Used clothes have become big business, and corporations in the Global North are reaping the benefits. With Buzigahill, the Ugandan designer is repurposing the West’s secondhand garments and sending them back to the countries from which they came in a bid to reimagine the system.
Buzigahill’s first collection—made craftily from repurposed secondhand clothes—took designer Bobby Kolade four years to launch after what he describes as a “series of disappointments.”
The story of Buzigahill starts back in 2018 when Kolade moved home to Kampala from Berlin with the intention of founding a brand that could help rebuild Uganda’s cotton industry by reopening factories and employing a local workforce. But the sector was so badly damaged by the political and economic turmoil of the 1970’s—which saw annual cotton output decline from 78,000 tons in 1972 to 2,000 tons in 1987—that Kolade’s hopes of reopening factories were forced to a halt. This was the first obstacle.
Kolade’s response was as reactive as it was innovative. “I realize if I’m going to do anything, then I might as well use what’s readily available,” Kolade told Atmos. “That means using secondhand clothing to generate work within a community, develop skills, create a brand, and build an industry. This isn’t a big design dream or anything. It’s a necessity.”
To say repurposing used clothes isn’t Kolade’s design dream is an understatement. On the contrary, Kolade has long been a vocal proponent of prohibiting the now-booming secondhand clothing trade. As of 2015, Oxfam estimated that 70% of clothes donated in Europe ended up in Africa. It’s a number that continues to rise with the rate of consumption, which has seen the number of times Westerners wore a garment decline by 36% compared to 15 years ago. The repercussions are manifold. Secondhand clothing imports from the Global North to countries across Africa have played a critical role in the battering of the continent’s textile industry. It’s not all clothes that are recycled, reused, and resold to local communities—those that don’t end up in dump sites with disturbing environmental and social repercussions.
For charities, however, the incentive to sell bales of used clothes to for-profit companies known as “textile recyclers” remains strong. The global secondhand clothing trade is currently valued at over £2.8 billion ($3.2 billion).
It’s a system that forces designers like Kolade, who is trained in both fashion design and tailoring, to build cohesive collections from disparate piles of deadstock fabrics. This, in turn, makes quality control a second major obstacle. “We’re being directed by what we receive,” said Kolade. “I used to have control over the materials I use. But in Uganda, we buy bales not knowing what the quality of the clothing is like.” Kolade said that only 50% of the clothes included in a typical bale of secondhand garments can be put towards a new collection. Moreover, the content of the bales are inconsistently labeled, meaning one marked “oversized hoodies” might include childrenswear or stained, unworkable pullovers.
“For now our design approach is about using the existing clothes without taking them completely apart,” said Kolade. “But there is definitely potential for us to regain more control as we build our team to include pattern-makers.”
“Clothes are produced at a very low cost in Southeast Asia, consumed in Europe, and dumped in Africa. What we’re fighting against is a culture.”
Buzigahill’s second collection, which dropped in late August, is as experimental and raw as the first. The collection features patchworked hoodies made from strips of multi-coloured fabrics, and hybrid trousers made from jeans and tracksuits. The result feels effortlessly harmonious, but the reality of the creative process is far from it. “We start by washing all the clothes before we do anything to them; we just throw things into the washing machine to better understand the extent of their damage,” said Kolade. The next step involves categorizing garments by materials, sizes, location of origin, and levels of damage into a spreadsheet. “It’s a very long and tedious process that is completely different from everything I had previously learned to do,” he adds.
Kolade operates a business model that he describes as “return-to-sender” whereby redesigned secondhand clothes are “redistributed to the Global North where they were originally discarded before being shipped to Uganda.” But neocolonial trade agreements led by The World Trade Organization and punitive taxation systems imposed by the Global North onto Sub-Saharan Africa are making it disproportionately difficult for business owners based on the continent. These agreements—like Everything But Arms or AGOA—offer preferential treatment to the export of locally-produced raw materials like coffee or chocolate with duty-free and quota-free access to Europe or the U.S. However, these agreements prohibit businesses working with used clothes from benefiting from the same tax reductions that are supposed to offer fair compensation to Sub-Saharan exporters, stating that secondhand clothes cannot be re-exported to Europe or the U.S.
The costs for brand-owners like Kolade are stifling. Not only does Buzigahill pay “textile recyclers” to acquire used clothes from countries in the Global North, the brand is also made responsible for the VAT and import taxes when shipping the goods to those very same countries. The total of these fees eats up to 40% of the brand’s revenue.
“A business like ours, we’re punished twice. We’re repurposing clothes from a country like the U.K. We’re paying all of these taxes to operate. But then companies in the U.K. are making money because somebody in Uganda is ordering bales of clothes. That’s money that’s staying in the U.K.,” said Kolade. “These are colonial dynamics. Where is the wealth accumulating? Where is the money going? You start to ask yourself: is it possible to build a sustainable business that’s offering a finished product—not a raw material—on the African continent if your market is in the Global North?”
Kolade is clear that the onus is on governments, institutions, and policy makers. But he urges consumers in the Global North to be mindful of where they spend their money. Supporting and investing in Black-owned brands based in the Global South is a direct form of redistribution of resources. “If you order from an African brand, you’re helping,” said Kolade. “The more people I can hire and the more African brands can actually set up sustainable businesses, the more leverage we have against big corporations and secondhand clothing on the continent.” The end goal for Buzigahill is to set up facilities, factories, and production lines all the while creating hundreds of jobs in Uganda. It’s the only way to shift the country’s consumption habits from a dependency on secondhand clothes to clothes produced using locally-sourced materials and fiber-to-fiber textiles.
But, the road ahead remains long. “Even if we were to reopen a few factories, how long would it take for us to actually start producing clothes that can compete against secondhand clothes in terms of price and diversity?” Kolade said. “As things stand, clothes are produced at a very low cost in Southeast Asia, consumed in Europe, and dumped in Africa. In other words, what we’re fighting against is a system, a culture. And it’s so difficult to eradicate a culture, especially when that culture has the power and the money—to put it bluntly. How can an institution like the European Union put a pause on fast fashion production? I don’t know how that’s possible, but it’s what needs to happen.”