The Ethiopian cultural clothing has gone from being signature attire for the holidays to a high-end fashion wear sought out by those that are not even Ethiopian. The Habesha dress is traditional clothing attire that has been worn in Ethiopia and Eritrea for centuries. It is hand-woven attire made from cotton and is especially worn during holidays and special occasions. The main reason to buy Habesha dresses is weddings and holiday seasons. These dresses have now gone to the international market and interested people can order their Habesha dresses from online stores like Etsy.
The peak season for Habesha dresses is usually during Timket celebrations and Enkutatash (the Ethiopian New Year). Usually, people head to Shiro Meda, the largest shopping center for such items in Addis Ababa. However, nowadays, many shops selling the clothing can be found all around Addis Ababa. Although most of these shops get the dresses hand woven at Shiro Meda, the price difference between the two is worlds apart. The attires considered as high-end, have become unaffordable for the masses.
Even though vendors at Shiro Meda have high quality attire and even there are lots of shops to choose from, they are often overlooked by high-end clientele due to their location.
“My dresses are high quality, stitched by crafty hands. I would like to think my prices are fair but the thing is, the high-end clients want something they can brag about and my prices are not something to brag about. On the other hand, my regular clients think I am expensive. You really can’t please everyone,” says Worqe, a vendor at Shiro Meda.
“I make my prices based on what it takes to make the Habesha dresses I sell. The weaving alone consumes the time and energy of the workers. The prices consider every party involved in the making of the dress, which is why it’s fair. Buyers compare current prices to what it was 10 years ago. But garment prices have increased, so has the cost of shemena (the making of Habesha dresses),” she said.
According to Worqe, the price of cultural cloth in general is not the same as it used to be.
Usually, the cultural attire is considered to be affordable with prices ranging from 3,000- 10,000 birr depending on their design and the quality of materials. Similar materials dubbed high-end can go up to 80,000 birr.
And in sharp contrast, nowadays, Chinese manufacturers are making cheaper dresses printing Tibeb patterns on dresses. This, although it is infuriating to many in the business as well as customers, it has helped bridge the price gap in the market.
Unlike the traditionally handmade Habesha dresses, Chinese manufactures copy the design and make it in factories with materials that are lower in quality than handwoven cotton. Unlike cotton, the materials they use are not weatherproof and hypoallergenic. The difference between the two, according to those in the business, is in the quality and the material used to make the dresses. The average cost of a genuine Habesha dress is above 3,000 birr, while the replica is sold for just 1000 birr or less.
“Personally, I have no issue against the Chinese counterfeit. I know what I am buying won’t have the same quality as the actual hand-woven dresses but I love that I can afford it. They both look beautiful and durability isn’t an issue for me since I don’t wear Habesha dresses that often. I understand that it’s bad for business owners here but their prices were getting out of hand,” said Samrawit, a customer looking to buy a dress for a wedding in January.
“For instance, last year, I wanted a dress and I went to a shop and asked for the price, they told me its 18,000 birr for a dress. I can’t spend that much money on cloth, the average Ethiopian can’t spend that much either. But there are Chinese print dresses of Saba that sell for 4000 birr and less. So ya, I am not complaining about the counterfeits at all,” added Samrawit.
Naturally customers look for affordability, but vendors, designers and alike believe the counterfeits are dangerous to the market. Despite local providers’ prices being high, they believe that the high prices will elevate the value of the dresses, which in turn will help Ethiopia.
“There is a huge foreign market for these dresses. Can you imagine what sort of damage those counterfeits would do to that market? People who buy the Chinese print are only thinking about how cheap they are, when in reality they are appropriating our culture for their own gain, which shouldn’t even be legal,” said Worqe.
“All these shops you see here are putting in hours of labor in creating single pieces, while they manufacture unoriginal pieces on a mass scale and gain more. People should stop indulging in their products because they are not helping at all,” exclaimed Worqe.
Since Habesha dresses are not patented, the counterfeits are still legal. Selamawit, who recently had 6 dresses made for herself and her bridesmaids, says there is a better way to get high-end products made for less.
“I went out shopping for my bride’s maid’s dresses around bole and 22 because that’s where the best designs are, but the prices are out of my range so we looked around and picked the designs we liked the most. We then came here to Shiro Meda. I know a very reasonably priced vendor here. I told him the design I liked there, and he made it for a lower price. Plus, I brought new designs to his shop. Those shops don’t own the designs, so, it’s fair game,” said Selamawit.
“The cost of a wedding is a lot as it is, so I want more for less. The prices at those places are highly unreasonable. The same weavers do the work, yet I am sure they don’t get paid more. So, I would just be paying for the rent of the fancy shops they have, so no, but thank you. I can barely afford my own rent,” added Selamawit, seeing no fault in counterfeiting someone else’s designs.
Private designers cater to the rich and famous, hence why their prices are unaffordable for the masses, but others are following in their footsteps and raising the prices of their products, since they believe their products are just as worthy.
“One can argue that as long as the local and foreign market demand is high, the prices are just going to keep getting higher. Designers want to cater to whoever is willing to pay the most and since traditional clothing isn’t a necessity and is a luxury, morality can’t really be involved,” said Makeda, a middle-aged woman shopping around bole district.
The industry is booming locally and internationally, with young graduates of the textile industry as well as design schools looking to broaden their brand through traditional attire. The demand seems to increase, and with it bringing an increase in price. One can only hope for affordable options that are not as morally corrupt, as the Chinese rip-off starts to make an appearance in the market.