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Black History Month: In conversation with Tandi Fashion

Written by J Tilley
Published date 03 October 2020

"'Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth' -  Muhammad Ali. Everything I do professionally must have a giving back arm. That’s just the way it is and should be, period." - Thandi Ojeer

As part of our Black History Month takeover, we are talking to students, graduates, alumni and associates that appreciate, acknowledge and celebrate Black culture and heritage in their work and practice. Today, we're in conversation with Thandi Ojeer, Founder of Tandi Fashion. Tandi Fashion also work very closely with Making for Change located at Poplar Works, who are on hand to support brands on projects and enhance their sustainability processes.

Tell us about your brand Tandi Fashion – what does it represent?

Tandi Fashion is a contemporary fashion brand that believes in the empowerment of women. We create clothing that is crafted from an East African fabric called kanga. A kanga is a lightweight cloth known for its bold designs and the Swahili proverbs printed at the base of the fabric, which can be messages of caution, love, or acts of self-expression. We offer the customer clothing that have messages in the fabric that is bold and empowering to all women, allowing our demographic to 'wear their emotions'. The Swahili message in the dresses is a new concept to the western market; we deliver a premium product that is new and unique. Just like many people who live in a city but have heritage that hails from elsewhere, Tandi Fashion derived from East Africa but born in London.

Tandi Fashion does not follow fashion seasons, instead we treat our garments like numbered prints of art. When a certain print sells out, it is gone and we introduce a new print. By acting in this way we are reducing waste, whilst each pattern becomes a unique, limited edition. Whilst the pandemic has brought on uncertainties for us, our business model –which is based on not following fashion seasons – has allowed us to stay afloat, as there is no redundant stock to be dealt with. Our dresses are made in London and we are very excited the cross over the brand has made into the western market.

As part of the global efforts set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; I take part in goal number 3 to end the epidemic of Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. Our efforts go specifically towards reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Africa. We have formed a partnership with the mothers2mothers (m2m) and a portion of our proceeds goes towards their programmes. M2M employs local women living with HIV as Frontline Health Workers to support newly diagnosed HIV pregnant women. The aim is to get them started on the treatment they need so that these women can give birth to a HIV negative child.

We offer paid internships to women within the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) group, who are keen to gain experience in fashion but continue to be overlooked and underrepresented within the industry. We aim to turn this around by educating, empowering and supporting these women. Lift-up is key. Offering paid internships to the BAME group has made me realise that more needs to be done to help.

What encouraged you to pursue a brand with such a positive demand for change?

'Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth' Muhammad Ali. Everything I do professionally must have a giving back arm. That’s just the way it is and should be, period.

How has Poplar Works helped you and your brand progress professionally and how will you continue working with LCF’s Social Responsibility team?

I am extremely grateful for my relationship with LCF’s Social Responsibility team. They have helped me to stay positive mentally during this pandemic by allowing me to engage with Making for Change, Poplar Works during this time, this has fed my creativity in a safe place. The team fell in love with my brand and adopted it. Running your own business is like having a child, there is an African proverb that says  'It takes a village to raise a child” which means that an entire community of people must interact with children or those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. That’s what Making for Change, Poplar Works is to me a group of wonderful people routing for my child to grow.

What does ‘Black History Month’ mean to you?

I have experienced first hand the barriers black owned female start-ups face. Aspiring to become an entrepreneur means wearing several hats especially at the birth of your journey. But wearing the hat of breaking through discrimination is not one you consciously put on. There are many challenges  can range from few black role models, to lack of financial support, to access to market and opportunities. I believe that BAME businesses should really make use of the Black History Month as it is a chance to pass on guidance and expertise about enterprise to the next generation. It is important that I show that business ownership is achievable and helping them find their passion is priceless, so we should all be throwing our hat in the ring. We must also take a moment and celebrate our achievements and reflect.

In your opinion, what are the biggest difficulties we face as a fashion industry striving to become anti-racist?

Those in charge of setting fashion trends globally are of the white race and the likelihood of these trend-setters engaging with black communities and understanding black culture is very slim. In light of this, the trends that are being set are from a vantage point that is only for the white race. As a result, the entire world follows a white trend. This creates difficulty for black designers to present their cultural fabrics and designs to the local market, let alone the global market. This further creates discomfort in the black community to wear your cultural dressing because of societies interpretation of the trend, forcing our race to align with white trends to feel accepted. This is a form of systemic racism in the fashion industry.

Most big fashion buyers are white and are put off when I verbally describe our dresses as ‘made from East African fabric’. Yet, when they see our dresses they are pleasantly surprised by the beauty and astonished that the dresses are African prints. Fashion has long been perceived as a standard by which to measure ourselves, but what does that mean for black people? Designers are often marginalised, misrepresented and stereotyped by the world of fashion. Why was this buyer so shocked? Simply put, the white race have a pre conceived notion of what African prints are, and unfortunately, that notion subtly translates as inferiority of the African continent more specifically the black race. To put this in context, when Gucci, a white designer, uses African fabric, it is automatically deemed credible and the white race engage with the style, colours and texture. Again, subtly highlighting the inferiority of the black race.

We want change, where do we start? What are the first steps that people can take to show their appreciation?

My vision is for the black race to be represented in the decision making of trends and how society views the status quo. For this to happen black men and women need to sit in high-ranking position of top 50 global fashion brands of their time. Whilst this is a long-term achievement and generational impact, today we must focus on the short-term gains. Those short-term gains are what Tandi Fashion currently implements through empowering the East African community, empowering black women through our fabric and our paid internship programme. Tandi Fashion is just a vessel that fuels the vehicles.  The tools learned here are encouraged to go out and disrupt trajectory that leads towards growth.