The fashion industry’s global supply chain has broken down due to COVID-19. Some 100,000 stores will close in the United States by fiscal 2025, with apparel retailers the hardest hit at 24,000 closures. The famous department store Neiman Marcus is expected to file for bankruptcy protection sometime this week.
The failure, however, isn’t solely about the global health pandemic. It is in part a failure to adapt to a sustainable model instead of a shift toward fast fashion. When a US$10 shirt at H&M and a US$1,000 shirt from Hermès are made in the same factory, if not by the same hands, in an emerging market, then global fashion has a problem.
Africa has the youngest population in the world—an estimated 60 percent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are under the age of twenty-five. Yet the fashion world tends to treat Africans as consumers of primarily second-hand clothing from the developed world, and excludes them from conversations about the future of fashion.
In solving this problem, some of Africa’s traditional sustainable fashion practices could play a role. The continent’s cultural heritage—like barkcloth manufacturing in Uganda, woven textiles from Nigeria and Ghana, traditional Berber weaving in North Africa, and beadwork from Maasai and Ndebele artisans—could play a central role in the revitalization of the fashion industry in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
Looking to Tradition
Barkcloth, in particular, has been receiving renewed attention. Long worn by traditional faith healers and as a burial shroud, it is increasingly being revitalized for bespoke fashion. The whisky-colored cloth is made from pounding the fibrous inner bark of the Ficus natalensis tree, variously known as a Natal fig, mutuba, or omutoma tree. It is a laborious process, which may explain how barkcloth production began to decline after the introduction of cotton as an alternative textile by Arab traders in the 19th century. Yet it was once widely worn, and the cloth’s durability is more similar to leather than other plant-based textiles.
Entrepreneurial Ugandans have started to use the textile for anything from clothing to bedspreads and pillow covers.
“I have been to too many funerals of barkcloth makers in recent years,“ says Ugandan visual artist Fred Kato Mutebi,” These aritisans and most of them are male, leave this earth with nothing for their families to inherit but their mallets.”
Mutebi often uses barkcloth as canvases for his artworks. He estimates there are less than a hundred artisans with the knowledge of making barkcloth left in Uganda. “We as artists, designers, and Ugandans must do more to protect this tradition and help it go global.”
The Cloth of Kings
Barkcloth is most closely associated with the people of three of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms, Tooro, Bunyoro, and Buganda. The Kingdom of Tooro, in particular, is seeking to develop its barkcloth industry. The Queen mother, H.R.H Best Kemigisa, has advocated for the planting of trees used to produce barkcloth, saying it will not only provide jobs but also serve to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Her son, H.R.H King Oyo Rukidi IV, is currently championing a new initiative that will create jobs centered on the Tooro cultural heritage of barkcloth manufacturing.
“The Omutoma tree that Barkcloth comes from has been with man since the beginning of time and used for fashion, as a shroud, a fire preserver, a blanket, used in spiritual rituals and we intend on continuing the heritage into the future,” said Hon. Peter Apuuli Rusoke, the Minister of Culture of the kingdom of Tooro.
Surely some of Africa’s other indigenous fashion traditions can similarly be promoted at this time. Now is the time to develop collaborative opportunities to ensure the future of such traditions, from Uganda to South Africa to Morocco.
Camilla Barungi is a New York-based model, entrepreneur, and social innovator with a special interest in Pan-Africanism, sustainability, fashion, emerging technologies, and film.