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It's easy to spot the potential hole in that thinking. After all, what do bureaucrats in Geneva really know about style that sells? Simone Cipriani, 45, the U.N. project's chief technical officer, is the surprising answer. Cipriani adores Vivienne Westwood and is up to speed on Stella McCartney, whose ethical stance he much admires. Before he moved into the development business (and make no mistake, "trade, not aid" on the scale of the U.N. is very much a business), Cipriani was in the shoe industry. So he's a rare mix. On the one hand, he possesses a deep understanding of the fact that poverty's many problems can be alleviated only through piecemeal change. On the other hand, he gets the rules of the fashion systemgreat products, consistent high quality, reliable deliveries and realistic production schedules.
Laudi heard about Cipriani at a time when, like so many in an industry that is facing profound change, she was wondering, What next? She summoned him immediately to Max Mara's headquarters in Reggio Emilia, Italy. "I arrived with my bag stuffed with little samples from the slums," Cipriani recalls. When Laudi and her team came back with a proposal seen through their fashion eyes, Cipriani was "stunned." The resulting accessories combine the craft skills of six community groupseach composed of about 100 peoplewith these people in turn supporting their extended families.
One of these groups is helmed by an American, Erin Brennan Allan, 34, a former assistant to magazine editor Tina Brown. After 9/11, Brennan Allan decided to sell her West Village apartment in New York City and move to Kenya, where she set up Toto Knits, a company that employs disadvantaged African women to knit baby sweaters for export. The commission to fulfill about half of the Max & Co. crochet order "added a zero to anything we had tried before," Brennan Allan says.
But what would Laudi say if direct competitors like D&G or DKNY wanted to work in Africa? "I would be happy," she says. "This goes beyond brands and commercial values." Cipriani, who knows well enough that fashion folk are loath to be second in anything, says, "For those looking for their own story in Africaand we recognize creative people want something that is new for themthere are so many other possibilities."
However, the realities of the locale are always close at hand. "It needs to be understood this is not Asia," says Lisa Barratt, an exile from the conflict in Zimbabwe, who with her Kenyan business partner, Julie Church, directs Marula Studios, the hub where products arriving from diverse communities are finished, checked and dispatched to the outside world. The biggest difference is that fashion's usual lines of credit don't work in Kenya. "You cannot say to a villager, 'I will pay you when I get paid,'" explains Church. "We understand that big fashion houses are never just going to give us the cash up front," Barratt chimes in. "But we have to say, 'If you want to do this on credit, this is the price, and if it is cash, it's this much less.'" Kenyan interest rates are staggeringly high, "so hardly anyone borrows, even to buy a car," says Church. "Lisa and I had to get our first-ever overdraft for this project."
Barratt and Church and Brennan Allan have put their other business ventures on hold. All three felt this was a pioneering project worth making sacrifices for. "We knew we had what was needed to get this kick-started," says Church. "We believe in Africa."
As does Laudi. Max & Co. will continue working with African collectives "because it is good to see what can be done, what must be done," she says. As for Akoto, joining the global fashion industry means she can promise her baby a better future.
Three years ago, Cristina Cisilino, 44, based in London, was handling global sourcing for some of fashion's biggest brands. Increasingly disillusioned by all the gray areas of mass production, she told her partner Gerson Barnett, 38, then working in the newspaper business, that she wanted to relocate to Africa to start an ethical jewelry business. Amazingly, he and the couple's young son were game.
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