Slow Fashion: The Need for Small Batch and Made-to-Order Production

Words by The Folklore Team

Many new businesses are started with big hopes and dreams of fulfilling a huge demand, gaining widespread reach and achieving global recognition. With social media and online shopping platforms, it’s much easier than it used to be for brands to attract new eyeballs for their products and gain customers or buyers in the process.

For an emerging brand, the ideal scenario might be to design and create hundreds of products that will be stocked in leading retailers and stores across the world. But the reality is often not as straightforward. The fashion industry has been identified as one of biggest contributors to climate pollution, with fast-fashion practices as the main culprit – the average American throws away an estimated 37kg of clothes each year. Buying new clothes and changing wardrobes every season leads to large amounts of waste from unwanted clothing, filling up landfills across the world with fabrics that are not biodegradable. As a result, much fanfare has been made about the industry embracing “slow fashion” and sustainable practices that result in conscious collections.

But for many diverse brands or designers from emerging markets, the choice to employ a sustainably minded, often small-scale production is not only economical, but necessary. Sourcing fabrics and materials that will be enough for a whole collection, and the factory with the capacity to produce them can be a challenge. With most of the world’s manufacturing outsourced to places such as China, Malaysia or Taiwan, many African factories are not big enough for huge productions, especially when you consider that most of the work is done by hand.

Still, when London-based designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi wanted to start a handbag line in 2014, she chose to employ the traditional raffia weaving techniques that are practiced by women in her home country of Ghana. Especially seeking to preserve the art form, Afriyie-Kumi’s designs for AAKS are made to highlight the intricate weaving process and craftsmanship that goes into each handmade piece; the whole idea is that they will never be mass produced. While this may seem like the antithesis of a successful business model, it’s one that considers all aspects of the current ecosystem in the African fashion industry, from the farmers growing the materials, to the fabric weavers and dyers, the artisans and the seamstresses, as well as the consumers.

Importing fabrics or materials from countries outside of Africa can be cost prohibitive, and many fledging brands do not have the capital to make such huge investments at the start of their businesses. Taking advantage of locally available resources and manufacturers close to home also gives designers the opportunity to oversee the production process, allowing for better quality control of the end product the consumer receives.

Using locally sourced material is also important to South African accessory designer Thalia Strates: “We use materials that are indigenous to Africa – we have such a wealth of raw materials which are unique to us.” The transparency of where the materials come from, along with having a lasting relationship with the artisans who handcraft each piece are key to the brand’s operations.

Thalia Strates explicitly doesn’t “do seasonal collections”; instead, the brand has a core range of classic styles that are updated with new accents and finishes regularly. Those finishes include shearling linings, springbok hides and skins that are a by-product of the meat industry, and not from animals that are farmed for that sole purpose. Therefore, the brand allows the demand for its good to drive production, creating each item in limited pieces – one handbag, which is handmade in a small artisan workshop in Cape Town, can take up 20 days to produce. As a result, the made-to-order model helps to preserve resources and reduce waste.

This is a method that Nigerian brand Shekudo also employs. “We use strategic cutting in all of our production processes to avoid wasting resources. If any waste is generated, it is recycled into new products,” the brand says.  “To ensure that our operations are environmentally conscious and sustainable, our artisans do not produce in large quantities as we prefer to create products based on small-batch principles and the number of orders received.”

Producing in small, manageable quantities is also way for some African brands to incorporate their heritage into their work. Detroit-based skincare brand Ilera Apothecary draws on the founder Chinonye Akunne’s Nigerian background, with a particular focus on keeping West African practices and philosophies alive. The brand prides itself on its sustainable practices, which include the use of renewable, naturally sourced ingredients such as “okwuma”, the Igbo term for shea butter, in a lot of its products. Other ingredients commonly found on the African continent and used in Ilera Apothecary’s products include lavender, chamomile, coconut oil and cocoa butter.

But the most significant way that small productions benefit the African fashion industry is by directly employing makers and artisans who are actually preserving the creative practices. Going from four to 14 artisans in the space of just a year, Shekudo’s goal is to shed more light on the local craftsmanship scene while integrating age-old techniques and often overlooked local resources into its contemporary aesthetic.

AAKS follows the same principle. Upon returning to Ghana, Afriyie-Kumi spent time getting to know the raffia weavers she wanted to work with, many of whom were skeptical and jaded from people who had promised them work but never followed through. But by making use of their weaving skills, and paying fair wages for their labor, these artisans are able to support themselves and their families, and make sure that their craft keeps being passed on from generation to generation.

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