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Making a statement in more ways than one, a new fashion collection is made from cast-offs of the global north. Can it reboot Uganda’s textile industry?
As fashion statements go, Ugandan designer Bobby Kolade’s new collection is as bold as they come.
The jumble of panels glued together contains the unequivocal message printed loud and clear on the label of his disposable garments: “Return to sender. Materials sourced from second-hand clothing from the global north.’
Kolade’s first collection under the Buzigahill brand consists entirely of clothes sent to Uganda for ‘recycling’ by countries such as the US and UK. Buzigahill, transformed and transformed by Kolade’s six-strong team, sends them back to where they came from.
“We feel that there is a kind of clothing dictatorship coming to us from the global north,” Kolade said. “By sending things back, we’re responding with a clear, proud message: we’re not just a landfill. We have the production potential, we have the potential to create.”
Half-German, half-Nigerian, Kolade has spent 13 years working in luxury fashion in Europe, receiving a Vogue award for a collection made from a vegan, leather alternative known as bark cloth from Uganda.
He returned to Kampala, Uganda’s capital and the city where he grew up, hoping to work with home-grown cotton. Instead, he found the once-thriving textile industry destroyed by a new kind of colonialism. Like many African countries, Uganda has become a dumping ground for clothes throwers from the north.
Kolade sorts through piles of clothes, looking for gems she can reuse. Photo: Ian Nnyanzi.
Oxfam estimates that more than 70% of donated clothes worldwide end up in Africa. Uganda imports £100 million worth of second-hand clothes a year, which are sold to street vendors in 90kg bales.
“Most Ugandans wear second-hand clothes from the global north,” Kolade said. “No one distributes these clothes to the poor. What started as an innocent, philanthropic idea is literally a multi-billion business.”
We are not just a dump. We have production potential, we have the potential to create.
Kolade sources its raw garments from the same warehouses that supply street vendors in Kampala. Sorting through the bales for gems he can reuse, he is often distressed by the condition of the clothes that arrive in Uganda: shirts stained with underarm sweat and jeans splattered with oil or paint.
“We are obviously at the bottom of the supply chain in sub-Saharan Africa because what comes here from Europe and North America is the lowest quality products,” he said.
“We’re being a little cheeky, but we’re trying to send a positive message,” says Kolade. Photo: Ian Nnyanzi
His plan is twofold. He wants to create an industry that uses these waste clothes as a commodity and also revive the country’s own textile industry by selling handwoven Ugandan textiles to both local and global markets. It will start by expanding the Buzigahill factories across Uganda and eventually into neighboring countries.
“Uganda is fertile ground for investment in terms of recycling and repurposing,” Kolade said. “This is clearly something that is not working in the global north. “With Return to Sender, we’re being a bit cheeky, but we’re trying to send a positive message there.”
Main photo: Ian Nnyanzi.
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