The Texan king of trashion

Eric Kimmel is taking America's discarded clothes, adding African ingenuity and fashion flair, and selling the results for up to $300 in an attempt to bring prosperity to Sierra Leone. Katrina Manson reports
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The Independent Online

He is everything you might expect of a man with a long pedigree in Dallas fashion swagger: all drawling accent – every other word is "bro", zany glasses and Texan flounce. But Eric Kimmel, designer and founder of America's Rich Hippie boutique, also knows what it's like to cook over charcoal and have a bucket shower, day in, day out, for months on end, surrounded by jungle and dirt roads, in the world's least developed country. The recycled rag-trade guru, who once peddled designer denim to classy shoppers in the US, has made a village in the steamy southeast of Sierra Leone his new home. The reason? He wants to bring "clothing with a conscience" to the West.

"We take things that are unwearable, or too big, and do little crafty things to them," says Kimmel. His "Trashion" range takes second-hand clothes from well-known brands such as Nike, Adidas, Levi and Disney, and then local artisans add their own cultural touches and techniques, such as batik dyeing, hand-stitching and African beads.

When he launches the range later this month, at a series of elite fashion parties in America and then the UK, final products – which started out as charity shop donations – will sell from $90 (£57) to $290 a piece.

"This is the whole nine yards," Kimmel says of his experience, which has so far included at least three bouts of malaria. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather do. After all, when you die what are you going to smile about?"

It's his own twist on a well-established money-maker. The global second-hand clothes trade is already worth $1bn, 10 times more than in 1990. They might be donated freely, but what doesn't fly off the shelves is sold on wholesale to rag houses, which package the wares into huge bales and ship them.

Much of the donated clothing heads for the developing world's poor shoppers; nearly a third of it to sub-Saharan Africa, where it lines the streets on stalls and even on the road. So profitable an industry is it that fake collectors go door-to-door in the West, soliciting unwanted garb for non-existent charities.

However, many countries consider second-hand clothes to pose such a damaging threat to their local textiles industry they have banned them. Of 31 countries worldwide that outlaw the import of second-hand clothing, 12 of them are African, including huge markets such as Nigeria and South Africa, as well as economies struggling to get back on their feet after protracted wars, such as Liberia.

While charities such as Oxfam claim that the industry promotes jobs in Africa – the market creates an estimated five million jobs in Kenya, for example – the continent is short-changed when it comes to the initial sorting stages. In Europe alone, sorting and grading textiles provides 250,000 jobs, a bonus Kimmel thinks should be extended to Africa.

In Sierra Leone, 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and up to two-thirds are unemployed, and Kimmel wants Trashion to provide much-needed jobs. "Everyone here can sew," he says. "As poor as they are, the fashion sense here blows my mind."

Drive eight hours from the hilly seaside capital Freetown over rutted roads – breakdowns and roadside welding included – and you reach Mokanji, where Kimmel has set up the country's only sorting, grading and baling warehouse for used clothes. Known in Sierra Leone as "junks", the garments are shipped directly from charity shops in the US. He employs up to 30 workers depending on workload, but wants to expand to 100 within a year.

"'Junks' is like gold here – it's a very big business and there's a market for it everywhere," says Kimmel. More than 1.7m tonnes of used clothes were imported into Sierra Leone from the US alone last year, worth $1.4m, up 141 per cent on the year before.

In the warehouse, children peer through the windows as workers sort through a heap of colours and fabrics piled high in the middle of the sparse hall, separating them out by seemingly endless type. Men's polo shirts, branded jeans and "sexy tops" are among the 25 categories.

"At first it was difficult to know the different categories of clothes, but then it became very easy," says James Fullah, 21, a grader paid $2 a day, wearing a T-shirt he bought for less than a dollar. "These are the only clothes in Africa – I love the style. We have our traditional clothes but they're very expensive. For now there are no jobs, so I'm glad I have this one."

There's no power from the national grid, so everything is done by hand or with creaking old machines instead of the nifty electric ones Mr Kimmel is more used to. About a third of the reject rags form the pièce de résistance – the "stuff we do stuff to"; the concept behind "Trashion". Nothing goes to waste. Outsize T-shirts are cut up and sewn together, belt loops, zippers and pockets are painstakingly unstitched from unappealing jeans. A further third of the "junks" from the warehouse goes to local mining companies to make wiping rags, and another third goes to the local market, something dear toKimmel's heart. Every Friday the village holds its own clothes fair, as well as selling to other towns throughout the south. "If you only concentrate on Freetown, the rest of the country suffers and all these communities are left out," the Texan says. "It's expensive for people to get to Freetown and it takes time."

Workers also receive a monthly $8 clothing allowance, to pick and choose as they like, while the firm is converting heavy sweaters too hot for the climate into school bags provided freely for each of Mokanji's 900 school-going children.

If business takes off it will mark a significant shift for the village, which was vandalised during the 1991-2000 civil war, known for atrocities in which attackers hacked off victims' limbs with blunt machetes.

"During the war the rebels came and the people had no money and nothing to eat," says James Bandu, a 46-year-old tribal elder. "Their only work was to go to the farm and they come back late in the night. This enterprise has really changed the community."