Fashion, which is more than just clothing, has for a long time been considered as a conveyor of status, statement, affiliations, values, ideals and even perceptions.
To date, there is a silent war around the world where countries continuously fight to own the next fashion trend, which in turn guarantees the extent of influence a country has in the global clothing industry.
In a world obsessed with image, being top influencers of fashion trends also ensures that countries increase their exports of clothing and textiles across the world leveraging on areas of competitiveness and materials readily available to them.
The global market for clothing and textile, which is heavily influenced by fashion trends has been growing over the past few years, from US$925 billion in 2015 to almost US$1 trillion in 2019, according to Trade Map.
Top global exporters of clothing and textile last year were China (US$324 billion), Vietnam (US$68 billion), Italy (US$49 billion), Germany (US$48 billion), and Bangladesh (US$44 billion).
In Africa, the total exports of clothing and textile in 2019 according to Trade Map were US$18.3 billion, dominated by Tunisia (US$4.3 billion), Morocco (US$4 billion), Egypt (US$3.2 billion), South Africa (US$1.5 billion, and Mauritius (US$687 million).
To put into perspective and weigh in on the potential of clothing and textile to national exports, the total export bill of Tunisia in 2019 was around US$15 billion, while that of Morroco was US$29 billion.
For Zimbabwe, the total value in export of clothing and textile in 2019 was just US$62.3 million and concentrated within the regional markets such as South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, and Botswana, according to Trade Map.
Of this value, exports of cotton amounted to around US$42 million, whilst articles of apparel and clothing accessories, which are not knitted or crocheted were US$12 million.
Although the nature of export markets is not a problem, the export figures shows that more needs to be done if the fashion industry is to contribute meaningfully to economic development and national exports.
Figures from Trade Map suggest that the country is exporting more clothing and textile products that are not value added, which translate to exporting jobs.
The huge contribution of clothing and textile to national exports of some of African countries is an indication of how they have harnessed the potential by developing crucial value chains that makes it easy to increase output for exports from their economies.
This is also a result of the realization that owning the next trending fashion creates a strong narrative for a country, which is an enabler for increased tourism and investment.
Further to this, paying closer attention to the fashion industries has potential to enable all provinces or groupings of people to impact on the global narrative and increase provincial exports.
In 2017, Louis Vuitton partnered with Basotho tribe in making clothing made from their traditional blanket garments which retail for as much as R33,000.00 in Europe and abroad.
This means that Louis Vuitton successfully turned a R1000 blanket into a R33,000 high end luxury fashion trend for men.
With such examples, the script is there for Zimbabwean stakeholders in the fashion industry to increase exports and actively contribute to national economic development.
What is required now is to come up with an inclusive framework that can harness potential in all players within the fashion and clothing value chain, leverage on the Zimbabwean diaspora as well as address current challenges affecting the industry.
Potential of Zimbabwean diaspora to the local fashion industry cannot be over-emphasized.
Currently, the Nigerian agbada (Nigerian robe) and dashiki (colourful pullover garment for men) as well as the aso oke hat (hand-loomed cotton cloth head tie which originates from the Yoruba people) are slowly penetrating America and England because of the growing population of Nigerians abroad.
The Nigerians living abroad still embrace their ethnic roots and desire to wear their original clothes hence their pride in their regalia is having a positive influence on the surrounding communities that they dwell in.
The result has been an increase in the desire for Nigerian attires abroad.
This is something Zimbabweans need to emulate to grow our fashion exports.
However, the starting point in influencing global fashion trends is defining what Zimbabwe will be known for, as part of its contribution to the fashion arena.
There is need to quickly define the Zimbabwean fashion that can be easily made with locally available resources.
Perhaps the once suggested national dress idea could be redeveloped and marketed to the global village especially our diaspora community.
The national style and fashion must be linked to our people and their cultural essence, something indigenous and unique to Zimbabwe as a country.
This will allow local producers to control the means of production because communities and local groupings will be owners of the essential raw materials and ingredients for the successful production of that style and form of fashion.
This becomes the unique selling proposition which will not be easily emulated by closest competitors.
Like the usual saying that “there is no one better than Zimbabwe at being Zimbabwean”, the winning formula at creating a winning fashion industry should anchor on fair contribution of all stakeholders along the entire fashion industry.
This fair contribution and partition can be used to invoke a feeling of ownership to a fashion trend, which is a pre-requisite to a successful fashion statement.
This way, all participants to export of fashion industry will work under a unified force and create a strong brand that can compete on the export market.
Designers from different companies must collaborate in creating national trends.
Here they need to share information, skills, and periodic updates of trends in the fashion industry, which can go a long way in developing enough numbers necessary for changing a global fashion narrative.
Designers must not also shy from using digital media to promote their products online as it is a cheaper and faster way to access a broad spectrum of potential clients.
Once trends and promotion channels are clearly defined, there is need to be deliberate in building local fashion and style brands for exports.
Designers should be encouraged to develop brands as opposed to engaging in shift production.
A brand is identified as having a greater net worth and its propensity to wither the economic storms the country is facing is noted as higher.
These brands must be constantly worked on with the bias to the unique Zimbabwean selling point that will distinguish them on the international fashion scene.
Currently, ZimTrade – the national trade development and promotion organisation – is developing capacities of local small and medium enterprises in the clothing sector, with the assistance of partners from the Netherlands-based PUM and SES of Germany.
These activities have seen some companies improve their production efficiency, output, and quality, which ensures that Zimbabwean products are commensurate with international standards and result in increased confidence and improved export figures.
There is need to develop capacities in young designers and youth led businesses as they are creative enough to keep up with changing global trends.
There is a realization among experts that young people in the fashion industry of Zimbabwe are hungry for exports and as such concerted efforts by all stakeholders must be made to nurture start-ups which could be a remedy to the country’s economic woes in the not so distant future.
Further to these capacity development activities, there is need for stakeholders to engage closely and address challenges that continue to affect the fashion industry.
These include retooling as most producers are using obsolete machines which consumer more power and raw materials.
A recent capacity development workshop organized by ZimTrade for designers revealed that some local producers are using design softwares that are ten years behind current versions used by competitors in Europe and this makes local products uncompetitive on the export market.
In addition, it has been realised that in many companies, the gap between management and shop floor workers is glaringly huge.
This becomes a major bottle neck to progress because the workers on the ground may not grasp the company’s vision fully.
There is need to create strong linkages between clothing manufactures and leaning institutions for continuous upgrading of local skills.
There are plans to establish a center of excellence for the local fashion industry that will assist in improving the competitiveness of local SMEs within the sector.
Plans are that the center will promote networks and foster cooperation between fashion and textile designers and other creative entrepreneurs, textile entrepreneurs and local mills.
The center of excellence will be integrated with creative incubators for fashion students and upcoming artists for generation of ‘cross-over-effects’ and learning.
Here, the centre will strive to improve the employability skills of youth and to facilitate their access to international markets.