with Peninah Amanda
How much is a garment really worth? And what impact do donated clothes have?
Arriving in Accra, Ghana, at the hyper-bustle of the Kantomanto Market, Berlin-based stylist Peninah Amanda was constantly asking these myriad questions. She was putting together the second collection of the Dead White Man’s Clothes project, a multimedia project exploring the impact of “used” clothing in and around the aforementioned market.
Dead White Man’s Clothes is the original conception of Jojo Gronostay, a half-Ghanaian, half-German art history student living in Vienna, Austria. Back in 2016, he took a trip to Accra, the capital, visiting the Kantomanto market. There are over 30,000 sellers there, with many, if not the majority, selling clothes that come from the blue boxes used for donations in Germany. Organized logically - there are stalls just for nude bras or for white tees for instance - the market daily teems with commerce and bustle.
But he was struck. First by how Western donations were damaging the local textile industry there and how seemingly worthless clothes to Westerners were seen in a completely different light by the local Ghanaians. Notably, as Obroni wawu, translating as “dead white man’s clothes.”
“Jojo told me that people actually call the stuff that in Ghana,” Peninah explains. “They can’t believe people would throw away such amazing stuff, so they must be from people who are dead.” Jojo bought 100-150 pieces, printed or embroidered DWMC somewhere on it, and then sold it on. Previously thrown away as worthless, the “trash”, branded with its new insignia, had new value - up to 200 euros worth. Part of the profit goes back to supporting African designers. A circle, complete.
After his first collection, something Jojo did for a university project in 2016, he got in touch with Peninah, who came on board in a quasi-creative consultant role for the second collection. Peninah, originally from Kenya, has worked in a mixture of commercial and fashion jobs for nearly a decade, but never a project like this. “Most people do one or the other,” Peninah admits. “But I like to see both worlds. There’s a certain type of grounding that comes from people talking about normal things, in comparison to the more glamorous fashion stuff.”
They went together to Ghana this year for two weeks. Waking up between 5 am and 6 am every day and haggling to get the best stuff, it was a rewarding yet exhausting experience. “Everyone is yelling and trying to drag you to your stand,” she says. “After a couple of days, when you are tired and hot, it can get a bit much!” And as obvious tourists, she’s pretty certain that they paid slightly over the odds for most of their goods, even if that was still extremely cheap by Western standards.
As for the final look: “We realized they are selling a lot of classic men’s suits, quite Helmut Lang in the ’90s” Peninah says. Jill Sander and Balenciaga also feature as influences, with printed t-shirts, hoodies, and logos prevalent in the final collection. “I would say it’s a mixture of timeless classics and very modern streetwear, just not including shoes or accessories,” she adds.
The collection is meant to be aesthetically cohesive, and look good on the buyer, but it’s bigger than this. Dead White Man’s Clothes is a whole project with a socio-political glint in its eye, rather than just a straight-forward, ready-to-wear collection. “The aim is to hold up a mirror against society and look at how we consume stuff,” Peninah explains. In addition, she was particularly shocked in Accra to see see all the trash that lands there, including lots of electronics.
“They are dying from our trash,” she says. For example, when drains clogged by plastic bags overflowed in June 2015, there was a huge flood that killed at least 150 people. “And the plastic is also in the clothes we throw away, often the H&M and Zara stuff which is often 100% polyester,” she continues. “When it rains, some sellers put a suit in front of their stand, so they can stand on it, which, as you can probably envisage, creates such a mess.”
In order to promote the new collection, and to help with the premiere in Paris, Peninah styled the characters in a short film which looks humorously and lightly at the excesses of Western consumers. The first scene is situated in Pearl Club in Berlin’s glamorous Kürfurstendamm boulevard, with a big group of teenagers clad in DWMC. “They’re pouring champagne and not giving a fuck,” she says.
Then there’s another DWMC yuppie getting a super fancy car for his birthday before the 3rd vignette depicts polo players, also clad in DWMC. “Could there be a more elite sport than Polo?” asks Peninah. Living the high life, and exhibiting the most common signifiers of wealth there are - champagne, cars, polo! - these characters have no idea that their clothes were once throwaway.
The likes of Zeit Magazine and Highsnobiety both wrote positively about the collection and film, which went on to be the centerpiece of their launch in Paris in September.
The project and everything Peninah has done to this date all come together in her idea of what fashion is. “Fashion plays a role in everybody’s life,” she says. “It’s not only a runway show or something trendy, everybody is into fashion, even if they say they aren’t.”
Öko, as Germans call sustainability, isn’t necessarily the coolest trend. Peninah’s nonetheless hopeful that DWMC makes enough traction, so more people will think about it and make some extremely necessary changes - whether it’s buying long-lasting clothes or from more ethical providers.
What about the future of DWMC? Peninah doesn’t think it should be a yearly thing, otherwise, it will get repetitive. After all, the looks peddled at the market can look fairly similar. For that reason, she thinks the project, in its future vein, could continue in a more art, rather than fashion, vein. “It was twice in the form of a fashion label, but it can also be something else”, she says.
As for this collection, she has one other little hope. “It would be crazy to see someone actually wearing a DWMC piece, one they originally threw away,” Peninah says, smiling.