Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fabric shopping: back to our roots

Since I started One Mango Tree, East Africa's {broken} supply chains have been a pretty consistent source of wonder and frustration.

supply chain problems got so bad I had to journal about them

I followed the sad history of African kitenge fabric, from its Dutch origins to bales of imitation Chinese piece-meal versions flooding the local markets. As the business grew, I tried out working with a small local fabric print workshop. I watched in fear and horror as the mismanaged business collapsed under the weight of our order. I went bigger, working with the only vertically integrated textile manufacturer in Uganda. The echo of their laughter persisted for months when they price gouged us on a critical fabric order. 2,000 meters of printed organic cotton fabric means nothing when you're clothing the South Sudanese military.

new skirts, made with Cowry print - need enough fabric to make a zillion!

So, after 4 years of trying to find the perfect fabric source, I'm still searching, and trying (really, really hard) not to source directly from China. In the meantime, I decided that we'd just go back to our roots this season, sourcing bright kitenge in 12-yard pieces from the local vendors in Kampala.

Lisa haggling with a fabric vendor

Lisa Sonora Beam accompanied me downtown to help choose fabrics. I lived vicariously through the exhilaration of her first boda boda ride as we wound between matatus and afternoon traffic. When we arrived at Nakivubo Mews, I was shocked to see an empty construction site where Nalugo Traders used to be. I heard a woman calling out, and turned around to see Margret - one of the many vendors from Nalugo Traders - beckoning me from across the street.

stacks of kitenge - this is Lakshmi

I was amazed to see how the market had changed - the cotton, color-saturated kitenge is less common these days, replaced by synthetic silk-like fabrics, laser-cut lace in yellows and teals, and lots of glittery trims and big plastic buttons. It didn't take nearly as long as I thought to find the big vendor - today it's an over-loaded booth called Wax Africa. He buys from the Chinese bales and sells to the rest of the market vendors.

this season's source

We went nuts over the colors, deciding on five busy and bright prints - Lakshmi (red with a distinctly Indian vibe), Cowry (like the traditional Congolese, white, black, blue and green batik, with parallel lines of abstract cowry shells), Nalubaale (purple!), Mandala (one of the oldest kitenge print designs, recreated in turquoise and lime), and Gingko (a deep blue with cream and black abstract gingko leaves). When we were sure we'd bought just about every piece in the market, we packed it up and headed out, excited to start creating.

pack it up!

While this return to market fabrics is likely a brief reprieve from dealing with the big manufacturers, I really enjoyed the return - the boda boda ride, the haggling, the crazy crowded market, the clouds of exhaust from the neighboring taxi park, the almost comical insistence by vendors that "these fabrics are from CONGO!"

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