Aiduke is design in progress - Bubblegum Club

Aiduke is design in progress

*This essay forms part of Bubblegum’s Collaboration with Bag Factory and their visiting curator from Uganda, EM Mirembe.

Aiduke is a pop-up clothing shop that opened on 4th December 2021 in Muyenga, one of the more well-off neighbourhoods in Kampala.

For now it lives in an innocuous room at the entrance of Tank Hill Park, an airy wood-roofed structure whose Japanese inspired design stands stark against the standard Ugandan red brick covered buildings.

Aiduke welcomes visitors into its narrow space to a display of vintage selections as well as clothes, accessories, and crafts by local designers.

It’s here today but after March, it will be gone.

Impermanence is the state of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala; what is here today is gone tomorrow. We think, as Ugandans, that all we miss is the thing that’s gone away: a restaurant, a historical piece of architecture, a shop – someone’s dream.

What we also miss is the story of that moment. Without archived documentation, not only do we not know what was here, we do not know why it matters that it was here.

I want to tell you why it matters to know the story of this impermanent space , this place that is here and means to disappear. 

Bobby Kolade, the founder of Aiduke, is a fashion designer born in Khartoum and raised in Uganda. He studied design in Berlin and created a name for himself as a designer there. But it didn’t quite fit. There was a disconnect between his creations, his ethics, and the market. 

In 2018, Kolade returned to Uganda — to the industry of his home country. He had always had the bigger dream of setting up a concept store, a curated space selling Ugandan made fashion and accessories.

He points to Alara in Lagos as a point of inspiration not just for its enticing architecture, but for the conceptual strength with which it brings together Nigerian and international designs in clothing, accessories, furniture, and craft work.

Aiduke is an impression, the first iteration of the kind of space Kolade wants to create. “The best way of describing Aiduke right now, and this isn’t what I thought of when we started the pop-up shop,” Kolade explained. “[Aiduke] is a retail experiment for clothing in Uganda, on a very small scale.”

Aiduke — which means to make or making in Iteso — is an appropriate name for a project in progress. But to get here — from 2018 to 2021; from an idea to a pop-up shop — took a journey through the history of the Ugandan fashion industry and a deep dive into the reality of the second-hand clothing industry in Uganda.

Kolade started his research in the most visible points of purchase. Between 2018 and 2021 he spent hours downtown Kampala in the hive of trade that is Owino market. He visited countless boutiques in the interwoven arcades surrounding the taxi park.

He frequented the two remaining textile mills in the city. He met with as many people as he could, from major traders intimate with the process of how a container of donated clothes in Mombasa ended up in small shops in Kampala, to the owners of the small shops that depended on second-hand clothes to make a living.

It quickly became clear that fashion, as art and industry, was a small corner of the clothing industry in the nation. The bulk of trade in cities, villages, and nearly every crevice of the country was second-hand clothes, imported from the west as donations and presented as products in Uganda. Their low cost left little room for local production to thrive.

The pervasiveness of second-hand clothing changed the direction of his research. The questions were no longer just about who was buying what and where, but about how a country that once consumed 85% of its own cotton came to import 80% of its clothing. Kolade was fascinated with these questions and so was filmmaker Nikissi Serumaga, who began filming his interviews for a documentary.

The link between the growth of the second-hand industry and the deterioration of local production was visible but Kolade and Serumaga were surprised to learn how entrenched it was in economic policies.

They came to understand how far into history it reached through interviews with people like Morine Wavamunno, who saw and experienced the rise and fall of the textile industry over the last 40 years.

From the breadth of information they had collected, Kolade and Serumaga pulled six topics to feature on the limited series podcast Vintage or Violence.

The series drew the line between that untold history and the deflated job market today. They made it clear how cotton production and the clothing industry helped shape the frustrating lack of employment experienced by younger generations.

The experiences and insights shared on the podcast highlighted seemingly insurmountable challenges. In episode 3 of the podcast Vintage or Violence, Kolade and Serumaga speak to Professor Aaron Wanyama, who delves into the economic implications of second-hand clothes for the entire nation.

Professor Wanyama comments on how heavily taxes hold back the second-hand clothing market, by asking the government a rhetorical question: “If you’re making sure everyone is poor, who are you going to sell to?” This question is followed by others: if everyone is poor, what can they afford apart from second-hand clothes?

Other episodes reveal paradoxes in the way the industry exists now. ‘Episode 4: A degree is an expensive receipt’ illustrates how many people, educated across different fields, turned to second-hand clothing as a source of income because of the lack of jobs in their fields.

These trained engineers, social workers, teachers and other professionals depend on participating in an industry whose global violence is clearly illustrated in how ‘donations’ destroyed local textile production.

Though limited by episodes and by time–each episode was less than 30 minutes–the podcast posed complex questions about the ethics and economic policies around second-hand clothing: Is it possible for a textile industry to thrive in a country that doesn’t prioritise textiles in its economic policies?

Can this industry even exist alongside the established and overwhelming mechanics of second-hand clothing dumped from abroad? Would it even be possible to cut through the second-hand trade that became a sure source of income in a place with dwindling jobs and resources?

Even as Kolade researched into the internal workings of the textile industry through first-hand research, he had also been exploring the external possibilities in Uganda’s fashion industry. He had joined Fashion Council Uganda as one of three directors trying to get funding into Uganda for projects in fashion.

Despite their efforts, the council wasn’t making progress creating opportunities for designers or exposure for existing fashion projects. Around the middle of 2021, perhaps further discouraged by the effects of the pandemic on funding for the arts, the other two directors left the council within three weeks of each other.

As the only remaining director, Kolade was responsible for the Council. He knew that what they had been trying wasn’t working and part of the problem was the model of a fashion council. Kolade saw the council as much of a problematic import as the importing of second-hand clothes. It was yet another foreign concept that didn’t function in Uganda. That wasn’t the only reason the council didn’t function.

“I realized the word fashion is difficult to fund,” Kolade said, explaining that ‘fashion’ remains at a distance, seen either as entertainment or luxury especially in relation to ‘clothing’ which speaks of necessity and economy. It was time to change direction.

Kolade gave Fashion Council Uganda a new name, Aiduke Clothing Research, and a new direction towards research and learning.  Having better understood the industry he landed in, he shifted its focus from ‘fashion’ to ‘clothing and textile’. However, it was unclear how to put this into practice.

As 2021 wore to an end, Aiduke Clothing Research was stuck in the conceptual phase as proposal after proposal from Kolade was rejected. It seemed he had hit a dead-end so he put Aiduke Clothing Research on hold and turned to his own designs.

In November, the owners of Tank Hill Park offered him a small, manageable space right at the entrance. The ideas that had been coalescing over years solidified into a space and Aiduke Clothing Research entered a new phase.

Kolade saw within the space, an opportunity to test out a concept shop and see what the last two or three years of research had yielded. In just two weeks Kolade put together the Aiduke pop-up shop.

To create it, Kolade didn’t set out for the big concept shop, the end product of years of dreaming. He set out to learn through curating and observing how the products in the shop move. As Kolade put it, “there is no better way to understand the market and demand than by engaging with it.”

For the few months it will exist in its first iteration, Aiduke isn’t focused on making profit but on understanding patterns. It is putting to test or rather into context the research Kolade undertook over the last few years.

According to Kolade, “the results really show where we are as a country in terms of what people are buying: what’s available on the market, how designers are producing, who is actually purchasing. Where is the purchasing power? Is the purchasing power there?”

Though his research revealed the inescapability of the second-hand market, it also recast the use of second-hand clothing as a stepping stone. A client walks into Aiduke, drawn to the vintage items and is in the same space introduced to original clothing, accessories, and crafts by Ugandan designers.

For Kolade, it’s been a meaningful experience to see these pieces purchased by a wide range of clients–from young artists, visiting tourists, corporate Ugandans, and even Members of Parliament. It says there is purchasing power and Ugandan-made can readily, if not eagerly, be bought by Ugandans.

Aiduke is here today and will soon disappear but the knowledge of it remains. The Aiduke pop-up shop is not a product but a process. It’s the beat of an industry trying to revive itself.  It doesn’t presume to answer where we will go next but it does continue to ask, how can we do this our way?

When Aiduke is to reappear, perhaps in another form and in another place, it won’t be built on imported ideas or formulas. It will grow out of a foundation of knowledge that takes into account the expanse and deterioration of the local textile industry throughout history and the lifeblood of the existing industry spread into every corner of the country.

Aiduke Uganda

Gloria Kiconco is a poet, essayist, and zine-maker based in Kampala, Uganda. Her poetry has been published on various online platforms and anthologies. Gloria shares her work through spoken word performances, readings, and audio compilations in collaboration with music producers.

She has self-published her poetry in various zines including SOLD OUT (2016), RETURN TO SENDER (2018) in collaboration with illustrator Liz Kobusinge, and You Are Lost, You Are Here X (2020) through a residency with Crater Invertido in Mexico City, Mexico.

Gloria’s writing about African and afro-diasporan artists appear online and in print with  People Stories Project, Dazed magazine, The Wire, and Perform! Her personal essays can be found on Adda and undermyourskin, a collection of interactive essays, created in collaboration with writer Raksha Vasudevan.

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