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Q&A with Hadeel Osman on nurturing slow fashion in Sudan

by | Jul 17, 2020

Earlier this month Sudanese slow fashion advocate Hadeel Osman launched the #AfricaIsNotALandfill hashtag to draw attention to issues related to “El Gugu” or “El Marhoum Gadrak” or “Dead Man’s Clothes”.  Last week she helped launch an Arabic slow fashion Instagram account.  The creative director, stylist and graphic designer, Hadeel is Sudan’s first national co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution. Added to this is her role as an ambassador for Slow Fashion Season.

We sent the dynamic sustainability and low impact living activist, and advocate for change and development some questions via email.

Potrait of Hadeel Osman

Why did you start DAVU Studio?

I am a third culture kid [children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland] with a desire to create positive change and to resolve my internal identity crises. I had only visited Sudan for family holidays but four years ago, I made the decision to move back to explore creative possibilities.

When I first arrived, the political situation was cutthroat which imposed limits on the creative economy especially for women. It was not a smooth ride but a necessary one. I struggled to be inspired by my dull surroundings in Khartoum and found it difficult to express myself. This prompted me to start DAVU Studio, which stands for “Designing A Visual Utopia”. I wanted to make the things I didn’t see in my new reality. I had to work alone with limited resources, but that worked to my advantage and really helped shape how I function today. Witnessing the December 2018 revolution was a breath of freedom and has really empowered me to see many opportunities in the face of economic collapse.

What do you love doing most? And who are your clients?

Creative direction and styling definitely excite me the most. Being able to take a single idea and carry it forward into fruition visually, is what drives me. Since childhood, I’ve had a magnetic relationship with clothes. Using them to express a concept, feeling or setting is very satisfying. Most of our work in production, features secondhand and rented clothes, as we believe sustainability should be within our business model too. Our clients include local and regional slow fashion brands, start ups, cultural houses and corporations. Through the variety of services we offer, we are able to reach a larger clientele, however fashion will always remain our focus and we aim to work exclusively within that context.

What are the fashion issues in Sudan?

As an industry, fashion is still in its infancy. Although, many are imported, textiles are a far more developed market, since they are used for traditional attire. General knowledge on sustainability is very scarce and it is common to see scrap fabrics discarded carelessly in the streets, left to collect dust in storage spaces or incinerated.

Contemporary fashion is considered a growing scene, as the idea of being a fashion designer is very appealing. But without  understanding, research, literature and institutions that offer fashion education, independent designers make small collections, with fabrics imported from China, work with a single tailor and don’t know what a sustainable supply chain looks like nor the importance of considering sustainable practices.

In terms of general mindset, there is an impression that garments imported from other countries are better than those made locally. This is due to the local markets stocking cheap Chinese imported clothes, coupled with the influx of boutiques selling affordable fast fashion. The clothes are always available, come in large quantities and in a variety of sizes – unlike local fashion which is either bespoke, considerably expensive and produced in very limited amounts if not singular pieces.

What do you think of the secondhand clothing market?

Secondhand clothing markets are a multimillion dollar industry in East Africa. They are considered the main source of garments. They are also very common in Sudan where they’re known as “El Gugu” or “El Marhoum Gadrak”, with the latter meaning “Dead Mans Clothes”.

As much as I encourage secondhand shopping because it is the lesser of two evils (spending money on fast fashion brands is the bigger evil), there are issues with how the secondhand market developed in the global south. Having researched and seen how some of these markets operate, there are two major flaws which prompted me to start the #AfricaIsNotALandfill Instagram hashtag earlier this month.

Firstly, these markets are dimming the efforts put into reviving local manufacturing and textile industries. This is evident in the governmental pushback and phasing out processes in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya and Burundi. In fact many of these nations have increased the import tariff while working on imposing bans to stop the trade entirely.

Although Sudan isn’t planning an outright ban on these imports, a temporary one was issued for a recent import in March, citing health concerns along with the rise of the Covid-19 scare. This narrative is not new, as the government has been pushing the health narrative by releasing similar reports over the last three years.

The second issue, is the environmental one. A large portion of the imported secondhand clothes, regardless of their source, are not in useable condition and are regarded as waste. Many of them end up in our landfills, empty lands spaces that could otherwise be utilised positively or they are polluting the streets. Sometimes they are burnt on the side of the road next to schools, houses and hospitals, which puts citizens at health risk and adds more pressure on the already fragile environmental conditions of the continent.

 

Which designers most excite you?

Lisa Folawiyo, MaXhosa Africa, Lamula Nassuna and Ahluwalia Studio are some of the most innovative and sustainable African fashion designers, whose work I admire. All of them, in their own way, embody sustainability, and place it at the core of their processes; whether it’s through upcycling, repurposing or utilising ethically-sourced natural materials to make wearable pieces of art. It’s also very important and inspiring how they showcase cultural elements through their designs. African fashion can be eco-friendly, modern yet remain rooted in culture.

You’re the national co-ordinator for Fashion Revolution in Sudan. Tell us more.

I’ll be working with the team to contribute to the foundation of an inclusive, sustainable and responsible fashion infrastructure. We want to educate, empower and collectively enhance ethical, homegrown creative skill sets across the entire supply chain. We will be engaging the fashion community in various activities and workshops while we research the market. We will offer the fashion community a platform to address its concerns and a place to cultivate networking opportunities. I look forward to seeing how sustainability will be embraced in manufacturing. The long-term goal is to advocate for policies that support sustainability in the clothing and textile industry.

And as a Slow Fashion Season ambassador?

I’ve also teamed up with two other ambassadors for the Slow Fashion Season crowdacting campaign, Yara Aburoza and Aisheh Jamal. Where we just launched the Arabic version of Slow Fashion Season on Instagram. We will be creating Arabic content about sustainable fashion, which is very rare to find. What does slow fashion mean? What are the impacts of the fast fashion industry on all involved sectors?  And of course I explain the role of the consumer and citizen in addressing these issues. I have persuaded many people both online and in person to sign up for the three-month challenge and encouraged them to support local and small slow fashion brands during this pandemic, which has taken a toll on many independent businesses. Next, I plan on addressing how sustainability is assumed to be a privilege and how Sudanese people can adopt sustainability seamlessly into their lifestyles.

Have you designed your own clothing collection?

Over the last three years, I’ve created several samples for my own clothing collection, utilising zero waste pattern cutting and mostly cotton fabrics. The initial idea was to release a colourful, gender neutral, lightweight capsule collection made up of five pieces. However, as I educate myself on sustainability and began my journey into activism, I’ve since had a change of plans. I had issues with sourcing eco-friendly fabrics, which are not easy to find due to the weakened state of local textile manufacturing.  I also lost interest in making more clothes when I realised that we have enough clothes on the planet to last us six generations. To realise my capsule collection dream I might dive into the world of upcycled fashion. I might become a vintage reseller, too.  Since both of these options rely on what is already available to us, if done correctly, I believe they are less likely to cause additional environmental harm.

Your favourite commissions?

The “Sudany” editorial I directed and styled and which was published in Shuba magazine, will always have a very special place in my heart as it was my first ever published fashion job. For this project, I wanted to showcase something different, by working with four male models who highlighted the diversity of the Sudanese identity. My second favourite job was directing a commercial for Enda, which is Africa’s first running shoe company. Being heavily involved in that project from conceptualisation to storyboarding to location scouting to art directing and finally directing was a very satisfying experience. It made me look at fashion products as being a full-on creative experience.

 

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