Doreen Mashika: Ethics you can wear

Doreen Mashika makes clothes with a conscience. (Supplied)

Doreen Mashika makes clothes with a conscience. (Supplied)

Tanzania-born and Zanzibar-based fashion designer Doreen Mashika has collaborated with global fashion brand and LVMH subsidiary, Edun and South Africa’s Loin Cloth & Ashes, and will soon be teaming up with vintage-inspired and bohemian-chic United States chain store Anthropologie.

Mashika studied and worked for a luxury goods fund management company in Switzerland before coming back to Africa to launch Zanzibar, a label now renowned for its colourful African prints and modern silhouettes.

Her designs mix modern cuts with traditional prints: here, an off-the-shoulder dress in royal blue with a strip of multicoloured fabric running along the hem; there, a pair of Bermuda shorts in bright patterns paired with a sheer blouse.

The attention to detail is prominent in Mashika’s work. But beyond the prettiness of the clothes and accessories she creates, there is a brand that is ethical, eco-conscious and clearly on the rise.

What was the most important thing you learnt from your time at LVMH in Switzerland?
The way the fashion industry works, how consumers spend and what makes a brand successful.

When you came back to Tanzania after 16 years in Switzerland, what was your main goal?
I wanted to build a fashion brand that could stand out for its values and its consistency in quality; only this way can a brand be financially lucrative.

You said that your  ‘insistence on perfection’  was something you also brought back.
A product should never be beautiful by luck. I want to produce the best – and "okay" or "good" is not enough [for me].
I try to explain this to my suppliers here, and sometimes they don’t understand. "Okay" is not enough.

What else did you bring back?
Time. [She smiles] Swiss timing ... Time is money. Delivering orders on time. This is key to maintain future business and to work with international companies where cut-off dates are strict.

You’ve partnered with eco-conscious brand Edun in 2012 and South Africa-based Loin Cloth & Ashes in 2013. What prompted those collaborations?
I couldn’t wait to work with Edun! In 2012, they were looking for an East African brand that shares and understands their brand philosophy and produces garments ethically with high-quality fabrics [from] the region, that are available in [large] quantity. We were the perfect match! With Loin Cloth & Ashes, Samsung connected us at the Mercedes-Benz Africa Fashion week.

What do your brands have in common?
We are fashion brands ethically made in Africa; we don’t compromise on quality.

How different was it from designing for your own label, Zanzibar?
For Zanzibar, I design with a stronger local feel, whereas for Western labels, I would have to dilute the message so that it matches the market.

What does it mean to be an ethical fashion designer in Africa?
It is very usual to work ethically in Africa. I think many, if not all designers, work ethically, although trace-ability of raw materials can be quite a challenge. Some giant international brands blow their trumpets, [showing off] their ethical practise in order to "clean" their wrongdoing.

What is your definition of an ethical brand?
Building a mutual relationship of respect with your suppliers, fair wages and prices, healthy working conditions and understanding where your raw materials come from. Did the environment suffer? What measures were taken to protect the environment and its people?

Can you tell me more about your collaboration with women’s groups in local villages?
I go to different villages and study what they do best. My desire is to preserve [ancestral] techniques and teach younger women how to weave the way elderly women did. It’s not easy as they often complain that they could make more money in the city. We not only increase their salary but we also educate them on the benefits of building their community.

Why did you choose to work specifically with women?
It’s simple: when you teach a woman you educate a village. The multiplying effect is very high.

What comes next for Doreen Mashika-Zanzibar?
This year, I will do a collaboration with Anthropologie, which will be launched soon and will be accessible online.

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