Instagram boutiques have me in a chokehold. I can’t help it, I spend an embarrassing amount of time everyday scrolling through fashion deals on IG, placing orders for this wrap skirt, or that swanky fedora hat, and wow, have you seen the t-shirt with that edgy line drawing on the front? I want that too.
And it’s like the algorithm reads my mind because if I think, they bring it. So I keep scrolling, and buying, enjoying the temporary hits of dopamine that I get when my package finally announces itself at my door, and I can tear it open and discover that yes, the skirt looks as good on me as it did on the model on instagram.
There are few things that instagram is better at than Twitter, and the biggest of these is selling. Leaning heavily to its identity as a visual site, IG is able to present to potential customers the things they want in a format they like, to generate multiple sales each day for its enterprising vendors. And the vendors themselves? Under-appreciated artists. They should be moonlighting as research scientists. They don’t just prop up a dress on a mannequin and leave it at that. They scour through the internet for a picture of a model/celebrity wearing the same thing, then they post that alongside the dress they are selling. The dress itself is styled to within an inch of its life, featuring a supper cinched waist, an accessory or two (I have seen hats, brooches, shoes, and even books placed alongside clothes), and maybe some flowers in the background. Caption? “Exact dress available, great quality. Size 10. Price Ksh850”. They are selling you a whole lifestyle, honey, for a fraction of what you’d pay for the same thing in a boutique in Europe. I dare you to resist.
I am not crazy about how the super-cinched waists- dresses are contorted into having a wasp waist (the effect is similar to if you tied a string around the middle of your dress and drew it tight), and hems that taper into a pointed edge. I know it’s an approximation of the female form, chosen for its ability to appeal to our dreams and aspirations, but maybe sometimes just let the dress breathe and speak for itself? I am also not super crazy about the big flashing signs warning “No refunds, no exchanges”, because then I feel like I am about to commit to a lifetime relationship with an entity that may not be quite right for me. A bit like marriage. But for the mouthwatering price of under 1000 bob, I am happy to say I do and regret it later.
The popularity of instagram boutiques and second hand clothes in general is a good example of how regular citizens have created private solutions to governance failures. Kenya had a thriving textile industry until the 1980s when market liberalisation policies flooded us with second hand clothes from America, effectively killing most of our local textile industries. Seemingly overnight, we became a mitumba nation, and our cotton farmers abandoned the crop because they had nowhere to sell it.
Our textile industry still exists, but you wouldn’t know it because our efforts are mostly focussed on Export Processing Zones, where we export the highest quality garments to luxury retailers such as Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secrets, then import and wear them after they have been worn by their intended customers. Much like what we do with our tea and coffee- exporting the best and only leaving ourselves the dregs.
If you don’t make clothes for us, Gikomba will, by way of IG.
That’s why even as some local producers bravely try to recapture the local market and sell us some new clothes, they keep being brow beaten by a hostile business environment where the cost of production is way too high for their clothes to be affordable. Fabric, for example, is 70 percent of the cost of making a garment, according to producers. And fabric in Kenya is expensive because local production cannot meet demand. According to government statistics, we produce 25,000 bales of cotton against a demand of 200,000 meaning we need to import fabric, at eye-watering taxes.
A journalist friend of mine recently said to me, “our fashion industry does not receive the support it needs to truly serve us. This is why we’re a long way from having a Nairobi Fashion Week as big and as impactful as the Lagos one.” I agree. Our fashion scene is small, but it’s growing. Nairobi Fashion Week is this week, by the way, and I will be in the audience to see what Kenyan designers dish up.
But for now, very few of us (only 5 percent, per recent statistics) can afford to pay Ksh3000 for a new, Kenyan-made dress from Vivo, when there is a 900 bob second hand one for sale complete with a collage on how to style it from Shannie_thrifts.
In this economy?
I tried quitting instagram by the way. Earlier this year I deleted the app, so I could pay more attention to a different app, my kindle, and read more. Sort of like the time I shipped my TV to my mother’s house so that again, I could read more books, instead of watching endless Netflix. It worked too, I successfully stayed off IG for a few months. What broke me was the need to shop. So I logged on, and I am back in full force. And I have an even bigger TV now. I am who I am, I like Netflix and (recycled) fast fashion.