Bags of ‘Love’ in Africa

Vivienne Westwood ethical fashion africa

I seem to have been writing a lot about the celebrity ‘push’ to save  Africa, and one example I use over and over again is Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Ethical Africa’ collection, launched in 2011.

The designer is making bags in the Kibera slum of Nairobi in Kenya, an endeavour that can only be applauded for offering impoverished locals the chance to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. That must be a good thing. And yet, and yet…

A closer look at the project reveals some enduring attitudes that should have been thrown out long ago with the proverbial colonial bathwater, and not least of these is the representation of Africa and Africans as supplicant dependents. The photo shoot (and film) that accompanied the designer’s ‘progress’ was ostensibly a personal portrayal of Vivienne Westwood, literally slumming it, as she grandly pronounced on how “fashion can save the world.” But look behind her, at the faces of the people who are standing, mute as usual, and staring at several grand’s worth of haute couture prancing about on rubbish heaps. There was scant criticism of this campaign, except in African blogs, and this sublime piece by Camilla Long in the Sunday Times.

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The ‘Ethical Africa’ collection (more accurately, the ‘Ethical Kenya’ collection) was launched at the gorgeous Palazzo Corsini gardens in Florence, with a host of beautiful fashion people to admire the bags, presented not within the palace, but in an old shed-like building with stained concrete walls. The bags themselves were hung from bare twigs. The message? Africa is so raw, so deliciously backward, but only western designers can recognise qualities to which the Africans themselves are oblivious.

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The real question is just how much the workers in Kibera are being paid, and what profit margins Vivienne Westwood is enjoying by having her accessories made so cheaply. Even the language of the marketing leads the consumer to conclude that the makers are somehow apart from the sophisticated business of global markets. This is “trade not aid” proclaims the advertising. It seems sensible, in that case, to just call it trade. And it is all “hand made with love” apparently. The artisans, suggests this promotional slogan, are like children, who also make things for love.

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This phrase subtly removes the artisan from the grubby money-making process, and characterizes these people as being so simplistic that they are unable to comprehend systems of monetary exchange.

Africa’s artisans deserve better than this.

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