In Dunusa market in Johannesburg, South Africa, market stalls pile high with unused and second-hand clothing. Nike, H&M, GAP. It’s all here, shipped over from the U.S. and the west in tightly packed bales. And all sold for a fraction of its original price.
Mami Wata, an African surf brand based out of Cape Town, has been diving into those piles with the help of local second-hand retailer 3thrifty5. Together, they’ve created a collection of one-of-one repurposed sweatshirts and hoodies sourced from Dunusa market. Blank sweats have been transformed with bright graphics that give them new life.
But the collection does more than bring used garments back to life. It highlights the story of clothing’s movement across the world. Named after the journey the clothing has made, “Amerique-Afrique-Amerique” features plane motifs decorated with those countries’ names to make this movement clear.
The word “circular” is, like many industry buzzwords, problematic. What should be a design ideal that reduces waste and the need for raw, finite resources, has become a marketing ploy. Brands, charities and take-back programs use the word “circularity” to describe their practice, but often, these companies just move clothing around. And where does it end up? Africa. Mami Wata says that “more than 53 million metric tons of clothing are destined to be exported, sent to the landfill or incinerated each year; the majority of which is destined for Africa.”
So much of the second-hand clothing shipped to Africa, with the aim of being recycled or used again, is of such poor quality that it just enters landfill, is burnt on open fires, or floats along riverbeds and is washed out into the sea. In fact, brands and retailers probably know full well that these items will never be used again. It’s a one way ticket to the dump.
This collection brings a positive spin to this tale, finding treasure within the vast piles of waste, whilst making the migration story of these garments the centerpiece. Western styles and fashion are given new meaning in the hands of the young creative thrifters in Johannesburg, some of whom are featured and profiled in the campaign for the collection.
“The waste of the west becomes an entity and commodity of the Global South, and through the nuances of language, conversation, self-expression, and silk-screening, the blank canvas of clothing enables creativity and empowerment,” says Nick Dutton, Mami Wata Co-Founder and CEO.
“As thrifting is a form of second-order consumption and is a diverse experience and organization across the globe, so are creativity and fashion. Original items are reinterpreted into new designs, experiences, or juxtapositions. Decades of western fashion weeks find a new life with a uniquely African identity.”
It may be years before the west stops dumping its waste on Africa. Greenpeace is calling for the prohibition by law of waste export, but before that, millions of tons of clothing will continue to find its way to the continent. And maybe Mami Wata will continue finding new ways of giving it new life.
Take a look at the collection on the Mami Wata website or shop in its Venice, California store.