Shopping in the Milan of Africa

In the outback shags of rural Ethiopia, I felt comfortable, even kind of cool, in my Patagonia and North Face hiking gear. A week later in the capital, the exact same attire made me feel decidedly unfashionable. Addis Ababa could be called the Milan of Africa. Baristas pull macchiatos from antique espresso machines. Pizzerias and jacarandas line the wide boulevards. And chic young couples stroll the evening streets, arm in arm in their black leather jackets. I was clearly out of place, something like a Kentucky boy in Beverly Hills.

It did not help that because my luggage was lost by Ethiopian Airlines I was still wearing the same dirty, stinking camping clothes that I wore for a week of hiking in the Simien Mountains. I had no choice but to buy some new clothes so I went to an area of town known as Piazza, a shopping district of small kiosks and boutiques selling the latest street fashion and the usual assortment of knockoff imports.

At the first place I stopped, an outdoor stall not unlike a shanty, I found two pairs of pants that I wanted to buy. For the first, apparently manufactured by a label called McDaddy, I was asked to pay 450 birr, about $60. For the second, I was quoted a considerably higher price because, “my friend, they are Gucci.”

“No, they are Guggi.”

“Yes, Gucci.”

“This is a g not a c. It’s Guggi, not Gucci.” I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to con me or whether he genuinely believed that it’s supposed to be Guggi with a double g not Gucci with a double c. I left without attempting to bargain.

Moving on, I stopped at the shanty next door. Again I wanted to buy two pairs of pants. I was told they were 200 birr each. I asked the vendor “why so much?”

“They are Gap. They are quality. They are from the United States.”

I took another, closer look. There was indeed a Gap label on the waistline. It said “Size 38” and “Made in Malaysia.” However, there was another label on the inseam, this one from Dockers. It said “Size 29” and “Made in Philippines.” The Dockers label also provided washing instructions, “WASHININSIDEOUT,” all oneword, all capitals, and all wrong. Oddly, and fortuitously, the pants fit my size 32 waist perfectly.

The salesman smirked, knowingly, as explained these inconsistencies. I left there with both pants, for a total of 200 birr.

I continued walking and browsing for the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to buy a blazer at one boutique but I didn’t want to pay the 900 birr that was being asked. At the store next door, I bought two for 600 birr. After years of looking, I finally found a denim jacket that I like. I bought some socks because Thorlo is definitely not cool in Milan.

Towards the end of the day, I tried on another pair of pants. They were generic, by a label that calls itself The Dude. The salesman said they were 200 birr.

I reached into my bags for the pants I had bought earlier that afternoon. I decided to turn fraud in my favor: “Do you see these, I paid half that for these. And they’re quality, they’re Gap, they’re from the United States.”

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