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From Rags to Riches

It's common for western charities to collect used clothes and ship them, by the bale, to Africa as a form of aid. These donations, discarded by well-meaning Americans and Europeans, rarely make it to the end-user as charity though. Instead, donations are mostly sold to exporters who make huge profits selling second-hand goods on markets all over the continent. While some African countries have banned the import of second hand clothes, partly to protect domestic clothing and textile industries, in Togo the trade in second-hand clothes is booming, worth an estimated $ 54 million.

The Grand Marche de Hedzranawoe in Lome, the capital, is the main trading place for second hand clothes. A gritty concrete structure, open 6 days a week, it houses hundreds of plywood stalls in its hallways with heaving tables overflowing with a jumble of shirts, trousers, bags and shoes. Most of the wares come from Europe and the US but also from China and Israel. Hedzranawoe is where Amah Ayivi, a Togolese designer living between Lome and Paris, find his inspiration and his raw materials.

Ayivi is the founder of Marche Noir ('Black Market'), a cult pop-up boutique and fashion brand that encapsulates what he calls 'Afro aestheticism', a sense of style and feel that comes naturally to his compatriots. 'I want to bring this African touch also, For me the African touch is not just about African fabric or African dresses' he explains. 'In Africa I find a lot of style in the street. The kids in the street, the women selling fish, they have this touch of style you don't find everywhere.'

Ayivi regular travels to Togo and trawls the market stalls and warehouses at Hedzranawoe, looking for clothes and accessories that reflect his personal style. The long journey made by these discarded items make for interesting re-interpretations of what is hip and fashionable. Once the odd bit of repair work on ripped or damaged clothes is done by local tailors, they are ready for shipping back to France where Ayivi sells them as chic vintage clothing at a considerable profit.

The ethics of Marche Noir are framed around Ayivi's thoughts concerning consumerism in fashion. 'Fashion is too fast' he says. 'Overproducing. We have to think about how to create a style with what we have.' By re-importing what was deemed to be outdated or undesirable he point toward the potential of a circular economy that can curb the excesses of fast fashion and the throw-away society. His subversive business model is underpinned by the intertwined supply chains that transport a charity donation from Europe and America to Africa and then back to Europe again.

Despite his success in Europe, however, Amah Ayivi is clear about the origins of and inspiration for his creations. His brand used to be called Marche Noir Paris but he changed it to Lome-Paris. 'I want to keep the African identity' he says. Andrew Esiebo met Ayivi in Lome and Paris and traced the extraordinary route of this unusual and innovative fashion brand.
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