It’s not often that style has substance. In a world where people can spend up to $4,000 on a high-end garment, SUNO isn’t just selling clothing – they’re selling change.
In 2008, filmmaker Max Osterweis decided to do something that would affect fashion economics: start a design house that would manufacture its clothing in Kenya.
Based in New York, and partnered with Erin Beatty (who has designed for Generra and Gap), Osterweis works with native Kenyan textile designers to create clothing that appeals to fashionistas all over the world.
The line is now available through Opening Ceremony, Barney’s New York, Liberty, Bergdorf Goodman, and Maria Luisa in Paris.
Profiled in Vogue and Time, the clothing has found its way into the closets of style leaders such as Julianne Moore, Michelle Obama, Michelle Williams, Kate Bosworth, and Rihanna.
Osterweis and Beatty gave tFS the lowdown on how SUNO is bringing the fashion industry to Africa.
The Fashion Spot: You started the line in 2009. How has SUNO performed since its inception?
SUNO: Even without considering the fact that we started SUNO in one of the hardest economic climates we’ve seen in the last 80 years, I think we’ve had a prodigious start. Creatively, we have challenged ourselves, and luckily, people have been enthusiastic about it. I did not imagine that we would have Michelle Obama wearing pieces from our first collection. Nor did I imagine that Anna Wintour would make an appearance at our first presentation to show her support. Retailers, including our friends at Opening Ceremony, Ikram, and Barney’s, have been wonderfully supportive. The first year and a half of SUNO has been a wild ride that we can only hope will continue for many years.
tFS: You’re basically bringing African textile design into the 21st century. Do you see a time when the African workers will be designing pieces themselves?
SUNO: African textile design is already in the 21st century, and we’re just holding a spotlight on it. We absolutely would love to see some of the tailors we work with in Kenya launching their own labels. There are already quite a few tremendously talented designers from all over Africa, including Doru Olowo and Lamine Kouyate – and one shouldn’t forget that both Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaia were both born and raised in Africa.
tFS: How did you get Michelle Obama and other celebrities wearing SUNO?
SUNO: Michelle Obama bought SUNO in Chicago at Ikram. Sofia Coppola bought her SUNO in NYC at Opening Ceremony, and has subsequently ordered some directly from us. Rihanna bought SUNO in LA at Opening Ceremony. And most of the other celebrities that have worn SUNO have requested it via their stylists.
tFS: Do you see more high-end designers following your lead to have their clothing made in Africa?
SUNO: We certainly hope so. One of the goals with SUNO is to build the infrastructure for high-end garment production in Kenya. Hopefully, that infrastructure will also be strong enough to attract other designers to produce in Kenya, and maybe even inspire similar movements in other parts of Africa.
tFS: I read that you’re incorporating other ethnic design, like the Japanese Shibori tie-dye effect in the S/S 2010 garments. Do you see a time when you might phase out the ethnic patterns altogether, or will it remain a part of the SUNO identity?
SUNO: When we’re looking at textiles, we don’t really think about them as being ethnic or not ethnic. We see them as beautiful and interesting, or not. We’ll never abandon beautiful and interesting prints and patterns.
tFS: Have you been approached to do any high-street collaborations yet, like with H&M?
SUNO: We have had a few offers, but so far nothing has been interesting enough to follow through with yet.
tFS: Are you proud of what you’ve created? Is it what you hope it would be?
SUNO: Ask us again in five years, and hopefully we’ll be able to answer that better. At this point it is still too early to say.
If you can’t get to Open Ceremony or Liberty of London, Suno has now started doing e-commerce directly from their site, www.sunony.com, but only in the US for now. The first item for sale is the halter style tie-dye dress featured in the May 2010 issue of Vogue.