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Africa has served as inspiration to the fashion industry for many years, and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing anytime soon. In 2010 Western designers caught African print fever and painted the runways in bold, colorful ensembles. The trend continued in 2011 and 2012. Do African designers mind that Western designers such as Gwen Stefani, Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg are gaining recognition for their use of African prints and textures? Some may, but Gareth Cowden is not one of them.
“Yes, we are definitely going through a phase of influencing [and/or] inspiring the world’s bigger fashion houses,” said Cowden. “But it doesn’t offend me that these people get recognition for their designs. These designers have a better platform to be noticed. At the end of the day they are helping African designers [and] designs get noticed.”
Cowden has been in the fashion industry for nearly a decade; however, fashion was not his original career plan. His foray into fashion was purely out of necessity. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Kinetics and Ergonomics, he could not find employment. Consequently, he began working as an assistant to fashion stylists in 2002. Since 2004 he has worked as a freelance fashion stylist and in 2009 he founded BABATUNDE. Babatunde is a Yoruba name that means “the father returns.” Cowden believes that it is the responsibility of men to care for their families and their country.
“Many kids in Africa grow up without fatherly influences in their lives due to various reasons,” Cowden said. “In my opinion, this has an adverse effect on disciplinary and respect issues later in life. [Babatunde] is also a reference to our leaders to father and grow our nations rather than growing their own pockets. All in all, we need more fathers to father and nurture Africa to where we deserve to be.”
Cowden is not as dedicated to fashion as much as he is dedicated to helping others. His brand, which features hats, umbrellas, bowties and clutches, is made completely by hand in South Africa. This is not done simply as a measure of pride for his native country, but to provide employment to those in the textile industry, which is vital to developing countries.
“This is done in an attempt to revive the textile and clothing industries in South Africa,” Cowden said. “These industries are slowly dying in South Africa due to cheap labor in countries like China and India resulting in it being a lot cheaper to import fabric and clothing than to manufacture locally.”
It is not only cheaper to import fabric and clothing to Africa, it is cheaper to import Asian immigrants to Africa as well. In 2002 Ramatex opened a factory in Namibia and promised to hire 8,000 workers. Instead of hiring locally, the company imported 25 percent of the employees from Asia. These employees were paid less than the Namibian employees and, to make matters worse, ended up in debt to the company. Due to their low wages, the Asian employees could not afford to pay back the traveling expenses that the company had fronted. Ten years later, Asian immigrants are steadily being imported into the country to provide cheap labor.
Many manufacturing companies in Asia and other countries are relocating to Africa due to a rise in domestic labor costs. Africa has low labor costs, in addition to duty-free access to American and European markets under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Cowden realizes the importance of manufacturing in Africa. For this reason, he would never relocate permanently.
“It is very important for me that everything is manufactured in South Africa or Africa,” Cowden said. “This is what makes Babatunde a strong African brand. I would definitely consider relocating temporarily. Travelling is very enlightening and helps with learning and growth, both personally and for the Babatunde brand.”
Also important to Cowden is creating awareness through fashion. He has been able to achieve great success as a designer and has been featured in many acclaimed print and online magazines. The audience he speaks his message to has become slightly larger since singer-songwriter Solange Knowles wore one of his hats during New York Fashion Week 2012.
“Due to popular culture and celebrity culture, exposure and awareness grows when ‘famous’ people wear your brand,” Cowden said. “Celebrities are always being featured in the media, so if they are wearing your products it’s easier for your brand to get noticed.”
Cowden is presently working on expanding the Babatunde brand by including more pieces such as trousers and shorts. For more information regarding Babatunde long onto www.babatundestyles.com.
Image Courtesy of doigstar1