Na mumu dey go boutique loosely translates to “only fools shop at boutiques.” These words are the chorus to a bustling market in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria, sung by sellers of Okrika (second-hand clothing). Moreso, these words are a perception that much of the general populace hold regarding pre-owned pieces. According to 2011 UN Comtrade data, OECD countries’ global used clothing exports stood at $1.9 billion in 2009. Recent figures from the UN show that an estimated 80% of Africans wear secondhand clothing. Nigeria’s growing resale market can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s. Then, Okrika, Rivers State, was the only port where used clothes from Europe could come through. For a long time, the business thrived and continues to do so, thanks in large part to the Gen Z community and their progressive attitudes towards overconsumption.
The pre-loved fashion resurgence in the West has more to do with a style conversation than one based on need. Luxury conglomerates, such as Kering—the €13.1 billion European group that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and many other high-profile brands, purchased resale platform Vestiaire Collective for a whopping €178 million in March 2021. DEPOP—the world’s biggest pre-owned clothing marketplace, boasting a community of 30 million registered users worldwide, continues to collaborate with brands like Ganni, Adidas, and even more recently, a collaboration with HBO Max and Gossip Girl, solidifying its place in contemporary fashion culture.
Quartz Africa December 2018, Aswani Second-Hand Market, Nigeria. Photo: via Quartz Africa.
On the contrary, the second-hand market in Africa poses vastly different challenges. Many argue that the importation of secondhand clothing into the African continent wiped out its many domestic textile and garment industries, making it difficult for local producers to compete. As a result, the Central Bank of Nigeria restricted importers of textiles, clothes, and woven fabrics from accessing the nation’s official foreign exchange markets. This restriction by the apex bank was an intervention that would help revitalize local manufacturing and change the economy’s structure.
“If we go down memory lane, Nigeria had 167 textile mills and 300,000 workers in its employ, in the late 60s and early ’70s,” says Hamma Kwajaffa, Director General of the Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association. “Due to the economic liberalization of the 1980s (which saw the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Program as a means to accelerate economic growth through the elimination of price distortions, promotion of competition, and market-oriented economy), as well as an influx of foreign goods, the industry began to decline, and companies began to close in droves―to the extent that today, the textile mills have shriveled to 24, employing no more than 20,000 workers.”
Perhaps a switch in perspective towards pre-loved clothing will be the industry’s saving grace. Suppose the future of Nigerian fashion is circular, taking advantage of the already existing markets and supply structures of secondhand clothing and turning it into something altogether more viable.
London-based British-Nigerian designer Priya Ahluwalia certainly thinks so―tapping into the pre-owned market to source fabrics for her vibrant designs. With her eponymous brand founded in 2018, she pieces together markers from her Indian and Nigerian mixed heritage. Her garments are made from recycled materials sourced in Nigeria—an idea sparked on a trip to visit family in Nigeria when trying to figure out who she was as a designer. “I noticed all the guys in traffic jams were wearing secondhand clothing,” she explains. “I suppose that was the first time I thought about where everything goes when we don’t use it anymore. Charities sell clothing to recyclers and countries around the world.”
With 25% of the Nigerian population being Gen Z, an ever-growing youth population passionate about resale fashion and changing thrift culture, ‘sustainability,’ ‘transparency,’ and ‘circular fashion’ are more than just buzzwords, they’re a workable solution. For Onyeka and Ifeoma Nwobu, sisters and founders of FRU Girls, a Nigerian fashion resale brand that started on Instagram, thrift fashion is more than just clothes. It is a way to empower young women to achieve financial independence. “If we can help women build a healthy financial lifestyle by promoting affordable clothing options and sustainable financial choices, then we’ve done great things,” Onyeka explains.
Ahluwalia FW'22. Photo: via Ahluwalia.
Ahluwalia SS'22. Photo: via Ahluwalia.
Ahluwalia SS'21. Photo: via Ahluwalia.
Onyeka Nwobu of FRU Girls. Photo: via @frugirls.
The sisters created FRU Girls because they had grown up thrifting, thanks to their parents, who looked to used items as a way to clothe their children without breaking the bank. But, most importantly, the girls began to learn how the practice of thrift impacted the environment. “Fashion is very aware now that overconsumption impacts the environment and on a personal level, we began to see how our habits played a part in climate change,” Ifeoma continues, “With this awareness, thrift, or resale fashion has become cool, shoppers are more value-focused, they are very anti-waste, anti-fast fashion, and pro-affordable clothing. It’s a value hunt!”
FRU Girls capitalizes on the pre-existing supply chain for secondhand fashion and has built a community of buyers who consign unworn garments to FRU Girls. Ifeoma says, “During the lockdown, we couldn’t access our suppliers, which is why we are very community-focused. We believe that if everyone took some time to shuffle their wardrobes, the clothes would go around without any extra production process.” On building a community, she continues, “We are very fortunate to be building relationships with people who are very stylish and consumers of Nigerian fashion. Some are even local designers who consign to us locally made clothing. In the future, our sourcing will include the local fashion and design industry on a much larger scale.” Onyeka continues, “We would love for Nigeria to have an upcycling and recycling giant, as well as more resale businesses as a means to combat overconsumption and waste.”
But, what about the growing design and textile industry in Nigeria? How does the resale market fit into that world? In the last decade, Lagos Fashion Week has mirrored the growth of Nigeria’s fashion industry, giving a significant platform to a community of designers to artisans, attracting global attention, and spotlighting rising and established regional talent. However, as the fashion industry in Nigeria continues to grow steadily, the realities of overconsumption and production as they affect the environment are becoming more evident. As a result, some in the industry are beginning to look for sustainable solutions. Onyeka says, “The fashion industry in Nigeria has been focused on sustainability from the perspective of designing with eco-friendly materials and heritage textile techniques, which is great, but the industry has to embrace all aspects of circular fashion.”
While it cannot be denied that an overdependence on second-hand fashion has harmed the growth of the fashion and textile industry, a more successful vision for the future looks to strike a balance between both. To create a genuinely circular sector, we must utilize the existing resale market and developing export markets to reach a largely untapped Gen Z demographic with 51.5 million potential consumers. While still in its relative infancy, we can already see the many avenues possible for creating a robust industry. One that respects and repurposes indigenous techniques for contemporary consumers and has a self-awareness that allows it to develop in a meaningful way that supports people across various socio-economic groups with access to fashion at all levels.
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