Softly spoken during most of our conversation, Betty Chilonde becomes animated when the topic turns to circularity and the potential of fashion in Zambia. Betty is not only a designer. She is also an educator, farmer and activist quietly shaping the future of design in Zambia. Founder of the Black Forest fashion label and Bulongo Incubator for Fashion and Creative Arts, Betty lives in Lusaka where she has a home studio making clothes-to-order for private clients. [See her work here.]
Zambia is a developing nation with numerous economic challenges, with a small growing fashion industry. Most of the country’s people can’t buy new “big-brand fast fashion” locally. Instead, they buy second-hand clothes from thrift stores at salaula markets or they buy cheap imports from Asia. Only a lucky few can afford to shop at South African retailers such as Edgars and Woolworths which operate in Zambia. “Thrift shopping,” Betty notes, “is how most people buy fashion. Because of salaula markets, people don’t want to buy what designers make.” [Salaula is the term for second-hand clothing. It is originally the term for “rummaging through” because of the way the clothes are piled in the markets.]
Second-hand clothing, if it is branded, is more trusted than locally produced garments. At the same time, it’s detrimental to local production. ”Local design” is also underwhelming, consisting mostly of people downloading dress patterns from and taking them to local tailors. Worse, the cloth they use – Chitenge – is also not Zambian. Originally from Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, this colourful cloth is also known as dutch wax and Ankara. “What we have here is a lot of reproduction of copied styles from the ’net. But people mess up these copies and customers like to say ma tailors bamaononga nyula [tailors ruin cloth/fabric] or ma tailors niba boza [tailors are liars].”
All of which, Betty sees as an opportunity: “Because of lack of skills, there is demand for design education.”
Betty founded Bulongo Fashion Incubator Fashion and Creative Arts in 2015, the first institution of its kind in Zambia. The incubator is a place for creatives to find both like-minded people and mentors who can guide them on their journey, build capacity and bridge skills gap. “As far as I know, nobody else is doing this work,” says Betty who has a degree in textile design technology.
Underpinning the work of both her fashion label and the incubator, is a commitment to circularity. The focus is on the questions: How can materials be useful for as long as possible? How can we eliminate waste? How can we ensure fashion does not harm the environment? How can it be more relevant? In her own make-to-order design practice, Betty uses fabrics made by local weavers. If and when she buys imported fabrics, however, she looks for 100% cotton because it’s better for dyeing, especially for natural dyeing. “That way, I can customise my own prints,” she says.
Besides the make-to-order business, Betty tackles textile waste by using off-cuts to make rugs and bags. To avoid contributing to the throw-away culture, Betty is concerned with durability: “People are not buying a dress every other day, so we [designers] should be asking: ‘how long can this dress last?’”
Betty, a single mother of two, believes that her obsession with sustainability comes from her childhood. Growing up in a large family of modest means, she is used to sharing and grew up in a culture of hand-me-downs.
There were ten children of the house, including multiple cousins. “Meals were chaotic. Food would disappear very quickly and nobody would ask if you’d eaten. We grew vegetables, and we would preserve some of them. There was no such thing as pocket money. I always had side hustles. For instance, I would sell sweet mbalalas [groundnuts covered with sugar].”
A quiet child, it was through her reading that Betty became interested in fashion. “I was the first girl to wear slacks in my family, though my father didn’t approve. I would cut out images from pattern magazines and make mood boards. I would try to manifest my dreams”.
Betty became a singer and, without her parents’ knowledge, joined a band that became very popular. “At 18, I was a famous musician. My parents were not going to buy me stage clothes for sure. It was taboo for a girl to venture into music and doing all performances…..so I had to make my own clothes.”
But Betty couldn’t handle the fame and gave up her singing, instead following her first love: fashion.
The biggest catalyst to Betty’s curiosity around materials and their usefulness was her grandmother, who would visit from the village, collect items the family no longer used or wore, and then exchange them for chickens. Other items might be used as flowerpots, while Betty also found many of her former clothes had been tuned into quilts.
“My grandmother did subsistence farming. My father sent us there to teach us stuff. There was a mud floor, no electricity, we slept on the floor and worked in the fields,” Betty recalls. Now, she grows her own food and preserves it. “Because I have a very sensitive skin, I am very cautious of what I eat and what I put on my skin. I am more comfortable using what I make. People think I am weird. They ask why I do everything myself.”
On the farm
When she isn’t working in her studio, Betty is on her farm on the outskirts of Lusaka. She recently built a house with stone there. “It’s a 100 acres of mostly bush. I go there to sit and think. It makes me more creative.” Once her children have finished school, she plans to move to the farm permanently, and to create a green space by installing solar energy, creating biogas, keeping animals, and growing her food and the plants she needs for dyeing her fabrics.. “I want to be in a position that I grow 70% of the food I eat.”
COVID-19 has offered everyone an opportunity to rethink practices, she says. While in developed parts of the world, ideas like “circularity”, “slow fashion” and “sustainable fashion”, have become buzzwords, in Zambia, the question to ask is: Can fashion be relevant?
Betty believes it can be. Fashion has the potential to “revolutionise the whole [Zambian] economy. It could have a positive impact on Zambia’s double-digit unemployment rate, if developed.” There is, she thinks, another way, another opportunity that is presenting itself amidst the uncertainty of our times: growing a local, sustainable fashion industry. Betty speaks of the challenges she faces in her pursuit of sustainability, one of these is creating a marketplace. Sustainability tends to be expensive, and she wonders whether people are willing to pay more for products that are made with sustainability and with circularity in mind. She puts her hope on a market developing through creating a network, connecting everybody to each other.
This is an urgent problem, and Betty laments the fact that most people do not recognise that there is a shift taking place, a shift towards more conscious design, more intentional design. “People ask why I fuss,” she says, “The answer is simple: we don’t have much time.”
See our fashion project here.
- Photography: Fashion – Kabelenga Phiri; Farm – Chipo Mpulamasaka; Old family and studio pictures – supplied by Betty Chilonde
- Feature illustration: Francesco Mbele @franadilla
- Sekayi Fundafunda is an art director, blogger, and founder of the fashion platform, MaFashio. The award-winning blog documents life and style on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia. Sekayi has over eight years’ experience in fashion-related content creation with a recent focus on sustainable fashion design and educating the youth on sustainability. She is a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow and Innovation Lead at Zambia’s leading technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship hub, BongoHive. Sekayi holds a BSc in Economics and Finance from the University of Lusaka as well as a certificate in Fashion and Sustainability from London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. She is the Country Coordinator of Fashion Revolution Zambia. Sekayi has interpreted the work of Zambian fashion designer, Betty Chilonde.
- This is the final story in a six-part story series, Design Futures Africa, about circular designers in Africa. Storytellers have worked with Twyg on stories that were published once a week for six weeks until 28 February on Twyg. This project is supported by the British Council. The designers were hosted by the British Council and Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the Circular Design Lab 2019 London.