Image Source: Hen Nyandei
We’re all guilty of it. We see a beautiful bag, skirt, etc crafted and sewn in vibrant and colorful african fabric and we immediately want it. But when we ask the price and we are told that the wallet is $20 or that the skirt is $50, we immediately lose interest. In fact some feel as if their intelligence has been insulted because they know that the piece did not take a lot of Leones to produce. Some don’t even ask the price because they are of the opinion that african inspired clothing and accessories are overpriced.
Sound familiar? Well you’re not alone. But recently it dawned on me that we all need to fix the way we think about african inspired clothing, accessories and other goods. Simply put, we should not expect them to be cheaper because we think they are inferior to clothing and other items by big brand names. As I learned recently, it takes effort and in some cases more money than you might think to produce these goods and depending on where you live shipping can really add to the cost.
I wanted to get the opinion of producers and sellers of African inspired goods so I spoke with Laura Koroma, Owner and Founder of Hen Nyandei and Hawa Denis, who frequently supports her friends businesses KAYS Tailoring and Monaj by purchasing goods from them and selling here in the diaspora to earn some income. Laura agreed that it is an issue. So much that it has deterred her from attempting to send her items abroad for sale as customers back home tend to be more supportive. She mentioned the cost to produce includes obtaining fabric, trimmings, paying the tailor if you do not sew yourself and if she needs to ship the item, shipping can be quite expensive. Hawa also voiced that shipping is a much added cost and that she usually struggles or has to wait for some time to get the goods to her. You might be thinking that these are not your problem but then it goes back to how your expectation of the price for these goods can not dictate how they are priced. Similar to how H&M prices and you can either afford it or not.
Western brand clothing such as H&M are sold in stores so one does not have to worry about shipping if you don’t order online but trust us there was a cost to produce that shirt or jeans. And similarly that cost was factored into the price with a generous markup for their profit. Expect that the cost was much lower to a big name Company that can negotiate really low prices with factories in China and other places. Often these clothes are produced in ways that poses harm to the workers and the environment. In an article by Nordic Business Insider it was estimated that the total salary of a factory worker in Bangladesh where some of H&M clothes are produced is $86 monthly. Compare that one month salary to the price of one ethically made affordable cashmere sweater from Everlane which is $100. As the saying goes you “get what you pay for” and every business is in it to make money.
These western goods seem like the better option because by the time they make it to your local store and are put on mannequins, they’re far removed from the conditions that they were produced in. Also $25 for a shirt sounds much more reasonable for a shirt from H&M than $40 for an ankara top? Besides the fact that it cost H&M much less to produce that shirt than it did the producer of the ankara top, african inspired goods are specially made with vibrant designs that can elevate an outfit if worn properly. They are investment pieces (yes I said investment) that you can wear and style in many different ways. You do not just wash them and they fall apart. They are typically not worn daily. You are far less likely to throw away an african inspired piece than you would a shirt from a low cost fashion brand. Instead you are more likely to think of someone to give the shirt to. Another reason why people feel more inclined to buy Western brand clothing is because they will get more wear out of it. The fact that you will wear your $15 top from X fashion brand more doesn’t mean that those Made in Sierra Leone should also be at that price point or even priced less.
So here’s what we suggest. Make an intention now to invest in some African inspired pieces to break out of this bad habit and make this intention before you’re presented with the opportunity to purchase something. Think about what type of pieces you want and what you would like to do with them and remember that you’re making an investment in yourself (and in the lives of the producers who probably can use the additional $15 if you take my example earlier of a $40 ankara top vs. a $25 shirt from H&M). Come up with a budget that fits your lifestyle and the next time that you see an african inspired clothes, shoes or accessories think about whether the goods meet your investment criteria and if so buy it. But don’t “think they’re selling a top for $40, I can add to that money and get five outfits from Sierra Leone”. The cost has gone up to produce in Sierra Leone as well.