This week in our in conversation series, we speak to the incomparable Dr Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri about her journey in the fashion industry, prioritising humanity and the importance of sticking to your values.
Tell our audience a little about your background: What’s your heritage, where did you grow up, where do you live now and what you do for work?
My name is Dr Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri I am originally from Zimbabwe, born in 1975. I grew up in the capital city of Harare, before I left for the United Kingdom on a British Council scholarship in 1997 to study Journalism and communications in England. At the age of 36, I went back to university to study Fashion Design, majoring in luxury leather handbags and accessories. I went on to do a Masters in Contemporary Design and a PhD in Design. I am married to Simba and we have three beautiful daughters who are currently in university. I am a product of many experiences, people, countries and cultures. I do not identify myself as belonging to one particular country, as I have had the blessing of being able to travel globally and each part of me has developed with each encounter. I am a design practitioner and I work in rural artisan communities creating luxury handbags using traditional crafts and modern innovation.
How are you adjusting to life in isolation?
I work from home 85% of the time when I am not travelling, and I really love my home, so I am in my comfort zone and not affected greatly. However, I have great compassion for those struggling with the new changes. Our new handbag collection was to begin with sampling first week of May in Ecuador, which has not come to fruition and perhaps will not for a while. As the Ecuador community are my collaborative partners, it was important to ensure they were still paid and comfortable even with no work happening, and we were so proud to be able to do this for them as two years ago we put in place a fund incase something happened, and it really was saving grace. This time has also enabled me to work better and plan with even more focus for the times ahead .
The Fashion industry is one of the hardest hit in this pandemic. How can people support brands like yours that collaborate with local artisans and help encourage sustainable craftsmanship and ethical practices in Africa?
I think this space and environment has helped us reflect more on consumer education. We cannot have people support sustainable brands without full knowledge of what it is. There has to be a revolution of change within mindsets. Consumers will always want to purchase a bag by Dior because of what it represents. An ideology created by society. The same person will not buy from myself, because the thought of their bag being created in a village somewhere does not represent the lifestyle that is dictated to them by society. So it is high time designers that have sustainable ethical brands come together to create platforms that educate society about the advantages of purchasing from brands like myself and how their purchases are supporting beyond, and that it is really about building communities.
That will take a long time but it can be done.
What was your biggest motivation for your career choice?
It was my love of expression. I needed an outlet for my voice, my emotions, my sweat to be projected into. It was my fear of perishing without a legacy. That drove me.
You made the switch from journalism to fashion. What do you think the media industry can do better when covering the fashion industry in Africa?
It was not entirely a switch. It was a way of merging my two loves together to create something powerful that was beyond my understanding. The global media has no knowledge of the fashion industry in Africa. When they hear Africa, they think of masks, African print and unappreciated bouts of colour. That is not what African fashion is about. They miss the aesthetics, the culture, the story telling and generational legacies that come through art. Ignorance plays a big part and a laziness in researching the contexts of African fashion. As an African , I have always blamed others before me for the lack of documentation of Fashion History. When there is nothing to refer to, people make things up. One of the projects I am working on is documenting African Fashion History for an online virtual museum. We can never say we are misrepresented as the proof will be available.
If you had the power to change one thing in the fashion industry what would it be and why?
Humanity over profit.
That concept would make the fashion industry less harsher and competitive. It would about serving communities and our consumers. It would be about creating objects and products that had value in aesthetic and culture more than how much they cost.
What advice would you give about manufacturing in Africa?
Recently I had conversations with other creatives on how manufacturing in Africa really would present a reliable way to create a productive economy and jobs. This opportunity has always been there as China and other countries raise labour costs and wages, in African countries these are still relatively low. We have to start somewhere. However, our policy makers in African countries do not see the Fashion manufacturing industry as a credible one and fail to see how fashion is a multi billion industry globally. I understand the Manufacturing sector as a fundamental path to economic growth and development. In view of this there is a great need to educate and train workers on quality control as this is the most highlighted complaint that comes from outside and inside Africa. For the industry itself to take off, a system has to be put in place that monitors production and also implementing equipment and technology in par with globalisation.
How would you like perception of the Continent to change in the future?
The perception of the Continent has to be a collective one, with a group of like minded people coming together to influence. Almost like a revolution of people who inspire change and development from inside or outside the continent. This has to be done as a legacy of change for the future generations, not only so that we try and convince the outside world of who we are. Africa is great, it always has been great. And again, only those with a vision beyond criticism will get it, and that is enough. Those who get it will spread the word.
What has been the best advice you've ever received?
II Corinthians 12:9-11
"But he said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."- The Bible.