Ugandan designer upcycles British cast-offs – and returns them to sender

Making a statement in more ways than one, a new fashion collection is made from the global north’s cast-offs. Can it reboot Uganda’s textile industry?

As fashion statements go, Ugandan-based designer Bobby Kolade’s new collection is as bold as they come.

The mish mash of stitched-together panels holds an unequivocal message, one that’s printed loud and clear on the label of his one-off garments: ‘Return to sender. Materials sourced from secondhand clothes from the global north.’

Kolade’s first collection under his Buzigahill brand is made up entirely of clothes sent to Uganda for ‘recycling’ by countries like the US and UK. Repurposed and refashioned by Kolade’s six-strong team, Buzigahill is sending them back to where they came from.

“We feel there’s a kind of clothing dictatorship, coming from the global north to us,” said Kolade. “By sending things back, we are responding with a clear, proud message: we’re not just the dumping ground. We have the potential to produce, we have the potential to create.”

Kolade – who is half German, half Nigerian – spent 13 years working in luxury fashion in Europe, picking up a Vogue award for a collection crafted from a vegan, leather alternative known as bark cloth, sourced from Uganda.

He returned to Kampala – the Ugandan capital and the city where he grew up – hoping to work with home-grown cotton. Instead, he discovered the once-thriving textile industry was being destroyed by a new form of colonialism. Like many African countries, Uganda had become a waste bin for the north’s clothing cast-offs.

A woman models a Buzigahill design

Kolade looks through clothes to find gems he could repurpose. Image: Ian Nnyanzi.

Oxfam estimates that 70% of clothing donated globally ends up in Africa. Uganda imports over £100m-worth of secondhand clothes a year, which are sold on to street vendors in 90kg bales.

“The majority of Ugandans wear secondhand clothes from the global north,” said Kolade. “No one is distributing these clothes to the poor. What started out as an innocent, charitable idea is literally a multibillion-dollar business.”

We’re not just the dumping ground. We have the capacity to produce, and we have the potential of creating.

Kolade sources his own raw material garments from the same warehouses that supply Kampala’s street vendors. While scouring bales for gems that he can reuse, Kolade is often struck by the state of the clothes arriving in Uganda. This includes shirts with sweat-stained armpits as well as jeans stained with grease or painted.

“We are clearly at the very bottom of the supply chain in sub-Saharan Africa, because what arrives here from Europe and North America is the lowest quality stuff,” he said.

‘We are being a bit cheeky,’ says Kolade, ‘but we are trying to send a positive message.’ Image: Ian Nnyanzi

His plan is double-sided. He wants to create an industry that uses these waste clothes as a commodity, and also to revive the country’s own textile industry, selling handwoven Ugandan textiles to both local and global markets. He will begin by expanding Buzigahill’s factories across Uganda, and eventually, into neighboring countries.

“Uganda is a fertile ground for investment in terms of upcycling and repurposing,” Kolade said. “It’s clearly something that hasn’t functioned in the global north. With Return to Sender, we are being a bit cheeky, obviously, but we are trying to send a positive message out there.”

Main image: Ian Nnyanzi. 

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