Although fashion is one of the most active sectors of the creative industry in Uganda, it is still grappling with systemic challenges.
Top of the list is the importation of and national reliance on second-hand clothes; the perennially struggling cotton and textile sectors and last but not in anyway less significant is the almost cultural obsession with the myth that “imported is quality.”
Describing the current state of the fashion industry in the country, fashion designer Sarah Nakisanze told The EastAfrican that; “It is thriving and growing because of the support of the middle class customer. I have no empirical statistical data on this, however, deductively, this is because the middle class enjoys public exposure and self-consciousness.”
“Technology has brought the world closer making the general public more creative and appreciative of style using minimum income and both designers and fashionistas are taking advantage of the situation. Also the growing youth population has helped a lot,” Nakisanze added.
Nakisanze singles out the importation of second-hand clothes — commonly known as mivumba in Uganda — and new clothes, lack of quality production and high costs of production (such as rent), and the preference for imported clothes as among the major challenges facing the industry in Uganda.
“Trendy designs, competitive prices and the use of quality fabrics will improve locally produced pieces from being low grade to premium level grade thus limiting the need for mivumba,” Nakisanze added.
Upping the game
Jose Hendo, a Ugandan-born British eco-sustainable and award-winning fashion designer, says that the fashion industry in Uganda has steadily grown over the past years.
“The Kampala Fashion Week has attracted international attention and designers in Uganda have responded by upping their game,” she told The EastAfrican.
“I am happy that Ugandans are aware of what is trending in the international textile and fashion industry. But we need to do more, like Rwanda, to promote the ‘Made in Uganda’ campaign and give room to Ugandan fashion brains to cook up all sorts of designs and styles without relying on what the international industry provides. This, in the end, will help develop the fashion and textile industry in Uganda,” said Ugandan fashion model Fenando Kamugisha.
According to the Cotton Development Organisation (CDO), cotton is Uganda’s third largest export crop after coffee and tea, supporting 250,000 households that cultivate it under rain-fed conditions with minimal use of inputs, such as fertilisers and chemicals.
The CDO further says that with 40 ginneries, the country has an installed seasonal ginning capacity of around one million bales of lint production or 200,000 tonnes, which is well above the maximum production achieved in the past two decades.
Because the textile industry in Uganda has lost a lot of ground to competition coming from the Far East countries and to second-hand imports, only 5 per cent of the total cotton production is consumed by two local textile factories.
Economists recognise the fact that that second-hand clothes play a critical role in creating employment in the retail clothes sector and earning revenue for the government but with actual figures on employment and government taxes lacking, no one knows the extent.
Figures from the US International Trade Commission show that Uganda imports at least 1,500 tonnes of second-hand clothing annually from the United States alone, while another 2,000 tonnes is imported from the UK, Canada and China.
According to the Uganda Manufacturers Association, the East African Community’s annual expenditure on used clothes imports is $350 million, and is growing at a rate of 60 per cent annually.
According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, EAC countries are some of the most important markets for US used clothing exports, with direct exports to the EAC countries being at approximately $24 million in 2016.
USTR adds that the US imports under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) from Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, was $43 million in 2016, up from $33 million in 2015, while exports to the three countries rose from $257 million in 2015 to $281 million in 2016. The trade in apparels and used-clothes therefore favours the US.
Nakisanze says that second-hand clothes, however trendy, not only offer unfair competition but also kill creativity in the local clothing and fashion industry, “because Ugandan designers cannot compete with the low prices offered for the second-hand clothes and end up switching to other businesses.”
Kamugisha concurs: “Second-hand clothes may increase our collection of trendy and ready to wear items but they make us lazy. Without them the clothing industry in Uganda would have done much better by creating fresh and multiple affordable designs, but now everyone including fashion designers would rather go for the readily available and cheap second-hand pieces of ‘duplicate’ designs.”
Fashion and design
According to Kamugisha, the challenge is that many Ugandans do not value or appreciate the clothing and fashion industry.
“They think working in the fashion design professional is not financially rewarding until one actually makes it to the top. This has not only affected the clothing and fashion industry but also stunted creativity in advertising campaigns. However, I am happy that this is changing and now Uganda is appreciating and absorbing all facets of the fashion industry and there are jobs being created and campaigns around fashion happening all the time.”
Like many other clusters of the creative industry in Uganda, data on fashion and design is lacking hindering related national planning, policies, legislation and institutional support.
Nakisanze argues that the government has invested very little in requisite infrastructure and polices to support the textile and fashion industry.
According to Kamugisha, “Ugandans generally love African print fabric because it can be used for outfits for all occasions. Lace and satin are also hot cakes.”
According to Hendo, Africans have always loved fashionable clothes and with globalisation, they also want to wear the latest designs.
Kamugisha concurs and says that Ugandans can afford to pay for the latest fashion. “I consider fashion to be a sense and if you have a sense of style then you can always find ways of dressing up. If it is available, Ugandans will buy it.”
Of fashion shows and parades in the promotion of fashion, Nakisanze says these are avenues of building designers’ self-esteem and motivation, public awareness and visibility of what is trending.
“Fashion shows are a measure of what’s trending and give a glimpse on how one can gather different pieces to bring out a fashionable look,” Kamugisha says.
Nakisanze’s advice to young Ugandans who wish to take up a career in fashion is: that “originality is key. When you create something new, you attract attention which can translate into monetary gain, and you can therefore compete favourably on the market. New things tend to have an edge over old ones.”
There are many opportunities for the young in the fashion industry but it requires dedication, extreme hard work and self-sacrifice to shape a career in one of the most competitive industries in the world. It is best to build on well learned basic skills as a foundation to career in fashion on. One thing that is so important is to respect other people’s intellectual property and not copy, says Hendo.
“The fashion industry is growing at a very fast rate. This means there is a need and room for sharper people who may want to blossom. Fashion is waiting to embrace every one, only if you are fierce, daring and only if you know what to do,” Kamugisha says.
Despite being a very small sector of the clothing industry, Uganda’s fashion sector has a number of annual events whose highlight is the Kampala Fashion Week. Others are the Margaret Trowel School of Fine and Industrial Art show commonly known as MTSIFA Fashion Parade (of the Makerere University), and Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards, among others.
The Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards is an African fashion award ceremony that celebrates and acknowledges fashion industry stakeholders — designers, stylists, hair and makeup artists, media personalities and influencers on the continent and diaspora.
The 2017 edition was held at the Kampala Serena Hotel on December 8 under the theme African Fashion is the Future #FashionTakeover which sought to highlight the entrepreneurial success of the African fashion industry which will in turn translate into the business of fashion.
The 2017 MTSIFA Fashion Parade was held on November 17, under the theme “Beyond Fashion.”
MTSIFA is shaping a new Ugandan fashion subject under the popular culture, famous as a consumerism subject focusing on function and beauty turns into an archive of intellectual discourses transcending traditional borders of design and art.
“It is a students’ experience of object and material (tangible and intangible) through (re)invention, interpretation, and embodiment of meaning into the fashion form. Consequently, fashion asserts as vehicle of self-actualisation and identity,” Nakisanze says.
According to MTSIFA, the fashion industry is increasingly becoming an important feature of Uganda’s social and political fabric. Rules and regulations on dress code, especially for civil servants have in the recent past become a national talking point. As a segment of the cultural industry, fashion has moved from the periphery to the centre of the economy.
“Fashion is more than promoting smartness and a positive image of one’s self; it is at the forefront of enabling society get a deeper awareness of itself and its role in contributing to national development and identity,” according to MTSIFA.
Those involved in fashion and clothing projects
Sarah Nakisanze works in fibre, particularly bark cloth, to create fabric patterns based on traditional Ugandan motifs. She teaches fashion design and research at the Margaret Trowel School of Fine and Industrial Art, Makerere University, in Kampala. Her fabric and fashion designs have been exhibited in Uganda, South Africa, Kenya and England. She runs Easy Afric Designs, a socially motivated company under the Fair Trade Oriented Organisation, in Kampala. She creates high quality eco-chic accessories, home décor, corporate items and gift packaging under the Lususu brand.
Jose Hendo, who is currently based in London, is a bark cloth specialist, applying different techniques to make it usable with other fabrics. Her label, Jose Hendo, promotes the use of eco-textiles such as organic and recycled materials. It further supports ethical trading and raises awareness on environmental issues affected by the fashion industry.
Hendo’s collections have featured at the London, Berlin, New York, Vancouver and Kampala Fashion Weeks. She is a graduate of fashion from the University of the Arts, London College of Fashion and the Paris Academy.
Fenando Kamugisha of Joram Model Management based in Kampala, stands at 6-feet tall. He is interested in runway modelling, high fashion editorials, commercials, pageantry and acting. He was Mr Sales Uganda 2015/16 and first runner-up Mr Ideal Uganda 2015/16 and has participated in the Kampala Fashion Week, Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards, Hit Gospel Awards, and Runway Heat, a Ugandan fashion reality television show.