Does Vintage or Secondhand Clothing Have Any Place In Africa?
Before the mid 1960's the concept of wearing secondhand or vintage clothing was an act reserved for the poor. The thought of adorning oneself with, and purposefully buying, pre-worn pieces of clothing did not align with the newly commercialized and consumerist economic landscape of post-war America and Europe. However, the 60's also brought on new personal and individual freedoms in these nations. The shackles of the 'civilising processes' and practises that had ruled and dictated social decorum for so long were beginning to weaken, resulting in a new sense of individuality amongst the younger generation. With it came the desire to establish ones sense of self through fashion and through a rejection of the consumerist, capitalist landscape that some groups had begun to believe was homogenising modern culture.
The emergence of 'hippie' culture was the result. We are all well aware of the iconic styles and the free nature of the hippie movement; it is perhaps even having a renaissance in our millennial era. However, in the 60's this resistance to consumerism as well as to pre-war etiquette was a revolutionary stance. This emerging culture, in an ironic twist, also appeared to manifest a fascination with the past. The cultural value of the past seemed to increase as though through dress and style one could access a simpler time, emulate a different lifestyle, or perhaps simply to express some kind Romantic distinctiveness of taste. None the less, once vintage crate-digging became a thing, it evolved and grew to its current status as a fashionable and reasonable way to shop and to dress for a modern, trendy individual.
To a purist, vintage clothing means authentic, well made, historically distinguishable, one-of-a-kind clothes that are an effort to locate and significant to purchase. However, as English weaves its way through time, the word has evolved to simply mean clothing that was made in a previous time period that emulates the trend and the commercial aesthetic of that era, be it fifteen years ago or fifty. Here the word becomes interestingly synonymous with secondhand clothing, for where do we draw the line on what is the 'past'? There is an argument to be made for vintage clothing being unique in that it was not mass produced, but after 10 years clothing companies have moved on so significantly that it would be difficult to locate repeated items even if they were mass produced at the time, making them relatively unique. An article on Atlas Obscura speculated that 'vintage' was simply a rebranding technique by the retail industry of the words 'secondhand, used and antique', a way to make the old sexy if you will.
In the multi-trillion dollar textile industries of the West, it is perhaps only made relevant by the bourgeois frustration of these aforementioned purists to mull over the misuse of the word 'vintage' and to campaign for its concreted definition, but as we should always consider, what does any of this mean in Africa/Kenya?
Africa has one of the biggest secondhand clothing industries on earth. We are flooded every week with containers full of clothes from the West. They make their way in to the market stalls of Gikomba and Toi and onto the back of Kenyans, from the wealthy to the very poor. In 2015 18,000 tonnes of clothing were imported from Britain. This second hand economy not only dresses most East Africans, it also employs them with 65,000 traders in Gikomba alone. In fact, not all of these clothes are second hand at all, a great deal are dead stock from chain stores from all over the globe, with foreign idioms and languages gracing the backs of modern Kenyans.
In a blog post by Danielle Ivermeer she states that all retail is a 'race to the bottom line', the largest production, for the lowest costs and the quickest turn around. In Kenya the secondhand clothing market fulfills this brief entirely, providing endless options of varying qualities of clothing for extremely low prices. As a young economy, the ability to mass produce affordable clothing is not yet within our capacity, and with a thriving secondhand market undercutting those who are trying to create and build the Kenyan textiles industry, it seems unlikely that that will change anytime soon.
Kenyan made designs are often relatively expensive for the retailer/designer to produce and way too pricey for the average Kenyan to buy. Yet, supporting the local textiles industry is exactly what is needed to move secondhand clothing from being the only source, to an optional source. Once there is a solidified Kenyan produced industry, things such as crate-digging, and vintage shopping potentially become a pleasurable and profitable secondary option.
Boutique designers in any country struggle either against the second hand market or the huge corporations of mass produced, cheap clothing. Any steps taken to improve the balance between the three will always make a group somewhere suffer. The EAC last year made a commitment to outlaw the import of secondhand clothes by 2019. This seemingly promising legislation however, is likely to fall through, as it would greatly disadvantage the thousands of East Africans for whom this is their livelihood. There are even those who have come in from overseas to countries such as Rwanda to teach these same secondhand vendors how to manufacture clothing and improve the countries self-reliance when it comes to retail, to no significant avail. As with everything economic, all these different options and challenges only bring on more options and bigger challenges, and yet it is clear that something needs to change in Kenya in order for local textiles to have a fighting chance.
'Vintage' may be an irrelevant and superfluous word in Kenya, but in many ways it serves as a goal. It is a luxury for a country to have a vintage clothing market, that serves its original purpose of being an alternative, quirky and slightly cheaper form of dress and not the only option. For a store/brand like Kung'ara, we play a difficult balancing act trying to promote and encourage East African made brands, but also not being able to survive solely off the sales of local retail. Unfortunately even for us the secondhand market provides more options at better prices, which is what the Kenyan consumer ultimately desires.
Alas, here we have no solutions, only lots of questions and a great deal of anxiety about the future of the fashion industry in Kenya; longing for a profitable co-existance of secondhand and locally made. Yet there is still some hope, with new and stunning African brands popping up constantly. They are being well received by a new wave of Kenyans; keen to invest in their friends and in local talent. As long as we continue to do this and to invest in the goal of self-sufficiency as a nation, perhaps the future is #MadeInKenya.
By Wanja Wohoro