Rag Time - Culture Differences
One of these stories is about how the shipment of 20 boxes containing donated brand-new AE samples got stuck in customs in Kigali for a few weeks prior to me coming there. After going through all the paperwork and usual red-tape procedures, Taylor and I thought we would get everything out. Nope. The officials mentioned that we had to pay for "fumigation" costs of all the clothing.
"Because they are old clothes..." declare the custom officials.
"No, they're not! They are brand-new." I retort indignantly.
"Yes, they're old. They have holes in them." They say matter-of-factly.
"Holes..? hmmm..." Suddenly, it all became clear to me. They didn't understand Western fashion sensibility. "Those clothes are made to have holes in them. Our company makes new clothes with little holes, abrasions and distressing, so that they look "old", but they are really not "old". It's just a 'style'." I say with flourish.
As I'm explaining this concept, the officials wearing their crisp, woven, button-down shirts and pressed, clean slacks look at me like I'm crazy..."Why would anyone purposely make old clothes?..."
"See..." as Taylor makes an example of my brand-new destroyed denim jeans I bought in Tokyo and my not-so-vintage t-shirt, "it looks old, but she bought it new." I realize how sloppy I look standing next them. In Africa, the ex-pats can look scrubbier than the locals and can make you wonder who should actually be on the receiving end of charity.
"In America, people like to buy clothes that look old....and...not only that....Americans will pay MORE for clothes that have holes in them." We show them some of the donated "made with hole-y" samples in the boxes with their new tags on them.
So, finally....the officials wrote me off as a silly Mizungu and let us take the boxes to distribute at Gisimba Orphanage.
When I told my friend, Andreas (profiled on earlier blog), who has managed refugee camps for the past few years about this story....he also added that when the camps receive bulk shipments of bales of Goodwill second-hand clothing...that even the refugees don't want the clothes with holes in them.
On another note, our "houseboy" (every house has one) Saidie, wore an amazing vintage pair of Levis 501s with original selvedge one day. I asked him where he bought it and he mentioned at a market. Pretty sure it was cheap. Thinking to myself, if these jeans were in NYC at a vintage dealer, they would cost at least $300. I told Saidie, "I like your jeans." and wondered where that market was...