As I pushed the shop door open, the bell chimed announcing to the duty staff that customers had arrived. The three of us – my sister Tawonga, my now wife Emily, and I – entered and briefly waited for someone to appear.
A curtain behind the counter separated the front and back ends of the shop. We looked around admiringly. It was small and smart. A few seconds later a lady emerged from behind the curtain. She greeted us with a broad smile. She had a happy-to-see-you, ready-to-help sort of disposition. We started to chat.
This was an African clothes shop in south London. Tawonga had escorted Emily and I to look for attires for our wedding reception. As the lady spoke we all paid close attention. “Who’s this dress by?” one of us asked. “It’s by Kutowa Designs. They are from Zambia.” “And this one?” “It’s from Ghana. We recently started taking stock from a designer there.” As someone who’s not much of a fashionista (feel free to laugh!), I was fascinated. The work of Zambian designers was being stocked in London shops, one of the world’s leading fashion hubs. I’d heard of Kutowa Designs before so it was nice to see some of their work here. She then showed us other designs; one from Kenya, another from Angola and another from Sierra Leone.
We admired the different prints; chitenge, ankara and others. We caressed the fabrics and imagined getting down to John Legend’s “Each Day Gets Better” for our first dance. This single shop had the African continent, with its changing fashion tastes, covered. The designs ranged from standalone chitenge and ankara dresses and skirts, to African prints woven into modern ladies’ clutch bags, tops, and even shoes. As someone keenly interested in socio-economic and political trends, all of this set my little brain alight!
Growing up in Zambia during the 90s, chitenge wasn’t something many youngsters wore proudly. Instead, it was seen to belong to women of a certain age – your mother, her friends and older relatives. It was deeply unfashionable! But why the shift in attitudes? Why were millennials embracing chitenge in ways they’d never done before? I posed these questions to Muchanga Mudenda, co-owner of VALA Design House based in Lusaka:
“In my opinion, African prints have become a trend because West African celebrities, and designers in Europe and the US have put their stamp of approval and made them “cool”. With that said, I think there has been a lot of fashion experimentation by Western designers in recent years who have started to use African print fabrics on their designs. These styles therefore appeal to the young in a way the traditional “bubu” style garments failed to.”
While that is certainly true, I believe there’s something else that’s also had a role to play in popularising African clothing. It’s a narrative that has gained significant traction amongst many Africans in Africa and the diaspora. It’s the “Africa Rising” narrative.
This narrative captures the desire of many Africans to end the unfair caricaturing of their continent as a place, primarily, of hopelessness and despair. In 2001, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that Africa was “a scar on the conscience of the world”. His solution was for the world to focus on that scar and heal it. His words fitted nicely into a narrative of the African continent that had, for a long time, gone unchallenged. Paternalism came before partnership.
Through the “Africa Rising” narrative many Africans want to challenge the “single story” problem by proudly bringing balance to tales of their homelands and cultures. The story of talented fashion designers in Zambia is one part of that. Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian writer, expressed the need for Africans to get better at telling their own stories. She said: “If I had not grown up in Africa and if all I knew about Africa was from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves.”
The renewed sense of optimism captured by the “Africa Rising” narrative is strongly linked to the changing economic prospects of the continent. Since the early 2000s, African economies have recorded promising economic growth rates year on year. It’s true to say that the space for more viable commercial activity has widened in countries like Zambia. In 2013, former BBC World Service presenter Komla Dumor told an audience in London that “there comes a point in every professional’s career when you realise that Africa is changing.” Muchanga and her business partner Angelika, understood this. Their decision to start VALA sprang from timing, frustration, passion and opportunity:
“I had been making some stuff during my down time and had seen an opportunity to scale it up,” she explained. “Angelika and I then saw that a lot of upcoming designers and creatives were in the same situation, with a potential market that they could not reach. They were mostly working in the confines of their homes. The idea of opening VALA arose as a response to seeing all the great work being done by local designers during a monthly Fashion Friday social we were hosting. People were wearing so many amazing clothes and nobody knew where to get them. So we thought, why not have a space where people can buy local fashion from various designers all in one place? And so VALA was born.”
Since returning to Zambia from university in the United States, it became clear to Muchanga that the textile industry needed urgent reviving: “The textile industry is non-existent,” she said bluntly. Many designers want to support local production but quality and capacity are low. Inexpensive but better quality imports have killed the Zambian textile industry. This means that this new crop of designers are forced to import their materials which in turn increases their costs significantly. Muchanga believes that raising local production levels and education of the various skill sets required will be important steps to supporting future growth. Her dream is to see a “co-dependent local ecosystem” in which products, of whatever sort, can be produced in Zambia from locally supplied materials which in turn support other industries to create jobs and keep revenue within the country.
144 kilometres (90 miles) north of Lusaka lies the Mulungushi Textiles factory in Kabwe. The factory is a monument to a former era. The facility was created as a state-owned enterprise during the socialist reign of first Republican President Dr Kenneth Kaunda. Following the liberalisation of the Zambian economy in 1991, the textile industry had little protection from outside competition and the factory subsequently closed in the mid 90s. It was reopened some years later and then closed again. Earlier this year, there was talk of reviving it but nothing has materialised to date. There is a growing wave of economically-patriotic designers in Zambia. It is therefore critical that the relevant stakeholders come together and chart the way forward for the textiles industry. If the industry remains exposed to the onslaught of cheap imports, then the goal of helping it grow will remain elusive.
As Zambians, we are often guilty of sacralising our economic past. We look back at it nostalgically and with great reverence. This often holds us back from taking the appropriate risks to move the country forward today. We often imply that the years prior to 1991 were “the good old days!” Yes, much credit is owed to those early leaders but we are now living in different times, politically and economically. Fresh solutions are needed to tackle some of the fresh challenges we face, such as the future of the textiles industry.
Despite the challenges, Muchanga is optimistic about the future. She is busy with other jobs too. She has recently been involved in launching “The Coupon Book”, covering Zambia’s food, retail and services industries. She is also the Creative Director of the Zambia Fashion Council which aims to bring together those in the fashion industry. This is promising given the challenges facing the industry. She is also working on her own fashion brand and has recently completed her design and pattern class with Charity Nyirongo, a local designer.
She concluded our conversation by saying: “I think we must look more at what we have in terms of culture, resource and skill, and adopt and embrace it. We must not wait for another culture to validate it or be amused by it before we start to appreciate its value. A lot of the industries here are young and now is the time to join the race as the competition is minimal. Being involved now gives us opportunity to rise as the economy rises.”