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Kenyan Designers Make Fashion Statement Against Textile Waste

Nairobi, Kenya – The dawn barely colours the sky with a soft hue of gray when traders at Gikomba, the largest secondhand market in East Africa, start arranging their merchandise on low wooden stalls. Thrift clothes they buy by weight in large sealed plastic bundles are carefully sorted by category. A pile of jeans. A pile of tennis shoes. Bras of various colours and sizes hanging neatly in a row.

Despite the early hour, the narrow Kenyan market alleys swarm with people, and vendors scream over each other, touting their merchandise. The suspense rises when a trader opens a new package. Shoppers flock around, hunting for “cameras”. “Pieces that look like clothes you would see in a magazine or on TV. That deserve to be filmed on camera,” explained Isichy Shanicky, a 21-year-old designer at the Maisha by Nisria Collective.

Like millions of Kenyans, she knows how to navigate the labyrinths of Gikomba effortlessly, following its unwritten rules.

“Come early. You want to be there when a new package is opened,” she said. “Dress down. The vendor will look at you to determine the price. If you see a piece you like, hold onto it. Or someone else will claim your precious find.”

Shopping secondhand is so popular it has developed its own vocabulary and etiquette.

Secondhand clothes shipped from abroad account for a large sector of the Kenyan economy. In 2021, the country imported $169m worth of them.  The Gikomba market alone provides employment to about 65,000 people. Critics said it comes at the expense of the home textile industry, which struggles to compete, and the environment.

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Mounds of unsold secondhand clothing that is damaged or worn-out is discarded on the shores of the Nairobi River outside Gikomba market. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]

Nicholas Kilonzi made his career at Gikomba. In 2009, his father died, and the family could not afford to pay for Kilonzi’s education. He found his first job helping a secondhand shoe merchant and eventually saved enough money to start his own business, which employs three people today.

Over the years, the quality of the clothes that come from abroad has gone down together with Kilonzi’s profit. “We open a 62kg [137lb] package, and we find maybe 10 cameras,” he said. “Five years ago, there would be 40 or 35.”

The non-cameras, clothes of poor quality, damaged or worn-out, are sold at 50 shillings ($0.35) a piece. The leftovers become industrial rugs or get discarded on the shores of the Nairobi River, which flows next to Gikomba. About one-third of all garments are plastic waste that will disintegrate into particles polluting the soil and the ocean.

Colourful mountains of unwanted clothing line the river’s shores – one of the consequences of the fast fashion industry. Such landscapes have become a familiar sight in the Global South, far from glamorous catwalks and glowing shop windows of the fashion capitals of the world.

To hold a mirror up to the industry’s environmental and social sins, the creative team behind Nairobi Fashion Week organised a photo shoot at the dump site. The shoot is part of its Just Fashion campaign, which runs from April to November.

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Conde Tausi, a designer from the Maisha by Nisria Collective, started making clothes from items in his mother’s closet that she no longer wore. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]

“We are not trying to fight the secondhand. It provides employment and affordable clothing to millions of people. We advocate for responsible consumer choices and government regulation policies to make fashion sustainable. What people buy makes a difference,” said Idah Garette, an environmental activist and model who participated in the shoot.

The organic silk dress with hand-painted sustainability messages that Idah wears on the campaign photos is a creation of Deepa Dosaja, one of Kenya’s high-end designers at the forefront of promoting ethical fashion choices. “I have seen a positive change,” Dosaja said. “People who used to shop in Dubai or London are now proud to wear Kenyan. Ethical fashion is not only better for the environment. It creates dignified and meaningful employment.”

Today, young designers are shaping Kenya’s fashion market and reinventing its long and conflicted relationship with the secondhand. Maisha by Nisria is a young fashion studio. Its designers, aged 21 to 28, create original pieces from secondhand garments and discarded fabrics. Shopping in places like Gikomba is part of their creative process and a way to reduce the environmental impact of their trade.

“You touch a piece, and it speaks to you,” says Conde Tausi, a 28-year-old designer for whom using secondhand started as a necessity and eventually turned into a purpose. “When I experimented with my first designs, I didn’t have money to buy fabrics. So I used things from my mother’s wardrobe – clothes she didn’t wear. After some time, I noticed the wardrobe became tidier. And I thought that maybe this is something we could do at the scale of the planet.”

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In a report called Poisoned Gifts, Greenpeace says 30 to 40 percent of secondhand clothing imports end up being dumped. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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Idah Odeka, a model and environmental activist, says Nairobi Fashion Week’s Just Fashion campaign aims to support Kenya’s fashion industry in its environmentally sustainable and socially equitable transition. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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A tailor works at Gikomba, the largest secondhand market in East Africa. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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Nicholas Kilonzi found a job at Gikomba after his father died. Today, he employs three people. Customers gather around him as he opens a new bundle of secondhand clothes. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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Traders from small towns and villages around Kenya buy clothes at Gikomba to resell at home. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]


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Fifteen- to 34-year-olds form 35 percent of the Kenyan population and have an unemployment rate of 67 percent. More than one million young people enter the labour market annually without any skills. For many of them, places like Gikomba provide rare job opportunities. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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Conde Tausi uses thrift clothes to create his own designs in a style he calls African futurism. He says more and more young people want to wear Kenyan brands. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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Isichy Shanicky, a 21-year-old designer at the Maisha by Nisria Collective, removes accessories from a pair of secondhand jeans that she will use for her own designs. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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Isichy Shanicky says the quality of secondhand imports has gone down over the years and it has become more difficult to find quality denim. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]
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For the young designers at Maisha, using secondhand clothing started as a necessity due to the high cost of fabrics and became part of their creative process. “We are making a new story,” Isichy Shanicky says. [Alyona Synenko/Al Jazeera]

Source : Al Jazeera