The Ugandan designer who recycles UK scraps – and returns them to sender
Asserting itself in more ways than one, a new fashion collection is made from the scraps of the North. Can he revive the Ugandan textile industry?
When it comes to fashion statements, Ugandan designer Bobby Kolade’s new collection is as bold as it gets.
The mish-mash of sewn-together panels carries an unmistakable message, one that’s printed loud and clear on the tag of her unique garments: “Return to Sender.” Materials sourced from global north used clothing.
Kolade’s first collection under his Buziga Hill is made up entirely of clothes sent to Uganda to be “recycled” by countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Repurposed and reshaped by Kolade’s six-person team, Buzigahill sends them back where they came from.
“We feel like there’s some sort of sartorial dictatorship, coming from the global north all the way to us,” Kolade said. “By sending things back, we respond with a clear and proud message: we are not just a dumping ground. We have the potential to produce, we have the potential to create.
Kolade – who is half German, half Nigerian – spent 13 years working in luxury fashion in Europe, winning a Vogue award for a collection made from a vegan leather alternative known as fabric d bark, from Uganda.
He returned to Kampala – Uganda’s capital and the city where he grew up – hoping to work with locally grown cotton. Instead, he found that the once thriving textile industry had been decimated by a new kind of colonialism. Like many African countries, Uganda had become a dumping ground for defrocked clothes from the north.
Kolade sorts through bales of clothes, looking for gems he can reuse. Image: Ian Nnyanzi.
Oxfam estimates that over 70% of clothing donated globally ends up in Africa. Uganda imports more than £100m worth of second-hand clothes a year, which are sold to street vendors in 90kg bales.
“The majority of Ugandans wear second-hand clothes from the north,” Kolade said. “No one distributes these clothes to the poor. What started as an innocent, charitable idea is literally a multi-billion dollar business.
We are not just the dumping ground. We have the potential to produce, we have the potential to create.
Kolade sources her own raw materials from the same warehouses that supply street vendors in Kampala. Sorting through bullets to find gems he can reuse, he is frequently stung by the condition of clothes arriving in Uganda: including shirts with sweat-stained armpits and jeans splattered with grease or paint.
“We are clearly at the very bottom of the supply chain in sub-Saharan Africa, because what comes here from Europe and North America is of the lowest quality,” he said.
“We’re a little cheeky,” Kolade says, “but we’re trying to send a positive message.” Image: Ian Nnyanzi
His project is twofold. He wants to create an industry that uses these used clothes as a commodity, and also revive the country’s textile industry, selling handwoven Ugandan textiles to local and global markets. He will begin by expanding Buzigahill’s factories across Uganda, and eventually into neighboring countries.
“Uganda is fertile ground for investment in terms of retraining and repurposing,” Kolade said. “It’s clearly something that hasn’t worked in the global north. With Return to Sender, we’re a bit cheeky, obviously, but we’re trying to send a positive message there.
Main picture: Ian Nnyanzi.
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