EDUN, the fashion company founded by rock star Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, has teamed up with well-known denim brand Diesel. Products sourced or made entirely in Africa will be available in Spring 2013, all bearing the "Diesel+EDUN" label.
The collaboration was announced on Friday in Rome, at the IHT Luxury Conference, hosted by Suzy Menkes, fashion journalist and and Editor for the International Herald Tribune. The collection, available in Spring 2013 at Diesel stores, various international boutiques and online, will be, according to Ms. Hewson, "100% grown and sewn in Africa, with cotton used from our farmers."
The New York-based EDUN, designed by Paris-based Sharon Wauchob, has not yet found a firm foothold in the cutthroat world of high fashion. Its losses were roughly €6.8million (or close to $8.7 million) in 2011. The company, founded in 2005, has an ambitious mandate to combine African investment and sustainability with high fashion. The high-end conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), who own some of the world's most posh brands, including Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan, Moet Chandon and Veuve Clicquot champagnes) bought a 49% stake of the fledgling company in 2009.
EDUN is notable for its vibrant patterns, soft cottons, and sharp, modern designs. Its Spring/Summer Ready-To-Wear collection, presented at New York Fashion Week last fall, was praised by the influential Women's Wear Daily, who noted that Wauchob "has really hit her stride" with the company, and praised the mix of sportswear pieces and the "utilitarian flair" of the girthy-meets-girlie looks on offer. Sheer tanks, chunky knits, asymmetrical collars, flowing dresses, and louche, patterned cago pants made for a memorable collection that incorporated equal parts tough and soft, resilient and sensitive.
An outfit from EDUN's Spring Summer 2013 collection, presented in September at New York Fashion Week. The company currently manufactures in a variety of African countries, including Kenya, Eritrea, Morocco, Madagascar, Tunisia, Tanzania, and Uganda. It raised eyebrows in 2010, when it moved much of its manufacturing base to China. Roughly 85% of what was sold from EDUN's 2010 fashion line was manufactured in China (and Peru), with the remaining 15% made in Africa.
Ali Hewson said on Friday that 40% of the current EDUN line is being produced in Africa, while 100% of the EDUN LIVE brand is produced there. Hewson hopes to bring the EDUN line itself up to 50% soon.
The petite brunette, seated beside her famous, globe-trotting-activist husband for the announcement, Diesel founder Renzo Rosso to her right, spoke with conviction and passion about cultivating investment and opportunity within the continent, even as she remained firm that EDUN is a business -it isn't interested in being a charity. Through the collaboration, it would appear that EDUN is moving more into alignment its founding principles, while bolstering its financial health and fashion credentials.
"We can talk it but we can't quite walk it yet," said Ms. Hewson with a small smile. "But with Diesel... we can. That's been an amazing step for us."
Speaking to the direct benefits of the collaboration was Erastus Kibugu, Uganda Country Director for TechnoServe, the company responsible for implementing the Conservation Cotton Initiative; it assists farmers in Swaziland, Nicaragua, Honduras, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, and El Salvador with projects ranging from coffee bean cultivation to to dairy farming to fruit and vegetable farming. The Conservation Cotton Initiative (CCI), started by EDUN and the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2007, helps to promote greater investment in ethical, sustainable production of conservation-friendly agricultural products, with a special focus on organically-grown cotton.
This cotton, currently cultivated by over eight thousand farmers in northern Uganda, is going to be used exclusively in the manufacture of items in the Diesel+EDUN line.
At the IHT Luxury Conference on Friday, Bono described Africa as "remarkable creative, and entrepreneurial," and reminisced about conversations he shared with friends at EDUN's launch in 2005.
"Our African friends said to us... 'Is it another charitable project?' And we're like, 'No, it's a business.' 'Oh thank GOD.'"
The collaboration echoes U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's 2010 pronouncement that “Africa does not need charity, it needs investments and partnership... It is time to consider sub-Saharan Africa as one of the biggest emerging economies of the world.” As Bono put it Friday, it's time to "completely re-boot the way we think about the continent."
Kibugu spoke to this directly, noting at Friday's Q&A session that, with the destruction of lands and villages in Uganda during the country's civil war, livelihoods and self-dignity were both utterly "destroyed... farmers need to begin to rebuild communities decimated over many years." Initiatives, investment, and business-minded collaboration (like Diesel+EDUN) provide something better than aid to local farmers: a sustainable livelihood.
"We are beginning to help them make baby steps to becoming small businesses," he said, "so smaller farmers can begin to think of themselves as small entrepreneurs, so they can think about costs and revenues … we have to ensure it's sustainable and there's a diversification of income." Kibugu noted that farmers aren't just earning from cotton farming alone, but from diversifying their crops; the profits from cotton crops allow them to grow and cultivate maize and beans as well, in turn creating a sustainable, year-round model that benefits surrounding communities and encourages further entrepreneurial activity.
These farmers were visited by Bono, Ms. Hewson, and Rosso this past January. During the conference, the latter reminisced that, during the visit, he wanted to do "something real, not just one capsule or for advertising." Rosso notes on the company's formal press release that "with this project we want to show to consumers and to industry alike, that it is indeed possible to source, produce, and generate sustainable trade in Africa." In addition to being Diesel's brand founder, Rosso also owns upscale brands Maison Martin Margiela and Viktor & Rolf, along with production specialist Staff International, a company that holds licenses for high-end labels like DSquared2 and Just Cavalli. In addition to his fashion pursuits, Rosso's Only The Brave Foundation has dedicated itself to sustainable development in disadvantaged regions. As Suzy Menkes wrote in the New York Times last week, "His Only the Brave Foundation is philanthropic, but he says the African projects are founded on good business sense."
At the collaboration's announcement Friday Rosso expanded on his vision, noting that, when it comes to African investment, "the more we deal with them, the more economies grow. Not only we can produce there, but make a business there."
For all the good intentions, EDUN is still a fashion company at its core, and Ali Hewson was quick to reinforce that at the IHT conference Friday. "We're in the 'want' business, not the 'need' business," she said firmly. "The most important thing is aesthetic. That's the most important thing. Desirability is sustainability for EDUN."