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Designer brain drain in Malawi

Khalidwe Wear is one of the few shops in Malawi selling modern, homegrown designs.
Photo by Amy LeBlanc.

By Amy LeBlanc

“Are you packing any heels?” my friend asked me months ago as I filled my suitcase for Malawi. The question was intended to be a joke. Of course I wasn’t packing heels, I was coming to Africa after all.

Not that I was naïve enough to pack combat boots, but on my daily walk to work in my sensible black flats I watched with surprise as young girls struggled on the unpaved road in sky-high stilettos. I didn’t realize I would find a Western fashion scene in Malawi.

While it’s true that many elder Malawians proudly wear chitenje (traditional fabric), a lot of younger Malawians sport Western clothes, either from secondhand markets or purchased at inflated prices from a few select import shops.

Upon arriving, I quickly noticed that there is very little modern, uniquely Malawian fashion design available. The gaping market for Malawian fashion is waiting to be filled by desperate design hopefuls, but with no fashion schools here, there is little quality fashion being produced by homegrown designers. And those who are able to get their labels off the ground struggle to break into the market. 

Clothing lines designed by local artists provide more than just a trendy alternative to market clothing, they offer a unique style coupled with a sense of pride in Malawi’s originality. It’s this originality that Sheena Chilimampunga, 25-year-old designer of Nzika Arts fashion line in Blantyre, has been channeling. “There’s a lot of creativity in Malawi but we’re not fully exposed to the international fashion industry,” she says, adding, “there are no fashion schools in Malawi.”

Chilimampunga insists that if young designers were exposed to the fashion world beyond Malawi’s borders, they could develop their design instincts to measure what’s trendy and marketable on an international level.

Sarah Rank, a social enterprise consultant from the U.K. who is launching her fashion line, Fabrikka, in Malawi agrees: “If you’re not exposed to what’s going on in the fashion world outside of Malawi, you’ll just continue producing what you know and what’s around you.”

But even Chilimampunga, who has travelled internationally and learned from foreign designers, has struggled. “I haven’t had any proper training in fashion and design,” she admits. “I rely on reading books and watching TV rather than having those learned skills.”

And without the networking opportunities offered through fashion school, many aspiring designers are “definitely going overseas to other countries that have fashion schools,” according to Wandumi Mwakisuou, chief designer of Khalidwe Wear in Blantyre. It’s a designer brain drain of sorts.

But in a country where most people live on less than $2 per day, the chance to leave Malawi for an education is rare, and getting a fashion business off the ground without the credibility of a degree isn’t easy.

“Start-up capital was quite a challenge,” Chilimampunga explains. “The banks didn’t trust us because we were young and didn’t have any experience.” 

There’s also little opportunity to market designs. “We need a place where designers can have their own stalls and showcase their work, where we would have more exposure,” Chilimampunga insists. She’d like to see something like the Vakwetu Art and Fashion Market in Namibia, a gallery where designers showcase their work to local customers and tourists alike.

Yet the question remains, with the secondhand market a predominant source of clothing, is there a market for high quality Malawian fashion?

Rank insists there is. “The middle class don’t want to go to the market,” she explains, “it’s a status thing—they want nice shops to go to.”

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to my sensible flats, but if I change my mind I’ll just have to splurge for an overpriced pair of imported heels to tide me over.

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Hey Amy, Your mum sent me your blog and this article. You should be very proud of yourself. I hope you are doing well and I know your mum is looking forward to December when you're home. Take care and keep 'em coming!!!

Interesting article. We know so little about Africa and places like Malawi. Thanks for giving us a little more insight.

Very interesting article Amy, keep up the good work.

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Africa Without Maps

  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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