Stitched Up: Ethical Fashion’s Relationship With Africa

Vivienne Westwood visit to Kenya Photo: Ethical Fashion Initiative
Vivienne Westwood visit to Kenya Photo: Ethical Fashion Initiative


It was during a gap year in East Africa in 2009 that Erika Freund’s dreams of creating an ethical brand that was design focused, became attainable. “It happened very organically,” says New York-based Erika about how her mid-luxury jewellery line, Mikuti, came to be produced by artisans in East Africa. “I was in Tanzania while in graduate school, and I saw an opportunity to merge my interests,” says the NYU graduate. “It was exciting to travel through the region and learn how to source, and develop supply chains. I saw the opportunity to create beautiful jewellery, honing in on incredible skills, while creating jobs.”

Produced in a small workshop just outside of Nairobi, Kenya, the jewellery line is made with materials such as banana bark, brass and beadwork, which she says is “inspired by the vivid colours of the East African landscapes”. Since Erika’s gap year, Mikuti has catapulted; featuring in high-fashion magazines like Vogue Germany and on runways, such as Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week.

But this international luxury line isn’t the only one of its kind. Mikuti forms part of a growing group of Western fashion designers who have sought out artisans on the continent to produce their successful fashion lines, as part of the ethical fashion initiative. According to Ethical Fashion Forum, ethical fashion represents an approach which strives to take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, and minimising and counteracting environmental concerns.


Mikuti by Erika Freund

Mikuti by Erika Freund
Mikuti by Erika Freund


Like Mikuti, other brands such as British online fashion store ASOS have extended their production line to Africa, with a similar goal of creating sustainable employment and alleviating poverty. The online shop’s popular ASOS Africa collection, now in its 16th season, features textiles inspired by East Africa. The range is part of the site’s sustainable-fashion programme and is produced in Kenya under fair-trade principles, according to its website.

Talking about the growth of the ethical fashion industry in Africa, Erika says that when her brand was established in 2009, ‚Äúthe artisans/retail market was just developing‚Äù. Adding, in this Guardian article, that the fashion industry‚Äôs awareness of sustainability and responsibility had grown since that period. Mikuti was born at a time when ethical fashion non-profits were scarce. ‚ÄúI don’t work with any NGO’s because when I started they weren’t set up the way they are now. I have no need to work with any outside agency, as I have incredible relationships with all my artisans and we work directly together.‚Äù

Today NGOs such as SOKO, which produces ASOS Africa, and the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre (EFI) are some of the major facilitators between brands and artisans in East Africa, West Africa and more. Started in 2009 by Italy-born Simone Cipriani, EFI works with a large pool of designers such as Stella McCartney, Camper and Brother Vellies, and has even recently extended its work force to include migrants and asylum seekers in Italy.

Of all the designer partners working with EFI, the organisation’s communications assistant, Maryjo Cartier points to UK designer Vivienne Westwood as a good example of a designer embodying the EFI ethos. “It is great to work [with] such a revolutionary brand that wants to make change and really use fashion to communicate important messages about the state of the world.” 2015 was Vivienne Westwood’s fifth year of work with EFI, in which time the brand has produced 10 collections of handmade bags in Kenya under the label “Made in Africa”.

In the five years, the following has resulted:

– So far 1 558 artisans have worked on the project from 21 different communities. 76% of which are women.

– 70% of artisans said the income they earned was more than they would have earned otherwise. Salaries have increased by 2-10 times.

– 86% of the artisans involved received training during production, offering them international-standard skills. 88% can transfer the skills they learned to others.

– 72% of artisans were able to save from the income received, enabling them to plan for their future. 30% invested their income.

– More than 950 children were enabled to go to school as a result of the project.



Brother Vellies Production in Ethiopia (c) ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative & Louis Nderi
Brother Vellies Production in Ethiopia (c) ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative & Louis Nderi


As brands like Mikuti and Vivienne Westwood create jobs in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, looking at the high prices of some of the products (such as the Westwood bags like this and this), I wonder what percentage of the profit goes to the skilled artisans that create the work, and the country, where sometimes (if not often) the materials are sourced from.

‚ÄúDesigners do not pay the Ethical Fashion Initiative, we are a UN agency. If designers produce a collection or textile, they pay the artisans’ social enterprise or cooperative directly,‚Äù says Maryjo responding to my questions about payment to artisans. ¬†If EFI doesn’t know how much the artisans are getting paid, how does the organisation prevent exploitation? The Ethical Fashion Initiative sets up fair labour systems in all the places it works and an important part of this process is raising awareness of fair labour practices, says Maryjo. ‚ÄúThis empowers artisans and communities to make sure all the components of fair labour are respected by the international partners and by the workers/artisans themselves. Often the main problem is the fact that workers are not aware of their rights.‚Äù

Speaking on ethical fashion in a video post, Vivienne Westwood says “[providing work with the Ethical Fashion Initiative] gives people control over their lives…Charity doesn’t give them control. It’s the opposite; it makes them dependent.”

However, one struggles to forget her controversial 2011/2012 Gold Label campaign shot in Kenya and the stereotypes it reinforced. This evoking the Western fashion industry’s sometimes exploitative relationship with developing countries.

EFI’s tagline is not too far off from Vivienne’s words: “Not Charity, Just Work”. So when asked about Vivienne’s comment, Maryjo stated, “We wholeheartedly agree with Vivienne Westwood’s comment. Our goal has always been to create jobs in the value chain of fashion for African micro-producers. Supporting people’s access to employment that allows them to earn a living wage in a dignified manner is so important.”

Unfortunately both statements by Vivienne and EFI fail to address structural causes of inequality.

Despite her talk about people from underprivileged backgrounds becoming dependant on charity, Vivienne Westwood’s Gold Label series and some of her later designs, show the designer’s own dependancy on Africa; for its resources, and as the setting for her advertising campaign.

The Made in Africa bags make use of materials such as bògòlanfini Рa quintessential traditional Malian textile Рand Maasai beadwork, while other Western brands such as Mikuti, with its name adopted from Kiswahili, make use of traditional African design, such as Maasai-inspired beadwork and Tanzanian textile: inevitably bringing to the fore topics such as cultural appropriation. And evoking the critical role of Africa, as the source for inspiration, resources and ultimately wealth for the West.

Engaging on the topic of cultural appropriation, EFI‚Äôs Maryjo believes it is a ‚Äúterrible thing‚Äù. ¬†‚ÄúThe idea of ‘Africa’ as a source of inspiration is a classic example of cultural appropriation that is used over and over again and which totally negates the complexity of the African continent, its heritage and its many beautiful traditions.‚Äù


Mimco Production in Kenya (c) Louis Nderi & ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative
Mimco Production in Kenya (c) Louis Nderi & ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative
Handweaving fabric in Burkina Faso (c) Anne Mimault & ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative
Handweaving fabric in Burkina Faso (c) Anne Mimault & ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative


Despite the EFI and some of the Western designers’ efforts, it’s hard not to wonder how many hours the artisans would need to work to alleviate their communities from poverty; or whether or not it’s even possible. In philosopher Slavoj Vivek’s animated lecture on cultural capitalism, he is sceptical of charity, which he believes is a big part of our consumer experience. So our buying experience is also our philanthropy (eg: when we buy an ethical fashion bracelet for R1, we are told that 50c will go towards alleviating poverty).

Quoting Starbucks, known for selling fair trade coffee beans, he says: “It’s not just what you buy, it’s what you’re buying into”.

In one way, Slavoj agrees with EFI and Vivienne, by saying: ‚ÄúCharity degrades and demoralises‚Äù. However, he believes that capitalist structures that reinforce inequality and the need for charity should be tackled head on. ‚ÄúThe proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty would be impossible.‚Äù And believes this cultural capitalism is “prolonging the disease … rather than curing it‚Äù.

Challenging his opinion, Jonathan Glennie, author of The Trouble with Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa and Aid, Growth and Poverty, writes: ‚ÄúThe best charities engage with changing structures at the same time as seeking to alleviate suffering in the short term.‚Äù Even though EFI is not a charity, its work does appear to be addressing the short-term needs of the communities in which the artisans work. By creating employment for ‚Äúthe poorest of the poor”, according to EFI‚Äôs head, ‚Äúwho are usually excluded from the formal economy, but can take part in it if given the opportunity.‚Äù

According to the 2015 Knight Frank Wealth Report, cited by CNN, there were 169 000 millionaires in Africa; a number expected to rise by 53% over the next 10 years. Despite the rising amount of millionaires in Africa per year and the luxury goods market growing in cities like Lagos, Cape Town and Marrakesh, Vivienne does not have a store located on the continent where her Made in Africa bag is made but not sold. Similarly, Mikuti is only sold throughout the US, Paris, and Japan. However other international designers, partners of EFI, such as Brother Vellies have stock at Cape Town’s luxury retailer Merchants on Long, while Mimco is available in South Africa at Woolworths.

When asked if there’s an emphasis on international designers that partner with EFI in Africa, to sell their products on the continent; or to create an affordable line for consumers in the artisans’ region, EFI responded, “n/a.” While Erika says she would one day love to sell her product in Africa.

Unlike the meaning of US designer FUBU’s acronym РFor Us By Us Рthe above case of artisans producing for the West brings a variation of the name to mind: BUFU РBy Us For U. By Africans exclusively for the West; again highlighting relationship dynamics and questioning how serious certain fashion brands and organisations are in affecting systematic change. With that said, there are designers from Africa and the diaspora who create on the continent; sold internationally and in parts of Africa, such as Sindiso Khumalo, also part of EFI, that despite the high price, retails in shops in South Africa and internationally. While Malian designer Aissata Namoko, who is part of Design Network Africa, heads up Djiguiyaso, a Bamako-based cooperative that provides work for over 100 women in the textile industry in Mali, and uses traditional bogolan tie-dyed to create dresses, handbags and more.

There’s no denying the progressive nature of certain organisations and fashion designers and the impact they are making on alleviating poverty. But as the ethical fashion industry grows and is celebrated, on the flipside, critics question how ethical fashion can be operating within the framework of capitalism. With some wondering whether ethical fashion can be used as a tool to stitch up the divide between the haves and have nots, and not expand it.


Karen Walker campaign with EFI Artisans Credit: Tahir Karmali ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative
Karen Walker campaign with EFI Artisans Credit: Tahir Karmali ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative


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