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Zambian designer Betty Chilonde makes clothes in harmony with nature

by | Feb 27, 2021

For a fashion project that I did in collaboration with Zambian designer Betty Chilonde, she designed three looks that exhibit how she responds to her dream of living in harmony with nature and to critical questions. Why am I a designer? What am I contributing to the world? What is my relevance now? All the fabric is locally sourced cotton, some of it dyed with natural plants, cut to avoid waste and designed with longevity in mind. Betty believes fashion, is not only a means of expression, but a vehicle for economic development too. She is has used four significant colours orange (stimulating, flamboyant, symbolises energy, emotion, enthusiasm), black (power, mystery, maturity), green (life, freshness, growth) and brown (mother earth, it holds everything, it makes plants grown, we eat from the earth). The descriptions and notes below each look illustrate the areas of Betty’s work that I found interesting.

Listen to Betty talk about her brand Black Forest and this collection. Hers is an ethical, sustainable brand that does not want to disturb nature. Read about Betty here.

 

Clothing: Orange A-Line Gown, with tie-dye bodice (underskirt added by the stylist to create volume). The bodice, originally plain orange, obtains the green colour from the moringa plant, using the ‘tie-dye’ method. Stylist notes: We see a mini “landfill” made from the clothes found in Betty Chilonde’s studio. The clothes some of which she created, others she purchased were found scattered across a dimly lit room she one day hopes to turn into an office space. She was exasperated by not knowing what to do with all these clothes covering a 4m x 3m wide floor and about 15cm off the floor. The image poses two questions. If we start from the bottom the questions is: “Could it be that we are moving towards circularity? Using natural dyes, such as the moringa, turning what could be plastic waste into beautiful adornments and hair accessories? And, if we start from the top “are we moving further and further away from the repurposing we find in African history and culture, to one of waste?” This look also expresses fluidity, to illustrate the need to move away from the rigidity that is the current fashion system. When Betty makes a call to action, to not “design for design’s sake” but to think deeply about the value that fashion can create, she invites us into this fluidity, into this dance.

Clothing: Black asymmetrical dress. Features hand-stencilled detail by Betty Chilonde. Stylist notes: The image inspired by Betty’s personal story, her passion for sustainable fashion as something regal to behold. This is deepened by the stencil images of women along the longer end of the dress, as they represent the backbone of the fashion industry, the world over.

Clothing: Brown two-piece, featuring batik, potato-dyed (by Betty, during a trip to Ghana in 2012) bodice with ruffle detail. Stylist notes: For this final look, we used low angle photography to provoke the observer. The model stares piercingly into the lens, drawing the audience into the discourse on fashion and its economic viability. As a final look, it asks, “What next”? It also speaks to Betty’s interest in the empowerment of women in her work. Women are naturally sustainers, they preserve, they can build or destroy, which in itself is circular. For additional symbolism, drawing from conversations with Betty on the role that fashion plays in economic development, we see the model holding in her hand a miniature mbaula (the Nyanja word for ‘brazier’

Hair: ‘Monde Mashimu’ – a name shared with me by my late paternal grandmother for a hairstyle that is characterised by the wrapping of hair with cotton. For occasion and everyday wear, it is often used as a heatless method to straighten one’s hair. For the purpose of this shoot and discourse on circularity and sustainable fashion, the model’s hair is wrapped in strips of Shoprite and Pick ‘n Pay plastic shopping bags. Accessory: The model wears a “plastic sack choker” made from cutting across a polyethylene perforated potato sack. Make-up: Clean palette, with a full gloss lip and pop of orange liner on the eyelid.

Credits

Photographer and Creative Assistant: Kabelenga Phiri @phirikabelenga

Model: Bupe Chelelwa

Makeup Artist: Faith Hamafuwa

Designer: Betty Chilonde

Fashion Stylist: Sekayi Fundafunda

Hair Stylist: Sekayi Fundafunda

Set Design: Sekayi Fundafunda and Kabelenga Phiri

Art Director: Sekayi Fundafunda

Photography on farm: Chipo Mpulamasaka

 

Notes

  • 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.
  • Feature illustration: Francesco Mbele @franadilla
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