by investing in waste management initiatives as a form of reparation.
Africa Textile Talks exposes its audience to a rich tapestry of adept experts and purpose-driven organisations. Reflecting on the event’s triumph, May remarks, “It is a wonderful gathering of different people who form different parts of the value chain. Sharing knowledge and inspiration about textile systems from the continent by its people.
Photography: Rizqah and Reshaan Dollie from The Dollie House