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Cisilino soon heard from outreach workers about Paul Otieno Asunga, a pin-neat and ramrod-straight African who was living in Kibera, the most notorious Nairobi slum (featured in the movie The Constant Gardener), and could make jewelry from just about anything, from old faucets to soda-bottle glass. Cisilino tracked him down and hired him to make the first pieces for her label. Today, Asunga trains and oversees nearly 50 workers and carries business cards that read, "Head of Production, Made Kenya Limited."
Made, Cisilino's ethical venture, lists among its clients Nicole Farhi; Topshop (including accessories for the Kate Moss collection); and GUAM (Global United Artists Movement) by Crumley, in a collaboration for Urban Outfitters. This season, Peaches Geldoftransatlantic It chickhas contributed a design of a unicorn, which Asunga translated into a hip, outsize pendant.
"My life has changed," says Asunga. "By seeing different things, meeting these people, I can make better things." Like all Made workers, he receives a fair wage and a hot lunch. "At the beginning, you do think, 'We've got to get them out of the slums,' and we were looking at accommodation," says Barnett. "But then reality kicks in. We would go bankrupt very quickly. Just as we source sustainably, we must be sustainable."
Future plans are that Made Kenya will not expand much beyond its current size and that "instead, we will grow through a network of community-size businesses across Africa, using this as the template," says Barnett.
Max Osterweis, 34, a filmmaker based in New York City and a regular visitor to Africa, was so horrified by Kenya's post-election violence last year, he decided to act. "Writing a fat check doesn't always help in the long term," he says. "I wanted to create long-term employment and also set an example to show that investment in Africa need not be about building more safari lodges."
His idea was to start a fashion label and name it after his mother Suno, who owns a house on the Swahili Muslim island of Lamu, off Kenya's coast. "I'm interested in contemporary things, so I wanted to do a collection women could wear to an art opening, to dinner. I didn't want to do an 'ethnic collection,' whatever that means," Osterweis says.
He called his friend Erin Beatty, a Parsons New School for Design graduate who had designed for Generra and the Gap. He persuaded her to go to Africa and showed her a collection of vintage kangas (large rectangles of printed cotton worn by women across East Africa) that he figured could be reworked into pieces that a cool girl would wear on a hot summer night in Manhattan. To maintain standards, every silhouette had to work first in plain black. And with that, sampling began in New York City at a garment district specialist called Johnny's Fashions.
Investigating local production in Nairobi, Osterweis called on Makena Mwaria, who is working hard to revive a company named African Heritage Design. But there was a problem. None of her machinists knew how to sew a French seam. "About 20 years ago, the U.S. and Europe started sending secondhand clothing to Africa and, by an act of charity, decimated the local industry," says Osterweis. So he imported Aeri Hwang of Johnny's Fashions to provide training. Mwaria was delighted. "We have to improve quality. I hate the stigma about 'made in Africa,' where customers are coerced to buy to help, not to buy to want."
The result, Suno, debuts this season at Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles and New York City and Maria Luisa in Paris. "It's a breakthrough for us," Mwaria says. This first season, she has added 23 workers.
To complete production, Osterweis needed more kangas. Abu Bakar, a shopkeeper on Lamu, sourced these from women from outlying islands who were delighted to sell or exchange theirs for Kenya's latest designswhich currently feature President Obama and such slogans in Swahili as "sisi na wesa" (Yes, We Can). Nairobi trader Bhupen Shah searched mainland Kenya and Tanzania for unusual ones. "The kanga speaks with a very sweet tongue," says Shah of the mottoes that are always part of the design. "I love one that says, 'Watch your roosters. There's a new chicken in the village,'" Osterweis says, laughing.
But while this first collection is exotic and funky, might consumers tire of the conceit? "No," insists Osterweis, who recently made a business partner of his father, a capital manager. "The next collection hardly uses kangas at all. We're talking long term here. If we get this right and women like it, we can change lives."
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