Like many women in their 30s, Jennifer Akoto is juggling. The operations manager for a Nairobi-based leather and beading business called Bidii, she has an international order to complete as well as a baby to feed. So, as the nanny hands her son Henry over to be nursed, Akoto taps at her calculator, then passes him back, readjusts her tailored jacket and pulls out her cell phone. Unlike most women working in the global fashion industry, though, Akoto is not concerned about the economic crisis or the credit crunch. The concept of credit barely exists in Korogocho, one of the world's most crowded slums, on the edge of Nairobi, where she lives and works. Akoto's story is a lesson about how fashion can be much more than just bling and status; it can be a vehicle for global improvement. It's a story about how fashion can help others without losing its demand for rarefied craftsmanship and speciality.
Aid to Africa has traditionally meant charitable donationsof funds, food, and medical treatmentto help combat the ravages of poverty. But fashion insiders have been taking steps to make more lasting inroads on the continent. Under Bono's Red project, companies such as Emporio Armani and the Gap are returning a percentage of their proceeds to help combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region. And now more than ever, fashion executives big and small are reaching out to craftsworkers in Africa and helping build businesses there. The Italian giant Max Mara Fashion Group is working with the United Nations' Geneva-based International Trade Center (ITC) to harness the skills of local artisans and use them in collections of accessories for its youthful brand Max & Co. On a smaller scale, personally funded enterprises are joining the initiative, from an ethical jewelry company, Made, whose customers include Kate Moss, to a new high-fashion line, Suno, whose founder wants to fuse African talents with those of designers in New York City.
Just one year after an orgy of post-election violence that claimed more than 1,100 lives and left 350,000 people displaced, Kenya is filled with hope, thanks in part to euphoria that a son of its soil is now the President of the U.S. On a more local level, there is another hope, which at first seems as improbable as Obama's rise, that glamorous fashion might be an instrument of change. After just a few months at her first job, Akoto has already moved to a safer one-room dwelling, which she shares with her baby, two teenagers, her partner and the nanny. "My parents are gone. No one in my family had a job. Now I do, and I have a young lady taking care of my baby, so I have created a job too. My house is lovely," she says.
Meeting Akoto for the first time, Luisa Laudi, the creative director of Max & Co., seems amazed that thousands of key rings and beaded trinkets, the latter to be attached to little crocheted purses also being made in the slums, are ready on schedule. This season, a limited edition of some 10,000 of the beaded accessories will be sold in Max & Co.'s 450 boutiques around the globe.
What this isn't about is cheap stuff. Many factors, including transportation difficulties and lack of mechanization, mean production in Africa costs roughly four times as much as it does in Asia. So why bother? "Because for once, this is not about profit," says Laudi. "More than 30% of the people on the planet live in slum conditions, and we must find ways to work with them, even if different rules of business apply." Laudi emphasizes that any wholesale differential will not be passed on to the customer. "I perceive the bags we're making here as little treasures," she says. "These are little delights but with a story behind them. To me, this is the new luxury."
The bags are indeed part of a much bigger story. The ITC lists among its Millennium Development Goals both poverty reduction and improvement of environmental conditions, with an emphasis on the use of recycled and organic materialshence a broad plan to harness skills found in the informal sector that's known in Kenya as jua kali (under the sun), in which craftsworkers make tin cans into toys and tire treads into shoes. The plan includes training locals like Akoto to take some managerial responsibility and bringing in the big names of fashion and interior design at the top of the value chain, where people will pay premium prices.
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