Wednesday, Apr. 01, 2009

Threads Of Change

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 donations—of funds, food, and medical treatment—to 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 materials—hence 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.

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 system—great 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 groups—each composed of about 100 people—with 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 Africa—and we recognize creative people want something that is new for them—there 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.

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 Geldof—transatlantic It chick—has 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 designs—which 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."