Three migrant tailors play tug-of-war with the unrelenting Chinese clothing industry to assert their own economic dominance on a snoozing avenue they call home.
Seated in his dark shop that bears his name, Daniel “Legend” Osakwe, a tailor anchored on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 2nd Street in Johannesburg, let out a defeated sigh. It was 9am and load-shedding had hit, drawing the life from his electric sewing machine.
“Obviously my work flow is now affected,” said Osakwe, pushing the coral silk cloth he was working on to the side of his large metal workspace. It cascaded onto the adjacent table, which held a colourful pool of fabric cuttings swimming together.
Parts of the avenue surrounding him were also in a slump. The steely sound from the nearby motor repair shop, synonymous with the Hillbrow-Sandton corridor, had ground to a halt. Trudging cars honked as if trying to will the dead traffic lights to come alive again.
Although visibly annoyed, Osakwe exuberantly greeted everyone who passed his shop. His liveliness mirrored the energy of his active wear. Osakwe wore grey sweatpants and, over a blue t-shirt, a black gym jacket. His camouflage cap almost covered his eyes, drawing attention to his white-speckled beard which gave away his 44 years of age.
A sleeping avenue smothered by the Sleeping Giant
Louis Botha Avenue sleeps – even when it is powered by Eskom. The economy is in need of a revival, due to plodding construction projects, the changing demographics of the area and the scourge of crime, which has driven many traders to safer, more prosperous areas. For those who choose to stay, such as Osakwe, it is a fight for survival.
“I named myself Daniel Legend back home in Nigeria when I started designing clothes. I loved John Legend’s music, so I also gave myself that name,” he said.
Osakwe moved to South Africa over 18 years ago and opened Daniel Legend in 2004.
In his shop, Europe rubs against Africa through the beaded lace outfits hanging next to the bold Ankara wax-print garments. Ankara is batik-inspired material with Indonesian roots adopted in West African fashion, giving the colourful material a hard, glossy finish which disappears after the first wash.
“The material mostly comes from China,” Osakwe said, with a hint of exasperation.
China’s clothing and textile industry slyly provides tailors with quality material to make outfits, but beats them to the customer line with its own clothing production.
Simon Eppel, a researcher at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, said about 40% of all imported Chinese clothing is smuggled in, avoiding import duties. This allows retailers to sell the contraband cheaply.
“Compare Chinese export data to that of local customs revenue import data. There is a huge gap,” Eppel said.
In 2017 almost half of all South African imported textiles and clothes came from China and was valued at more than R19 billion, said a report released by Cotton South Africa, a cotton industry organisation.
Osakwe said business plummeted in 2010 when the Chinese clothing industry caught up with Afrocentric fashion trends.
“Before then, only a few South African design houses such as Sun Goddess had commercialised traditional prints,” Osakwe said, adding that he would sew about 15 garments a week.
When he got multiple orders, he would hire help to meet his customers’ desired outfit deadlines.
“Nowadays I sometimes see about five customers. Sometimes no one comes through my doors for a whole week.
“Now I am not just fighting the Chinese market for African designs, I am competing against tailors who have popped up on the avenue as a result of the demand,” Osakwe said.
A thirteen-minute walk down Louis Botha Avenue from Osakwe’s shop sat another tailor, Paul Mphando, carefully hemming a side of a voile curtain. He was tucked up in Adom Clothing, close to 8th Street, a shop with a variety of clothes, many of which were light and semi-transparent, with fraying threads visible on closer inspection.
Mphando spoke with measured precision, his speech squeezed out of his stiff, clean-shaved face. His small eyes, however, opened wide while speaking about his garment making journey.
“My time as a tailor has been number one. My customers come here from all over, including Spruitview and Pretoria,” Mphando, a Malawian migrant, said.
Mphando said he was inspired to seek greener pastures in a foreign country by his now late stepfather, a tailor working in Botswana several years ago.
“Louis Botha Avenue was the first place I arrived in South Africa when I came in 2013,” he said, adding that his brothers who lived on 14th Street pushed him to migrate to Johannesburg.
Mphando said he was in the “right place”, but admitted his location gave him unwanted competition with cheap clothing.
“That dress is R250. I sell my dresses for R600. If a customer walks in, which one are they more likely to buy?” Mphando asked, pointing at a blue dress hanging from the open entrance security door.
A stifling crime blanket covers the Hillbrow to Sandton corridor
While China has a vice grip on the tailors of Louis Botha Avenue, the avenue’s own socio-economic fabric also threatens to suffocate the livelihood of the corridor’s businesses.
Osakwe keeps his wrought-iron gate closed as a precautionary measure against the lawlessness that exists in the area.
“People are afraid to park their cars to come into my shop, so they rather just drive past me every day.
“There are a lot of street boys who mug people of their possessions and spend their time smoking dope,” he said.
Osakwe, an Orange Grove resident, said many street boys live along Louis Botha Avenue, a high-density housing area lined with high-rise apartments.
Osakwe and Mphando are part of the community of African migrants who moved into the area. About 25% of the flat dwellers in the area are migrants, according to a research paper by Wits University spatial analysis and city planning researcher Alexandra Appelbaum.
Appelbaum said this had been an ongoing effect of the decline in the Johannesburg inner city which began in the 1970s. As a result, rental prices became more affordable for African people to move into neighbourhoods along Louis Botha Avenue close to the city centre, such as Orange Grove.
Back at Daniel Legend, Osakwe rocked slightly in a maroon mesh-covered chair while looking out into the street through his barred entrance.
“You know, whenever African people move in, the white people move out,” Osakwe said, marking white cotton fabric with a pencil. He would regularly slot it behind his left ear as he smoothed the material with his hands.
Osakwe said he shops around Amalgam’s China Mall and the Johannesburg CBD for fabric for good deals to make sure he gets a third profit off a garment sewn.
When quoting a customer, he includes a return taxi trip to the Johannesburg CBD from Orange Grove, which costs him R22.
“To make a lady’s top, I can buy material and other necessities for about R190, and in the end sell the garment for R300,” Osakwe said.
Mphando, on the other hand, said he makes sure of 50% profit on every garment. He said he buys from cross-border traders who bring back material from other countries.
“I can get it as cheap as R150 for 6m of material,” Mphando said. To maximise even further, he often resells the material he would have bought with a R100 mark-up for himself.
While China exports cheaper fabric, Osakwe said he would never compromise on buying poor quality fabric to lower costs.
“When people see my work, it must show my excellent workmanship,” he said.
Customer service: The personal assistance not even the smartest robot could offer
As Osakwe sat alone in his shop, a petite woman seemingly appeared out of nowhere. She stood outside the entrance, next to a mannequin of similar stature. The life-sized doll was dressed in a Ndebele print-inspired A-line dress sneakily adjusted with a wooden peg at its back to hide the garment’s actual size. The visitor’s body was motionless, eyes moving slightly, as if unsure whether she could window-shop through the wrought iron bars.
Osakwe quickly welcomed her in with a sense of familiarity. Felicia Mlangeni had paid him a visit to potentially get a dress sewn.
“It is for my sister’s umembeso. She is getting married next month,” Mlangeni said, perched over Osakwe’s shoulder as she showed him the dress she had in mind on her phone.
“Do you have your own material?” Osakwe asked. Mlangeni took a moment to ponder, as if asked a trick question, before sheepishly shaking her head in response.
While giving her a quick look at and feel of the fabric options available to her, Osakwe explained that a cotton and polyester mix dress would cost her R600, while if she opted for a pure cotton outfit he would charge her R850 for the design and material.
What started as an awkward business encounter turned into a friendly chat between Osakwe and Mlangeni, as if they were old friends.
“If you are going to be dancing, wear a low heel. What will you do with your hair?” Osakwe asked as Mlangeni bounced off her tippy toes, as if wearing imaginary stilettos.
Clothing alterations: A way to bite back and feed off the Chinese clothing industry
Next door to the shop Mphando was stationed in sat Misheck Mponda in Heartland Boutique, entertaining friends. He was formally dressed with the top button of his blue shirt open, spreading his collar over the white tape measure hanging from his neck like a loose tie.
An elderly man popped his head through the open glass door and shouted “How much?”
His right index and middle fingers mimicked a pair of scissors snipping through the baggy lower left sleeve of his stiff blue overalls.
“R30,” Mponda responded to the man’s price inquiry about alteration. The man disappeared quickly after he heard the figure.
Unbothered by the man’s abrupt departure, Mponda kept his eyes on the darting needle before him.
“People always shop for the best deal,” the 34-year-old said. Mponda, who had been a Louis Botha Avenue tailor for five years, said he thought he had offered the “old man” a good price for alteration.
“For you,” he said, pausing his work to let his eyes run over my face, “I would say R40”.
Mponda said he had no fixed price for altering or sewing garments and would often form a price by judging a customer’s appearance.
“But it is not a problem, they can reduce the price,” he said, adding that he was open to price negotiation, a competitive small business element that allows entrepreneurs to rope in customers by adjusting prices.
Mponda said altering people’s clothing was a “good” source of income for him, as customers came out of boutiques having bought incorrectly sized clothes.
“Chinese clothes are sometimes too big or too small. When people buy clothing from the shop which they can’t fit into, they come to me,” Mponda said, highlighting his satisfaction with working on the avenue.
“I am just a blind man; God will be my eyes,”
Osakwe, a husband and father-of-two, said he sometimes wishes he could leave Louis Botha Avenue completely.
When he set up shop on the avenue he had hoped the transport node would expose him to many potential customers.
“I just don’t have enough resources to move to places like Sandton,” he said, resting both his hands on the work station in front of him.
Osakwe said he had often been at the mercy of his landlord, struggling to meet the R3 000 rent and utility bills for his shop.
A red bible peeked through folded material near his hands, belonging amid his clutter just as much as the spools of thread and pairs of scissors scattered over the table.
“Living as an immigrant in a country so far away, I need to have strong faith and ambition,” he said.
Far back in his shop hung a painting of White Jesus, draped in red cloth, straddling a lamb while his fair bare feet led a flock of sheep through the wilderness.
“I am just a blind man; God will be my eyes,” Osakwe said, his hands briefly held open in surrender as if reaching to heaven to shine its light on him.
FEATURED IMAGE: Garment-making on Louis Botha Avenue is an unpredictable business and tailors have to measure their steps to stay ahead in an upside down economy. Photo: Ntombi Mkandhla
- Wits Vuvuzela, LIFE IN LOCKDOWN PHOTO ESSAY: Different strokes for different folks, May 2020
- Wits Vuvuzela, The keepers of the stories told by vintage clothing, Novemver 2018