Our obsession with fast fashion is harming the Nigerian fashion industry

What is the state of your wardrobe?

If you are like fashion lovers in many parts of Africa, you have a nice collection of fast fashion pieces collected over the last 10 years. Brands like ASOS, Zara and H&M and newcomers like Shein, PLT and Fashion Nova have become as popular on the continent as legacy brands like D&G and Gucci.

We can attribute some of its growing popularity on the continent to social media popularity. Our favourite social media platforms have gone from places to connect with other people to legitimate, billion dollar businesses. Algorithm changes mean, even when you have no interest in running your account like a business, you are still pressured to ‘create’ content just to be seen by your own followers.

For many people, fashion is the easiest way to cultivate and maintain an audience. Regularly curating looks might be expensive but it is not as time consuming as creating performance or visual art and doesn’t require as much investment as other forms of influencing.

For most of us, who end up using fashion as our way to stay one step ahead of the algorithms, fast fashion offers a cheaper way to ‘create content’. Fast fashion brands offer an endless supply of trendy clothes that don’t break the ‘bank’, with the caveat that we compromise on quality and don’t ask questions about how fairly the people who make these cheap clothes are paid.

True fashion is slow fashion

A lot has already been said about the environmental and economic impact of fast fashion on our communities and the world at large. Chief among them, the waste created by that industry when it produces cheap clothing, the risk to the lives of the workers who make the clothes and accessories, and the amount of waste that is created because the labels focus on trendiness instead of durability. These are all valid concerns, but fast fashion affects the fashion industry in Africa in a less tangible but equally devastating way.

The global middle class greatly influences what fashion trends and ideologies goes mainstream because of their buying power. Brands across the world court them for this reason and adapt to align with their principles. But the Nigerian middle class has never been a stable part of our society long enough to significantly influence our relationship with clothes/fashion. It has grown in the years/decades when the country was financially prosperous and shrank during hardship. But what has remained consistent in Nigeria, is an ultra-rich class and the poor majority, a relationship where the one depends on the other. The ultra-rich hoards clothing because there are always beneficiaries who will take them, no matter how damaged, and the poor hoard clothing because they cannot afford to replace or maintain them.

Another aspect of our culture that is unique to us is ‘Asoebi’. Asoebi loosely translated means ‘uniform’, and refers to the practice of wearing identical fabric to events or functions as a show of solidarity with the organisers of the event. These clothes might not have any religious significance, but they are ceremonial in the sense that they are designed to make a statement at that specific function. Because events are a part of the cultural fabric of many Nigerian ethnic and religious sub-cultures, asoebi is a massive industry, churning out thousands of pieces that are relevant only for the event. The guests have no say in what designs or fabrics are chosen and many not have any use for these clothes outside of the event in question.

These significantly different aspects of Nigerian culture illustrates our relationship with clothes and access to cheap, poor quality clothing for our rich, poor and middle class could not only affect our climate but our industry as well.

Zikoranachukwuebuka Ikebuaku, a Nigerian pattern cutter and the creative director of Nigerian demi-couture label, Ohlanna Bu Zikora, has worked extensively with some of West Africa’s most celebrated designers and shared some of their insights about the state of the industry in Africa and challenges that fast fashion poses for designers.

Pattern cutters are the bridge between ideas and executed designs, they help to test ideas and make important decisions that affect the eventual fit, durability and comfort of garments. But in West Africa, designers do not have the patience or luxury of working extensively with pattern cutters to refine their design ideas and end up relying too heavily on tailors, which leads to a lot of poor construction and execution.”

What Zikora describes is ‘iteration’, the process of refining ideas to accommodate the real world needs of potential clients.

Zikora is self-taught and learnt his craft by extensively researching and studying the work of European pattern cutters and design professors. While useful for creating a foundational knowledge of design from a construction perspective, Zikora found his time working with designers far more rewarding because European pattern cutting literature is focused on Eurocentric body ideals, which are vastly different from the African body which is curvier.

There are many things Zikora has observed during his time as a designer and pattern cutter, especially around the behaviours that inform our understanding of fashion as a collective. Culture informs behaviour, and because Nigeria families are often multi-generational instead of nuclear, and interconnected extended families are common place, behaviour when it comes to fashion is passed down from one generation to the next.

Before fast fashion became a thing, Nigerians relied on a cottage industry of local tailors and small-scale designers to produce durable, high-quality items. This relationship between tailor/designer and client could last decades was often mutually beneficial, as the client was able to customise their clothing and experiment with styles that were altered to flatter their body types and accommodate personal personal preferences, and the designer got to improve their craft while receiving patronage and word of mouth promotion from their client. This relationship fosters a lot of the transfer of skills from one generation of designers to the next and brings a lot of flexibility into the design process.

“The fit needs of women in Africa are different from the fit needs of women in Asia, Europe or America. There isn’t a lot of time spent in product development to address these specific needs, so tailors, pattern cutters and production factories have to work with incredibly short timelines so the local brands can compete with international fast fashion retailers. The customers suffer in the end.”

A good example of how iteration can really benefit fashion designers who don’t have the reach of big fashion businesses like Gucci or the funding of fast fashion is House of Deola by Deola Sagoe. It has taken the label 25 years and feedback from multiple generations of brides to conceptualise and refine the idea for her laser cut Aso-oke line, the Komole series. The Komole is now the most popular bridal option for brides who are looking for customisable luxury aso-oke bridal looks, and with each bride and consultation, Ms. Sagoe gets more opportunities to refine her ideas for the line. If she had to compete with fast fashion businesses at earlier stages of the evolution of her label, there is a big possibility we wouldn’t have the House of Deola that so many brides love today.

The Komole is an example of what happens the two aspects of Nigerian culture, our tendency to hoard clothing, and our longstanding relationship with events factor into a designer’s process. The Komole is considered an investment, an heirloom, with the heritage and popularity that each woman who buys it joins a niche group. The design process, including iteration by the designer, pattern cutters and seamstresses all are celebrated during the creation process of each Komole and are considered integral to the finished product.

Unfortunately, not every Nigerian brand has the resources and time to invest in iteration. Zikora also believes that because of the poor documentation and lack of academic research into fashion, artisans and fashion specialists such as pattern cutters and fabric artists are undervalued in the industry because the designers and the clients do not understand how much work goes into well made clothes. 

As more people embrace cheap clothing and abandon this system, our fashion industry is losing this valuable feedback loop that allows them to ‘iterate’. Without iteration, smaller designers are forced to create the same clothes with the same silhouettes as they try to compete with bigger consumerist brands who can abandon a trend at a moment’s notice.

“The US, UK, Chinese and Asian sizing that we have today is the result of decades of documentation, iteration and feedback. This would be impossible if the focus was solely on trends. And these industries have a massive head start on us in Africa because they have maintained a connection with their heritage and allow this continue to inform their design process today. Unlike South-East Asia or the Middle East that relies on centuries of tradition, craftsmanship and culture to inform their design, our designers look to the West and Eurocentric fashion calendar for direction and inspiration. “

Zikora posits that because of the increased interconnectivity that the internet has made possible, Nigerian designers will only feel more pressure to keep up with every passing trend, no matter how niche or transient it is. If this continues, designers here will spread their resources so thin trying to jump on trends before they fizzle out, they will have no time or resources to develop collections season by season, innovate on existing design or document our changing culture through clothing. It is a possibility that will be damaging to the industry but even more disastrous for the designers.

A bad gamble with a trend can cost a designer their entire business while the fast fashion brand that popularised the trend barely notices if it fails to catch on. We don’t get better clothes, more small businesses are forced to close down and we become more reliant on fast fashion as the margin between luxury clothes and cheap alternatives widens. It hurts our local economy, our fashion industry and most importantly, our wallets.

Iteration is an important part of how a fashion industry grows, and having a thriving local fashion industry is important if we want clothes that represent us, our body sizes, our heritage and our experiences. Without a thriving local fashion industry, we will eventually end up bearing the brunt of the waste that is created from our consumerist hobbies. So, instead of splurging on that next fast fashion haul, take the time to research a local designer whose work you admire, and invest in their business by ordering a dress or a shirt, no haggling prices or unrealistic timelines. Every purchase goes a long way in ensuring that we all have better options in the future.


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