Bethlehem Getachew, in her mid-thirties, is a regular buyer of traditional Ethiopian clothes. She buys clothes for herself and her siblings who live abroad.
She is a fan of locally made traditional dresses made from cotton calledShemma, woven fabrics produced in long strips and sewn together. A dress made in this fashion used to cost her 9,000 Br. Just like many other Ethiopians, Bethlehem prefers to wear Habesha kemis, the long snow white and embroidered national outfit, usually worn with an accompanying shawl calledNetela.
As she has done many times before, she went to Shiro Meda, the largest marketplace for traditional Ethiopian dresses, last month to buy dresses for her nieces.
Unlike the previous days, she did not go looking for dresses made from Shemma. Rather, she was looking for garments made from imported chiffon – a light, transparent fabric typically made of silk or nylon. The dresses she bought are imitation dresses of traditional Ethiopian clothing.
Bethlehem paid 2,700 Br for three small sized dresses. “Previously, I pay this amount (2,700) for a single dress, made from Shemma,” she told Fortune.
Chiffon clothes have flooded major marketplaces for traditional garments including Shiro Meda, Cherkos, Kirkos District and around the Ambassador Theatre in Addis Abeba.
Carrying cheaper prices ranging between 400-600 Br, these chiffon imitations are the major reason that buyers like Bethlehem have switched away from traditional dresses made from Shemma.
It is a concern and a threat to major stakeholders including small-scale weavers, designers, tailors and retailers that depend on this trade.
It is not only imitation Shemmamade of chiffons that have flooded the markets but imported Gabbi, traditional cotton blankets made of four panels stitched together, is also entered the retail spaces.
One of the weavers who is fearful of losing out to the chiffon competition is Mesfin Lemma, who has been in theShemma business for the past two decades working under an association, Fana, that he formed with his friends in Shiro Meda.
Mesfin claims that many of his friends have switched to selling chiffon-made clothes as their Shemmabusiness has declined. Making traditional clothes is labour intensive and time-consuming, he argues, citing the reasons for the higher prices traditional garments command.
that “Most of my friends have left the business to work as security guards,” Mesfin told Fortune.
Before arriving at the retail shops, traditional clothes go through various steps including hand-weaving and embroidery.
Traditional weavers like Mesfin who produce hand-made fabrics, weave the clothes from dire, cotton yarns and tilfe, the colourful woven patterns built into the cotton fabric. The patterns of the garments could be plain or designed with decorative patterns known as tibeb, which are made from cotton, silk, metallic, rayon, acrylic or wool yarns.
The clothes are then sent to embroiderers before they arrive at the retail shops, or they may be directly shipped to customers by the weavers. These processes make the price of traditional clothes high compared to chiffons, according to weavers and retailers.
The clothes made from chiffon are plain, and the decorated and designed patterns are printed on the cloth.
“The designs of the imported cloth are directly copied from ours,” claims Mesfin.
Most of my friends have left the business to work as security guards.
The patterns of traditional clothes are cultural, and they are colourfully and creatively crafted to catch the eyes of the buyers. The imitation dresses, made from imported fabric, copy the distinct features of traditional fabrics.
Retailers of locally made fabrics argue that imported clothes mainly benefit the importer, while traditional fabrics extend benefits to at least five professionals in the production chain, according to Mohammed Seid, salesperson of H. Kiros Traditional Clothes Retail Shop inside Cherkos Mart.
Though weavers including Mesfin claim the designs on the imported clothes are copied from them, industry designers argue that no-one had registered the designs with claims of ownership, or as cultural icons.
“Because of this, importers are copying the weaver’s designs and modifying them as they wish,” said Ejigayehu H/Giorgi, owner of Ejig Tebeb and founder and president of Ethiopian Fashion Designers Association, a professional association with 106 members – but only half of the members are active.
It is not only imitation Shemmamade of chiffons that have flooded the markets but imported Gabbi, traditional cotton blankets made of four panels stitched together, is also entered the retail spaces. Imported Gabbi are sold at different market locations throughout the city and are offered at lower prices.
Though these copy clothes have become popular recently, they have been in the market for the past couple of years. In recent days demands for the imitation, garments have hiked, according to retailers in Cherkos, another retail location for traditional cloth.
“As these products give options to the buyers, many customers stop by our stores looking for chiffon clothes,” said Wegen Mohammed, a shop owner at Cherkos Mart.
This does not mean that the products are in demand by everybody, as there are many people who still prefer to be attired in the hand-made traditional clothes only.
Semhar Teklaye, who was buying a traditional skirt at Shiro Meda is one customer who prefers to stick with handmade and ocally produced traditional clothes.
“I prefer to buy the local products that are handmade and cultural,” she told Fortune.
Yet, experts share the view that these imported clothes could be potential threats to the locally produced garments.
“Importing imitation copies of our own goods is not advisable, as it will undermine our products,” said Kilole Tesfaye, director of information and strategy at Ethiopian Institution of Textile & Fashion Technology of Bahirdar University.
“We cannot even compare the products with the local ones,” Kilole said, “we are supposed to introduce our traditional clothes to the rest of the world instead.”
Ejigayehu of Ejig Tebeb believes that these imported clothes could not continue as threats to the traditional fabrics.
“People have already started to get fed up with chiffons. It is just a matter of time before the local products win back the market,” she toldFortune.