Hello my American friends! I need a couple of new skirts and a new church outfit. Want to go clothes shopping with me in Lomé, Togo? It’s going to be a lot different than what you are used to! I plan on having these things made by a local seamstress, and the process is a little more involved than just a quick trip to the mall. (Although if I have to go to her shop, finding parking could be equally as challenging.)
Can we find Western clothes here?
Yes, we can. There is no cultural prohibition against wearing Western clothes, and in fact, nearly every Togolese person I’ve ever met owns some clothing in Western styles. Cast-offs and donations are sent to Africa by the container load and resold; often even the donated clothing is sold. Cheaply manufactured clothing from Asia is also extensively imported. Local vendors purchase them and sell them in tiny boutiques, off of clotheslines or makeshift stalls outdoors, in clothing markets displayed in organized heaps of chaos, or even direct sales via your friendly neighborhood street hawker.
Finding exactly what you want in the exact size you want is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but you never know when you might have a serendipitous encounter with a heap of used clothing.
Can we buy pre-made traditional clothes here?
Yes, we can. There are a lot of boutiques that sell handmade ready-to-wear traditional clothing. High-end boutiques have beautifully done pieces, often made with quality fabrics and fancy embroidery.The tourist markets and local markets are full of cheaper traditional clothing- often done with low-cost in mind: lower quality fabric, done on older machines and in general, less attention to workmanship.
The only challenge will be the size. If you are looking for something very large and flowing, it probably won’t be a problem. If you want something more fitted and tailored, it could be more of a problem if you aren’t the same size as an average Togolese person. (We aren’t.)
How do we order custom clothing?
It starts with the fabric. You get to pick it yourself!
Fabric is normally sold in 2 yard sections, called a “pagne.” Most often, a vendor will have folds of fabric that are 3 pagnes (6 yards) which is enough fabric for a full outfit- top and skirt for a woman, top and pants for a man. If you want less than that, they will usually cut it for you.
Fabric ranges in quality from poor to excellent, and the price varies accordingly. Low or average quality fabric will be about $1.25/yard or so. It is adequate for clothing, but the clothing will not last very well with daily use. The excellent quality stuff is about $12/yard and up, depending on the brand and how much decoration it has.
It’s not hard to find fabric vendors. Fabric is one of the staples of life here and nearly every community market, corner vendor, or streetlight hawker has some.
Once you have your fabric, you take it to a seamstress or a tailor. The best way to find a good seamstress is word of mouth, and believe me, there is a big difference between a good one and a “just okay” one. In fact, there are seamstresses and tailors on every block in Lomé, and I’m sure that many of them are excellent, but we tend to stick to the same one or two because we know they do good work, we trust their taste, and we know they aren’t going to price-gouge us.
When you go to the seamstress (or she comes to you) this is where it gets tricky. You really have to know what you want and you have to be able to communicate it to her. Many seamstresses have printed posters on their wall showing various options, and sometimes they have catalogs or old magazines too. You can pick and choose, “I like this hemline, but I want this sleeve, and this neckline.” Or you can try to draw it for her. But really, the best way to get exactly what you want is to take her a photo of it.
How do you know what you want if you aren’t familiar with local fashions? Well, you look around. I watch the women walking along the street, particularly on Sundays when women are wearing their nicest traditional outfits. I watch them come in and out of church, and I just pay attention to what people are wearing. If I see something I like, I take a picture. Full disclosure: I don’t like approaching strangers, so if I can get a photo without her knowing I do. But otherwise, I just ask. They are always flattered.
Next, the seamstress will take all your measurements. When she settles on a measurement, say, around your hips, that’s how tight the skirt will be, so now is the time to tell her if you want it looser. Remember that you will want to be able to sit, move around, climb stairs and climb into a vehicle. I’ve had some skirts turn out tragically tight in the name of fashion, and they hang in my closet collecting dust.
Sometimes she will ask for an advance, but most of the seamstresses I work with do not . To be honest though, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were working with a new seamstress and she asked for a deposit. There is no right way to do this. If you are happy and she is happy, then you did it right.
Finally, let’s talk about expectations. Even if you point to a photo on a poster or bring in your own photo that is exactly what you want, without any changes at all, you still have to be prepared that it won’t turn out exactly as you pictured it. Every ex-pat who has ever ordered tailored clothing can tell you stories about something that came out nothing like they pictured, for better or for worse, for beautiful or for tacky.
After you leave, she is going to go to work. She is a miracle worker. Seriously. She’s going to make you a one-of-a-kind piece of clothing, with no pattern, and often on a treadle sewing machine that we would call vintage, antique, or cute. What she is able to do is incredible– I’ve been sewing for 30 years and I can’t do what she can do with as little as she does it with.
She will call you when your outfit is done. It could be done tomorrow or it could be done next month. It’s good to ask her time frame in advance so that you aren’t waiting around wondering if she’s forgotten you, but remember that this is Africa. Time has much less importance here. In truth, it just depends on her workload, if she works alone or has apprentices, and what else is going on in her life.
My seamstress delivers my outfits to me. I know that a bigger shop would not do this, but I like it because I can try them on and make sure they fit right. Once I’m satisfied, then we talk price.
There are a number of factors that can change the price. Number one is the quality of her workmanship. A good quality seamstress knows the value of her work. Next, if she added any decorations such as trim or appliques, or had any embroidery done. (Most seamstresses do not have embroidery machines, so they outsource it which adds to the cost.) Finally, if the dress had any detail work that added to her time– pleats, ruffles, fabric manipulation, the cost will be a bit higher.
So, what do I pay? Most of my dresses vary between $30- $40 for the workmanship.(Remember, I’ve already paid for the fabric.) Skirts are about $15-$20. Men’s shirts are about $15 and up depending on work. A cheaper seamstress would cost less, but her workmanship would not necessarily be as good either. And prices in different places and different countries may vary greatly.
I know that doesn’t sound super cheap, but considering she’s spent at a couple days working on it, and maybe more, it’s pretty cheap. If I were making them for you, I’d charge a lot more.
And that is it! I hope you had fun shopping with me! It’s definitely not the mall and there is, sadly, no Starbucks or Orange Julius, but it is fun, and in the end, you end up with a one-of-a-kind outfit!