The national co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution South Africa Cyril Naicker addressed a UN panel discussion on Sustainable Fashion for All: Examining the Industry through the Lens of Social Justice. Here is an edited transcript of his talk. Below the transcript is Abigael Thompson’s video of Cyril’s interviews with designer Sindiso Khumalo and Sumendra Chetty of Merchant’s on Long.
I am sure you will agree with me that Africa is relevant right now: Thebe Magugu wins the LVMH Hennessy Louis Vuitton prize in 2019, Sindiso Khumalo is finalist for the same prize in 2020, African designers showcase at New York Fashion Week and many other designers from the African continent doing amazing things on the fashion global stage.
What if the international industry has grown tired of the usual ‘big four’, Paris, Milan, London and New York and want something new? Can it be found in Africa?
Africa with its burst of colour, rich texture and beautiful fabric has long been a source of inspiration for designers from the Northern hemisphere. Many have come in search of basket weaving techniques, some have come to learn how print patterns are mixed and worn together. Could it be that these designers came for something and leave with so much more? Could it be a sense of identity?
Discovering that although the continent of Africa is a developing continent, with political uncertainty, its people could hold the key to understanding what brings about a sense of belonging. Could it be that the many fabrics printed in Africa which tell amazing stories – stories about identity and belonging – offer solace at a time when the world is at an unrest and people are searching for meaning?
Not only are designers looking to us for inspiration, but many international fashion brands have also opened stores in Africa looking to grow their markets. But does this come at a cost?
I believe that we are all placed on this earth with gifts and talents. It is up to us to use these for good. I studied fashion design just over two decades ago and like any emerging designer I had dreams of what my career would look like I didn’t think that activism would be one of them. But I’m glad it is, as I have found my purpose. It was a trip to India in 2004 that would change the path of my career. I happened to get lost in a clothing district of Delhi and what I saw is what I call the ugly side of fashion. When you don’t know what is happening, it is easier to live in ignorance. But when you get to see these working conditions, you cannot unsee them, you cannot blame this on ignorance.
To achieve change in the fashion industry, let alone the global fashion industry, it begins with me. As an individual I am responsible. I must take ownership. Once I know better, I must do better and then cultivate this culture among my peers. It is Nelson Mandela who poignantly said, “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”
We must reflect and re-examine how we do business. The speed at which our industry operates is unsustainable. COVID-19 has given us and our planet a pause moment. We can’t go back to business as usual. We must do better.
The fashion industry is unbalanced. Systemic racism is a conversation that needs to be had. We need more inclusion. Our value system comes down to how we spend our money. THIS IS ACTUALLY HOW WE VOTE? The fashion system is flawed, factory disasters can be avoided. That’s the sad reality. It is time for reflection.
What we can do differently? There are amazing organisations around the world holding the fashion industry accountable for their actions. As I am representing Fashion Revolution, allow me to tell you a little bit of who we are: We are people from all around the world. We are the people who wear clothes. And we are the people who make them. We are designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers and fashion lovers. We are the industry, and we are the public. We are in 92 countries worldwide with Venezuela, Estonia and Sweden having joined recently.
We believe in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure.
We want to unite people and organisations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way. We believe that collaborating across the whole value chain – from farmer to consumer – is the only way to transform the industry. Our want for overconsumption gave rise to fast fashion, but how did this come about and what has been the impact of fast fashion?
• Trade barriers softened which created financial incentives for brands to move their production overseas, this created the trend for cheaper clothes resulting in cheaper labor.
• This gave rise to fast fashion – marketing played a role and we as consumers bought more clothing. A closet full of clothes but nothing to wear. Sound familiar?
• From a capitalistic perspective, Bangladesh is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, the reality is this system does collapse. In 2013 The Rana Plaza factory collapsed killing over 1000 people and injuring thousands more. These were the people who make the clothes we wear every day.
Can you imagine being a worker in this factory? A fire breaks out, you cannot get out, except to trample on others. This is what happened at Rana Plaza, this was modern day slavery – in the name of fashion!
We need a revolutionary shift in our relationships with each other, with our clothes, within fashion supply chains, for our own prosperity and wellbeing, and for the health of our earth, rivers and oceans.
This Fashion Revolution Week, we are bringing people together from across our community, amplifying unheard and marginalised voices, and working together to explore innovative and interconnected solutions.
We will be sharing the stories of those affected by change, with those who are asking for change, to pressure those who need to change. Our conversations, webinars, stories and worker profiles will come together to introduce a new dominant cultural narrative based on a just transition, where transparency, respecting human rights and dignity and conserving the environment becomes a driving force for the public and for the fashion industry.
We plan to be part of a future-focused global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people and planet, over growth and profit.
In summary Fashion Revolution 2021 will:
● Amplify unheard voices: Those of supply chain producers, workers and communities affected by the fashion industry, giving them more visibility and providing a platform for their stories.
● Widen community participation: Mobilising people and their communities around the world to speak up, come together and take action to create the systemic change that is urgently and desperately needed across the fashion industry.
• A consumer study shows that 91% of millennial consumers are willing to give ethical brands a try or even change their brand loyalty if price and sustainability are comparable
• Where there’s demand, supply will be created
• Get involved, find brands you can trust
• If you care about the environment
• If you care about climate change
• If you care about poverty alleviation
• If you care about empowerment
• I encourage you to look no further than the clothes you wear
Please sign the manifesto online at fashionrevolution.org, show your clothing label, ask the brands #whomademyclothes
Think about the clothes and shoes you are wearing right now. Do you know who made them? Do you know what that person was paid? Do you know which country your clothes were made in? The country listed on the side seam label will tell you which country the pieces were stitched together, but it won’t tell where the cotton was farmed, where the fibre was spun into yarn, where the yarn was woven into fabric, where it was dyed and printed. This fragmented supply chain is common in the fashion industry and this is why we need transparency from major brands and retailers.
When we ask #whomademyclothes we are asking about every person involved in the journey from fibre to finished garment.
These discussions are important BUT more importantly it must be followed by action.
Now is the time for a fashion revolution.
Sponsored by LMDA World. Shot and edited by Abigael Thompson. Special thank you to sustainable textile designer Sindiso Khumalo, Sumendra Chetty and Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. Featuring fashion from local South African designers, Mmusomaxwell, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Thebe Magugu as well as Cute-Saint, Lagos, Nigeria. All fashion available at Merchants on Long. Video produced by Cyril Naicker.