When the people of Ghana laid eyes on the first shipments of secondhand clothing from the West in the 1970s, they were nearly felled by surprise.
“They could not believe that such high-quality clothing would just be given away for free, so they assumed that the people in the Western world must have died,” said Jojo Gronostay, a Paris-based designer of German-Ghanaian heritage. The locals referred to the castoffs as “obroni wawu,” a term that roughly translates into “clothes of a dead white man.”
Piqued by the idea of how one person’s trash could be another’s treasure—and vice versa—Gronostay teamed up with creative agency Amsterdam Berlin in 2017 to found Dead White Men’s Clothes (DWMC), an “art project camouflaging as a fashion brand” that is one part meditation on capitalism and post-colonialism, one part personal self discovery.
“I didn’t grow up with my father,” said Gronostay, who was raised in Berlin with his mother. “The last time I was [in Ghana] I was 14, so I wanted to go back and learn more about my roots.”
The label takes clothing from Kantamanto, a sprawling open-air secondhand market in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, and brands them with a screen print of the DWMC logo, altering their context, if not their actual physical construction.
“It’s more like styling because I don’t like really change the cut of anything,” Gronostay admitted. “But I wanted to ask questions about how is value created.” To wit, how important is perception? How does a garment’s value change when it’s in a pile on the floor of a dusty “graveyard for discarded fashion,” versus on a pedestal in a polished Parisian gallery?
The prices for the one-of-a-kind ensembles, which range from 100 to 1,500 euros ($112 to $1,129) are arbitrary and mostly symbolic, though proceeds from the collection support young African designers who have seen their own countries’ textile economies thwarted by Western imperialism and decadence.
Used clothing imports are “suffocating” the continent by rendering its garment sectors moot, critics say. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, East Africa imported roughly $274 million worth of castoffs in 2015, most of them from European and North American charities and textile recyclers who sell them to boost their bottom lines instead of clothing the backs of the poor (as popular notion supposes).
“A lot of people don’t know where the clothes go when they put them in a bin or when they donate them,” Gronostay said. “The first thing is to make them visible.”
Ghana is so inundated with tossed-off clothing that there is “literally nowhere to put it,” said Abrima Erwiah, co-founder and president of Studio 189, a fashion brand with headquarters in Accra and New York City.
“When that clothing can’t be sold and people have no way of storing it, it just ends up clogging the streets—I’ve seen it happen,” she said. “When drainage is clogged, mosquitoes breed and people end up with malaria. Or the water becomes infected and you get cholera or typhoid.”
Once the employer of tens of thousands of workers, Ghana’s textile industry now hires fewer than 3,000. Part of this is because local garment manufacturers can’t compete with the deluge.
“If you can buy Gucci for $1, why would you buy Studio 189?” Erwiah said. “Why would you buy any local brand? You’re not. You’re going to buy Gucci, you’re going to buy Versace. You want the same stuff that Kim Kardashian has.”
In 2016, several East African countries announced plans to phase out foreign hand-me-downs to protect both their imperiled local industries and the dignity of their people. When the United States threatened to impose tariffs on East African goods in retaliation, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda recanted. Ghana instituted a partial ban, nixing pre-owned underwear in the name of hygiene. Only Rwanda has stayed the course, refusing to compromise even after the Trump administration suspended duty-free privileges for Rwandan apparel.
Gronostay is of two minds when it comes to an outright ban on “obroni wawu.” Most of his antipathy stems from speaking at length with Kantamanto stallholders who have come to rely on the used-clothing trade for their livelihoods.
“It’s problematic because in Kantamanto alone there are more than 30,000 people working there, feeding their families through secondhand clothes,” he said. “A ban would give a lot of people a difficult time.”
What Gronostay is sure of, however, is his desire to transition DWMC from a work of conceptual art into a viable, profitable apparel business that creates jobs for local Ghanaians. But, mindful of the lessons he has learned, he’ll design with longevity, not disposability, in mind.
“If you go to Kantamanto, you see how people treat their clothes because of [the Western system of] overproduction,” Gronostay said. “I think the attitude toward clothes has to change. It’s not good at all.”
Is the fashion industry starting to come around, though? While younger, upstart brands like GmbH in Germany and Marine Serre in Paris are more willing to make the shift by using deadstock and recycled materials, Gronostay said, innovation and direction must come from the top.
“If Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga said, ‘O.K. we are only using sustainable materials,’ I think a lot of people would follow,” he added.