I am Ina-Maria Shikongo born by Pondo ya Nangobe and Anelly Thomas in the refugee camps of Angola in 1979, then lived in the former East Germany between 1985 and 1990. I went to Peoples Primary School in Katutura and completed high school at Ella du Plessis High School in 1998. After studying fashion design at the University of Namibia from 2000 to 2001, I moved to France to continue my studies at Lycée Sevignée de Tourcoing near Lille. My goal was always to go back to Namibia and teach grass root fashion design, because most tailors and seamstresses are trained in small informal workshops. They mainly learn to sew basic products like bedding and local fashion, but not how to design or pattern making skills.
Namibia has a young fashion industry, no more than twenty-five years old, that is largely focussed on formal evening wear and local fashion, but little retail. Formal training programs were only introduced in 1998 at the University of Namibia (UNAM) by Melanie Harteveld and around 2000 at the College of the Arts in Katutura (COTA) by Beata Hamwalwa and later around 2006 by Cynthia Schimming, but the diploma only started in 2014. Most fashion design graduates are part-time fashion designers because of the market, which is seasonal. There are two important moments in the year for designers, which is around August for the Metric farewell, also known as prom night, and the wedding season, which is mainly centred around the school holidays in August-September and December. A new important moment that has been added to the agenda in recent years is the NAMAS (Namibia’s music awards ceremony), where designers get to dress local celebrities. Since 2015, Windhoek Fashion Week was introduced, which gives local designers crucial visibility, but not always pay. Only a few designers succeed to make a living with fashion design, like Cynthia Schimming.
When looking at the retail shops, there are mainly South African chains like Ackermanns, Foshini and Mr Price, but no local brands. For Namibian consumers, it is cheaper to buy retail than to order custom made garments at a local seamstress. Since independence in 1990, t-shirt printing companies have been mushrooming and a few manufacturers have emerged that mainly focus on police, nurses and army uniforms. The main reason why Namibia does not have a successful local retail fashion industry, is due to the competition of foreign imports, an unsustainable economy and the fact that it is not a producing nation but mainly depends on imported goods. Unemployment is high and the average income is low, especially amongst the youth because of high levels of high school dropouts and teenage pregnancies. Namibia has no strong vocational subjects at primary and high school level because they were removed from the curriculum in 1990 (but reintroduced in 2016).
However, there is an important market for local fashion produced by skilful seamstresses. The Damara’s, Namas’s, Owambo and Herero people in Namibia have specific outfits they call ‘traditional’ dress, but which were in fact introduced under colonial rule. What is considered Owambo dress today, for example, was introduced by the Finish Missionaries in the 1870s including the textile (Odelela) print they consider representative of their cultural identity. The Nama and Damara people make Victorian-style dresses, but out of patchwork. I am not sure of the origin, but I would guess that they would assemble old clothes and create new textiles for their dresses. To date, these two tribes are very skilled in patchwork and handwork. Herero style fashion is also inspired by Victorian dress, but the headgear is inspired by the sacred symbol of the cow.
The Herereo, Damara and Nama people were oppressed under German Colonial Rule from 1884 till 1990, but the German Missionaries arrived earlier in 1843 in Windhoek, which was Damara territory. People were banned from wearing their own clothing styles, under threat of the death penalty. As a reaction, the Herero people created a headgear as a silent revolt against the cultural oppression, which today has become a symbol of their cultural identity. However, most local fashion styles, depending on the tribe, were made predominantly from leather and vegetal materials, beads and shells, which can still be seen in the contemporary styles worn by the Tsetwana and Kavango people. Overall, Namibia’s cultural heritage was largely erased under missionary, colonial and apartheid rule. So my vision, before going to France, was to try and revive these heritages through fashion. In my first year at UNAM, we had to create T-shirt designs and I drew a Himba lady integrated into the Eifel tower. That is when I started playing with the idea of merging different cultural heritages in my art. It was Margo Timm, my Art History lecturer at UNAM, a very passionate person, who exposed me to my cultural heritage, which I had very little knowledge of.
When I came back to Namibia, I looked for teaching and workshop opportunities, but no one was interested in my concept. My idea was very new and a possible solution to Namibia’s high unemployment crises, but the government did not see developing design as a priority at the time. Therefore, there were very few paid teaching opportunities. I did manage to receive some funding eventually and started volunteering with the College of the Arts and the Franco Namibian Cultural Centre when they had workshops with French designers. Eventually, they paid me for the workshops assisting Fred Sathal, who is a French designer working in Paris and showcasing her work at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week.
In 2007, I was assigned to teach patchwork and product design to a group of women from southern Namibia. Funded by the Norwegian Association, most of the women knew the art of patchwork, but not how to do it in a way that all cubes form a coherent textile without bulging at the corners. We eventually created bags together using the textiles. The trainees, who were between 30 and 60 years old, learned to design patterns and make finished products. All trainees did not necessarily have any formal education in fashion design but knew how to sew on different levels.
In 2011, I got my first grant to facilitate a workshop with twenty women in Oshakati (funded by the National Arts Council of Namibia). By then I had developed the concept quite well and first asked the participants to write stories inspired by their cultural heritage. They made storyboards with sketches and researched forms. Secondly, I introduced them to industrial patterns. Important to note is that most seamstresses, between 20 and 60 years of age, were illiterate and/or did not really understand English and therefore could not be taught pattern making in a conventional, fashion study curriculum way. That is why I taught them how to read commercial patterns and asked them to play with materials and cotton embroidery and beads to translate their stories into their designs.
The aim was to empower these women by giving them a skill that would permit them to tap into the retail market by creating ready to wear clothing based on their creativity and knowledge of local fashion. I have always been amazed by the outcomings of these workshops, producing innovative products unknown to the fashion world.
In 2013, I started teaching for COSDEF arts and craft centre in Swakopmund (funded by the Millenium Challange and Bread for the World). I developed a course teaching basic fashion design in three stages. The first stage would be about developing an idea and creating a conceptual product, while stage two would be about creating a fashion line. The third stage was about selecting clothing items and working with production sheets and grading. I worked for five years for the COSDEF centre. Today, five trainees I know off have started small businesses producing clothing and crafts for their community in Khorixas and selling at the COSDEF arts and craft shop in Swakopmund.
So when I look at how to decolonize fashion in Namibia, I strongly believe in a blue economy as explored by Gunter Pauly, who is advocating the development of local industries in the countries of origin. From growing raw materials to producing and eventually selling, countries should be exploiting their own fibres in an ethical way. Workshops should be held with local craftspeople, who have a strong knowledge of local cultural heritage, to stimulate creativity and innovation. As a Namibian, it is difficult to revive pre-colonial cultural heritage because of the devastating colonial history, but it is still there somehow and extra help is needed to awaken confidence within the people. For me as a Namibian, Culture and Tradition are two separate things. Today we use culture and traditions whenever it suits us, but without really question its origins. For me, tradition is what my current ancestors pass on to me, but culture is my blue print, where my ancestors come from. When looking at Japanese art, fashion, food, architecture and code of conduct, it is still imprinted as simple pure yet sophisticated with a story.
The fact is that the global fashion industry dominated by Western fashion has severely damaged the Namibian fashion industry by producing mass-produced products that are not representative of the cultural identities of many people around the world. It does not represent our cultural history or heritage but makes us look cool like Beyoncé, which for me is cultural genocide.
Our diverse cultural heritages as humans are beautiful and meaningful. We should be able to express our cultural heritage through fashion like we have always done. Now, we actually have the knowledge of how the world works and is. Today, culture has evolved in many ways and I believe in workshops and education to create a fair world for all. Empower the masses at the bottom of the chain and let them tell us their stories. So they can empower themselves economically and revive traditions at the same time. Let’s give them the tools through education.