The fashion industry’s global supply chain has broken down due to COVID-19. Some 100,000 stores will probably close in the United States by fiscal 2025, with apparel retailers the hardest hit at 24,000 closures. The famous department store Neiman Marcus is expected to file for bankruptcy protection sometime this week.
The global health pandemic is not solely to blame for these failures, however. The reasons are deeper. When a US$10 shirt at H&M and a US$1,000 shirt from Hermès are made in the same factory, if not by the same hands, in an emerging market, then global fashion has a problem. The shift to fast fashion has overtaken our ability to adapt to a sustainable model.
For the future of sustainability, let us turn to Africa. The continent has the youngest population in the world—an estimated 60 percent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are under the age of twenty-five, and a fast growing middle class, yet the fashion world tends to treat Africans merely as consumers of second-hand clothing from the developed world, and thus are excluded from conversations about the future of fashion.
In solving this problem, some of Africa’s traditional sustainable fashion practices could play a role. The continent’s cultural heritage—like bark cloth manufacturing in Uganda, woven textiles from Nigeria and Ghana, traditional Berber weaving in North Africa, and beadwork from Maasai and Ndebele artisans—could play a central role in the revitalization of the fashion industry in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
Looking to Tradition
Bark cloth, in particular, has been receiving renewed attention. Long worn by traditional faith healers and as a burial shroud, it is increasingly being revitalized for bespoke fashion. The whisky-colored cloth is made from pounding the fibrous inner bark of the Ficus natalensis tree, variously known as a Natal fig, mutuba, or omutoma tree. It is a laborious process, which may explain how bark cloth production began to decline after the introduction of cotton as an alternative textile by Arab traders in the 19th century. Yet it was once widely worn, and the cloth is more like leather than other plant-based textiles in durability.
Entrepreneurial Ugandans have already started to use the textile for anything from clothing to bedspreads and pillow covers.
“I have been to too many funerals of bark cloth makers in recent years,“ says Ugandan visual artist Fred Kato Mutebi," These artisans -- mostly men, leave this earth with nothing for their families to inherit but their mallets.
Mutebi often uses bark cloth as canvases for his artworks. He estimates there are less than a hundred artisans with the knowledge of making bark cloth left in Uganda. “We as artists, designers, and Ugandans must do more to protect this tradition and help it go global.”
The Cloth for Royalty
Bark cloth is most closely associated with the people of two of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms, Tooro and Buganda. The Kingdom of Tooro, in particular, is seeking to develop its bark cloth industry. The Queen mother, HRH Best Kemigisa, has advocated for the planting of trees used to produce bark cloth, saying it will not only provide jobs but also serve to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Her son, HRH King Oyo Rukidi IV, is currently championing a new initiative that will create jobs centered on the Tooro cultural heritage of bark cloth manufacturing.
"The Omutoma tree that Barkcloth comes from has been with man since the beginning of time and used as a shroud, for fashion, a fire preserver, a blanket, used in spiritual rituals and we intend on continuing the heritage into the future," said Hon. Peter Apuuli Rusoke, the Minister of Culture of the kingdom of Tooro.
Surely some of Africa’s other indigenous fashion traditions can similarly be promoted at this time. Now is the time to develop collaborative opportunities to ensure the future of such traditions, from Uganda to South Africa to Morocco.
Camilla Barungi is a Ugandan-born, New York-based model, entrepreneur, and social innovator with a special interest in African sustainability, fashion, emerging technologies, and film. (Twitter: @camillabarungi)