Fashion in the Time of Cholera

Fashion | By Christie Brookstein, Jewellery / Leather Designer | 31 October 2014

I was asked to write this opinion piece on the fashion industry in Zimbabwe and all the predictable adjectives like fledgling and emerging came to mind, when I realised that none of these truly captured what it was like to be in the business here and now. As I pondered how best to describe the state of designers in our country today, I began to relate to one of my favourite authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and decided to paraphrase one of his novel’s titles for this piece’s title.

Hear me out – this may seem a bizarre connection to most, but like all creatives, I draw inspiration from everything I come into contact with and to me, this quote could have been written about the design  process instead: “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera Fashion is a living breathing entity that dies at the end of every season and is reborn on the next season’s catwalk; that grows as a designer develops their signature and comes to represent the distillation of a creative’s vision in a capsule of garments or even an item. To anyone in the industry, the mere image of a leather fingerless glove is Karl Lagerfeld. If that item has become so iconic, what is representative of Zimbabwean fashion?

Well, the honest answer is that we don’t have an identity yet. We live in a world where putting food on the table is most people’s major concern, where going to school has become a privilege. And somehow in the midst of this, there is a group of passionate individuals to who fashion is as essential as breathing – take a look at Instagram and Facebook if you doubt me! This overwhelming love overcomes all obstacles, embraces the bad with the good and literally puts their best shoe forward – Fashion in the Time of Cholera. What is needed now is for the passion to be channelled correctly.

The Zimbabwean fashion industry has few players and even fewer of these are keeping their heads above water. Fashion is a cruel mistress and very few in the world make it to the top. Without any of the support structures offered in other countries, it is even harder here.

We have no specialist courses to attend, very limited student and small business loans, a nearly defunct fabric and construction industry, few fashion outlets that aren’t flooded with cheap mass produced imports, all coupled with limited exposure to international fashion standards and buyers. Local designers can’t compete with pavement shops of second hand clothes from giant consortiums that specialise in global fast fashion, on sale for a fraction of the price of local designs.

What we do have and what I believe will help the top few stay the distance is who we are. We are Zimbabweans – a nation that perseveres no matter what, has a rich cultural heritage to draw from and is blessed with highly talented artisans. The modern concept of luxury has become to own something that no one else can possess, something touched, finished and made unique by the human hand, not a faceless machine, something that holds a story within it. Afrika is one of the few places left where this concept can be realised, but to achieve this, we have to hold ourselves to the highest standards of quality and design and become the home of modern luxury.

We have to be honest and hard on ourselves – what makes a design not just good but great? What makes it Zimbabwean? Why would someone value it and want to buy it?

The harsh truth is that it’s not because it’s a Dutch designed print fabric made up badly in a predictable shape. Hand-print a design on hand loomed Afrikan raw silk, hand-embroider and bead it, then cut and tailor it exquisitely and now we can talk.

At the end of it all, the local fashion industry needs to make money to exist and we can only do that by working harder than anyone else and by being our own harshest critics. We’re on our own here and nothing less than the best is going to make it. We have to accept that this is a competitive industry and people in it will struggle to work together harmoniously – this volatility is what makes fashion, fashion!

We need to be clear about which level of fashion design we stand in (there are many) and excel there. Haute couture does not exist outside of Paris.

Not everyone who wants to will make it as a designer. Making some clothes for a show does not make a designer. That’s just the way it is. As a designer, you have to know your brand inside out - what it’s about, where its placed in the market, who its’ competitors are and where it’s going and then stick to this when you get it right.

If the core group of passionate local fashionistas can push on with these points in mind, we can slowly grow this industry and start to provide jobs in the many different facets of fashion – from pattern cutting through to social media. We’re here for the love, the passion and the pure joy of creation – but let’s also be real and build a rock solid foundation and put food on the table.