Where’s That Jumpsuit From? It’s a Long Story

Amah Ayivi, a designer and clothing dealer in Paris, has spun secondhand garments into a stylish business.

By Allyn Gaestel

Sept. 1, 2018
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Amah Ayivi, a designer and clothing dealer in Paris, procures most of his wares for his label, Marché Noir, from secondhand clothing markets in Lomé, Togo.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

LOMÉ, Togo — Most of the brick-and-mortar shops in the Grand Marché de Hedzranawoe are shuttered, but plywood boutiques overflow the hallways and plazas that run through its geometric tiled corridors. Velvet dresses, boxer briefs, ties, overalls, wedding dresses and ear muffs hang from exposed beams like curtains on display.

One morning in March, Amah Ayivi, a designer and clothing dealer, dug through mounds of utility jumpsuits, his hands bedecked with heavy silver rings. His soft eyes squinted and darted as he systematically sorted through the piles.

“You can go through all of this and only find one, or zero, or 20,” he said over the rhythmic squeaking horns and the nasal cries of food and drink vendors.

Mr. Ayivi said he was looking for “old-school and vintage and good colors and materials” that he would later ship to Paris and upsell as vintage under his label Marché Noir.

There’s no better place in Togo to do so: Hedzranawoe market, open six days a week, is Lomé’s hub for secondhand clothing. The wares come mostly from Europe, though they also are imported from China, Israel and the United States. Togo imported $54 million worth of secondhand clothing in 2016, according to the Economic Complexity Observatory.

Plywood boutiques overflow the hallways and plazas that run through the geometric tiled corridors of the Grand Marché de Hedzranawoe. CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

Much of the clothing comes from charitable donations in wealthy countries. The garments are shipped in colorful containers. Once they arrive, they are sorted, repacked and sold in ever smaller bales.

While the imports provide affordable clothing for poor consumers, they have also undermined local textile manufacturing industries. Some countries have tried to control the trade. Last year the East African Community, an intergovernmental organization of six countries in the African Great Lakes region, placed high tariffs on secondhand clothing imports with the intention of banning them by 2019.

The organization hoped to protect and foster local textile manufacturing industries. The Office of the United States Trade Representative threatened to kick the countries out of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act if they did not remove the tariffs. Only Rwanda maintained the trade restrictions, and in March the United States announced it would suspend the country from the preferential trade deal.

Mr. Ayivi visits the market regularly to search for items he can sell through his brand.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

Nigeria has long banned secondhand clothing imports. But this has only shifted demand. Used clothing is smuggled into Nigeria, and in Lomé, Nigerians dominate the resale industry.

Victor Chukwu, a Nigerian who has worked in Togo since 1983, has a boutique in the market and a warehouse nearby packed to the ceiling with sacks of karate uniforms and engineer wear. At the storeroom, Mr. Ayivi covered his mouth with a bandanna to protect from the dust, while Mr. Chukwu’s employees clambered atop the piled sacks looking for buried treasures.

“Careful, careful, careful! They are heavy!” Mr. Chukwu shouted. One sack rolled down the mound, a spare Santa hat poking out the top, and Mr. Chukwu fell back into the sacks, treating them like a giant pillow mound, laughing. “Fashion is always bringing back the old thing,” he said.

Raman, a tailor in Lomé, mends garments that Mr. Ayivi purchased at the market.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

Marché Noir includes vintage pieces, a selection of African handicrafts and original women’s and men’s wear designs. For women he selects funky silk dresses and skirts. For men he has a penchant for uniforms: military, work wear and boxy denim, which he sometimes prints with his logo.

“It used to be Marché Noir Paris, now it’s Lomé-Paris,” Mr. Ayivi said. “I changed because as I’m working here a lot, I want to keep the African identity.” Lomé is where his business is registered, and it’s where the vast majority of his vintage garments come from — even the French ones. But he makes his money in France.

In Lomé, the vintage items Mr. Ayivi seeks are dated, out of fashion. In Paris, they are modern and stylish.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

During Paris Men’s Fashion Week in March, Mr. Ayivi assembled his goods inside the Supermarket, a concept space in the chic Marais neighborhood. Like the market rows in Lomé, the streets of the Marais in Paris are tight alleyways. But in Paris, juice bars and cafes stand in for beverage hawkers, the roads are cobblestone instead of dirt and concrete, and the displays are contained behind glinting glass vitrines.

Passers-by observed while Mr. Ayivi installed the shop. He and a couple of assistants steamed rumpled garments and hung vintage nightgowns and screen-printed denim jackets alongside batakali tunics of Mr. Ayivi’s own design. They stacked Moroccan rugs, leather bags, Tuareg rings and plastic woven basket bags.

Downstairs was a small speakeasy, a red-lit cellar with textiles and Malick Sidibe photographs on the walls, and a record player atop dated speakers, playing Bob Marley and Manu Dibango.

Mr. Ayivi in Paris.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
A customer at a Marché Noir pop-up in Paris.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times
Mr. Ayivi displays his stock in showrooms around Paris.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

Mr. Ayivi frames his participation in fashion as commentary on consumerism. “Fashion is too fast,” he said. “Overproducing. We have to think about how to create a style with what we have.”

The clothes he carries back to Europe make visible normally unseen global supply chains, the spidery pathways clothing takes after it is discarded. “I bring them back to prove, to show that the fashion industry is too much, is going too far,” he said.

Marché Noir’s business model feeds on this overproduction. The clothes are cheap where he buys them. The pieces change value as they change context. In Lomé, the vintage coveralls he seeks are dated, out of fashion. In Paris, they are modern and stylish. He is preparing another pop-up for Paris Fashion Week in September.

The artists Toofan and L' Artist being wearing clothes picked by Mr. Ayivi for a music video shoot.CreditAndrew Esiebo for The New York Times

Mr. Ayivi’s globally sourced garments reflect a life lived between countries. “I want to bring this African touch also. For me the African touch is not just about African fabric or African dresses,” he said. “In Africa I find a lot of style in the street. The kids in the streets, the women selling fish, they have this touch of style you don’t find everywhere. This inspires us.”

He calls it “Afro aestheticism.” The reclamation of traditional African cloth into contemporary design is a growing movement across the continent and diaspora. Maki Oh is a successful Nigerian designer who incorporates traditional dying techniques and layers local stories and meanings into her line. MaXhosa by Laduma is a South African brand doing similar work incorporating traditional Xhosa aesthetics into knitwear.

“I want to bring it here in Europe,” Mr. Ayivi said. “In two years I want this to be everywhere, in every magazine, in the street.”

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