Westwood’s new fashion journey

In a whitewashed building in Nairobi’s industrial area, scores of women are sewing handbags for some of fashion’s best-known labels. But as their machines clack rhythmically they are also crafting a new future for themselves.

On a table by the open door there is a pile of Vivienne Westwood cloth totes, and the vivid colours of Carmina Campus bags by Ilaria Venturini Fendi spill across a bench.

Nairobi’s Hub workshop is the heartbeat of Ethical Fashion Africa, a not-for-profit group created by the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint United Nations and World Trade Organisation body, to empower marginalised people by linking them up with fashion houses and distributors.

The women are from some of Nairobi’s most deprived areas — Kibera, Korogocho, Dagoretti and others. The production room hums as ceiling fans slice the muggy air of Kenya’s rainy season.

Thousands more work from home on the bags and accessories that will end up in designer stores across the world.

Joyce Kamau, a single mother with two children, works as a supervisor. She started at Ethical Fashion Africa two years ago and says she can now provide for her family’s basic needs. “We didn’t know we could get to this,” she says, gesturing to some startlingly bright machine embroidery. She said others in the group once found the work difficult, but “I encourage them and I inspire them.”

Ethical Fashion Africa’s slogan is is “not charity, just work”.

Long-term commitment
The factory is hidden away at the back of the GoDown, a thriving community of artists and musicians on the edge of Nairobi. As well as Westwood and Fendi, Stella McCartney sources work here, as do European distributors such as the Italian retailer Coop. There are plans to move into the United States next year through a deal with Wal-Mart to distribute products online.

Westwood’s involvement has made the biggest media splash. In August she launched, from Nairobi, a collection of bags called “Handmade with Love”, and she also filmed her autumn campaign in the city.

“Vivienne has a long-term commitment, which is good … now the next step is to start growing together to expand,” said Simone Cipriani, head of the ITC’s poor communities and trade programme.

About 5?000 people in Kenya are involved with the initiative and 90% of them are women, mostly from disadvantaged or isolated communities in Nairobi and beyond.Training is key; before they are assigned an order the women are instructed on what to do. The training builds on existing skills such as sewing and tailoring. The women earn money, but more than that they learn techniques that will serve them in the future.

As for the fashion houses, the deal suits them too. “They get unique products … that are worth the money. And they get a beautiful story of responsibility,” Cipriani said.

Fashion is fickle: hemlines rise and fall and what was in is very soon out. But Cipriani says this actually works to the project’s advantage and helps it achieve all-important sustainability. “The fact that it changes provides new work every six months. The technical capacities never change but with these we can do new work.”

Jeremy Brown, product development adviser for the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, is working with a team of 10 Kenyans to do himself out of a job. He rummages in a box in his cramped atelier and pulls out a Westwood bag with an orb emblem made from the recycled brass of old taps. Another Westwood bag is lined with old shirts, bought in the secondhand clothes markets of Nairobi.

Recycled safari tents, end-of-line canvas and old street banners are all also used in products.

Vincent Oduor, the Hub’s human-resources manager, grew up in Korogocho shanty town and knows how to quantify the human bottom line of this collaboration between two worlds. He breathes life into the “not charity, just work” motto.

“It’s very rare for people from Korogocho to get employment. We suffer from social labels,” he said. “For [these women] the real joy is based on the dignity they find in working.” —

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Invest in children to boost SA’s recovery

Providing effective, population-scale family support and 21st century transformative education is a nonnegotiable if we are to have any chance of eradicating violence, poverty, and inequality.

From rags to riches — if we support local clothing manufacturers

Reviving our industry to its former glory is possible. We have the infrastructure, talent, and a population that is eager to work. Now we just need consumer buy-in.

Extract from ‘Born to Kwaito’: How we choose to fashion ourselves

How we choose to dress is an instrument to communicate personal, race, class, gender and identity politics, as discussed in this extract from ‘Born to Kwaito’

The Portfolio: Lebogang Tlhako

Photographer Lebogang Tlhako uses collage to explore making up something that isn’t there

How the clothing industry is adapting now that runways are out of fashion

The fashion business is going digital to attract consumers in the absence of being able to physically parade its wares

Artclub and Friends: “Every purchase is a vote”

Founder Robyn Keyser chats to us about how she and her utilitarian fashion brand are surviving the lockdown

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

See people as individual humans, not as a race

We need to ingrain values of equality in education, businesses, society broadly and religious groups to see people

JJ Rawlings left an indelible mark on Ghana’s history

The air force pilot and former president used extreme measures, including a coup, enforced ‘discipline’ through executions, ‘disappearances’ and floggings, but reintroduced democracy

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…