The past decade has been a huge learn­ing curve for Ali Hew­son and her rock-star hus­band Bono, who started their busi­ness ‘up­side-down’

The Weekend Australian - Life - - STYLE - ANNA MUR­PHY

If I asked you to imag­ine an out­fit that had been sus­tain­ably pro­duced in Africa, what would you sum­mon up in your mind’s eye? Prob­a­bly not a black wool suit with el­e­gantly fringed pock­ets and trousers, price tag al­most five grand. And if I asked you to imag­ine a rock star’s wife? Prob­a­bly not the qui­etly spo­ken, dressed down, slightly school­girl­ish woman in her 50s in front of me, look­ing at me warmly yet war­ily through red-framed spec­ta­cles.

As if Ali Hew­son, aka Mrs Bono, doesn’t have enough on her plate by de­ter­minedly be­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent to the cliche of a rock star’s wife. Yet she, along with her hus­band, is the brains be­hind a fash­ion la­bel that wants to chal­lenge ideas about what sus­tain­able fash­ion is and what clothes pro­duced in Africa look like, and to prove that both can be prof­itable.

“I want Edun’s clothes to speak for them­selves, to stand on their own,” she says. “We want to get the clothes to that point where peo­ple just go, ‘ Wow!’, and lose in­ter­est in ev­ery­thing else. What I would love is for no­body ever to ask me a ques­tion again.”

Hew­son can day­dream all she likes about the lat­ter: “I am more of a ‘just do it’ per­son; I do not talk like this over a pint,” she gri­maces. Yet it’s cer­tainly true that, af­ter a few bumpy years, peo­ple are say­ing “Wow!” about Edun. This is thanks largely to the 2013 ar­rival of de­signer Danielle Sher­man, pre­vi­ously at the Row and T by Alexan­der Wang.

Sher­man has given the la­bel a re­laxed pol­ish and clean-lined ur­ban aes­thetic with care­fully cho­sen flour­ishes of em­bel­lish­ment. To wit: that up­scale fring­ing for spring-sum­mer and, for next sea­son, jack­ets with gi­ant mis­matched but­tons that were sourced by a man called Aman in the slums of Nairobi but look like they’re from a Paris ate­lier.

Cate Blanchett, Emma Wat­son and Se­lena Gomez are all fans of the la­bel, and its New York Fash­ion Week cat­walk show has a cast of fron­trow­ers as un­usual as it is high-wattage, peo­ple who like to be seen to care about the world rather than just to dress up for it. (Chelsea Clin­ton, Michael Stipe, Liya Kebede, Liam Nee­son: no Kim or Kanye to be seen.)

Edun 2.0(16) is a con­trast to some of the ear­lier, some­what grungy in­car­na­tions of the la­bel, which launched in 2005. “We’ve def­i­nitely done things up­side-down,” says Hew­son at the la­bel’s New York of­fices, a rail of next sea­son’s wear-me tai­lor­ing — think chunky cor­duroys and vel­vet de­vore — be­hind. “I wouldn’t rec­om­mend it. We knew noth­ing when we started, as you could prob­a­bly tell, but it is amaz­ing how the com­pany has grown and stretched and changed shape and now found its feet.”

In con­trast to pos­si­bly ev­ery other fash­ion la­bel, the ori­gins of Edun were not aes­thetic. “I am the last per­son who should be in fash­ion,” Hew­son says, laugh­ing. “I was the worst dresser ever when I was at school. I wore hand-me-downs. I’ve grown to love fash­ion, but I like to wear what I like to wear.” (Which, to­day, is black skinny jeans, black wedge boots and an Edun leop­ard-print knit.) As for Bono, there are those sun­glasses for starters.

The idea be­hind the la­bel was to do with Africa, not hem­lines. “Af­ter Bono and I first went to Ethiopia in 1985, we were work­ing on a macro level with govern­ments,” says Hew­son. “But we wanted to do some­thing on the ground, put our money where our mouth was, find out how trade agree­ments could re­ally work in prac­tice. We thought about food, but food is dif­fi­cult be­cause of long de­liv­ery times. Then we sud­denly re­mem­bered cot­ton. The ma­jor­ity of slaves were taken from cot­ton-grow­ing coun­tries and were brought to Amer­ica to teach and to use their skills to cre­ate a new cot­ton in­dus­try.”

Dur­ing the con­ti­nent-wide trav­els of Hew­sons Ali and Paul (yes, re­ally) they vis­ited Kenyan fac­tor- ies where the only boom in­dus­try was cof­fin-mak­ing, and war lord-dom­i­nated ru­ral ar­eas in Uganda where agri­cul­ture had been wiped out and lo­cal peo­ple no longer knew how to live off the land. Those fac­to­ries now pro­duce clothes for Edun us­ing, among other things, cot­ton grown by 8500 Ugan­dan farm­ers who have re­learned their skills with the help of a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, Tech­noServe.

“So 8500 farm­ers means 8500 fam­i­lies who can now sup­port them­selves,” says Hew­son. “A cou­ple of years ago I was at a meet­ing of some of those farm­ers un­der a tree. The lead farmer, the one who was telling every­one else what to do, was a woman, which was in­cred­i­ble in it­self. And she had just been able to start send­ing the el­dest of her eight chil­dren to school be­cause she was or­gan­ised, she was get­ting her crops in. Some con­sider fash­ion to be su­per­fi­cial, but the in­dus­try can do so much if it trades fairly. If peo­ple get a reg­u­lar in­come, their lives change.”

Hew­son adds: “In the be­gin­ning, we thought Edun was go­ing to be about jeans and T-shirts.” But the la­bel went the lux­ury route (it is avail­able at a roll­call of global on­line lux­ury re­tail­ers: Net-aPorter, Match­es­Fash­ion, Mytheresa and Shop­bopp for starters). “En­try-level or mid-level fash­ion are very com­pet­i­tive sec­tors,” she ex­plains, slip­ping into the in­dus­try-speak that shows how far she and the brand have come. “You are of­ten look­ing at sav­ing on labour costs in or­der to of­fer a bet­ter price point. Edun de­cided to go for a more high-end po­si­tion­ing so that we can pri­ori­tise cre­ativ­ity and qual­ity and be re­spect­ful of the work­man­ship of our pro­duc­ers.”

To­day, 95 per cent of Edun’s clothes are made in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. (“Our fo­cus has been honed down to be­ing about trade in Africa. We strive to­wards sus­tain­abil­ity, but that is not our main mis­sion.”) Shoes re­main a stick­ing point: Edun can’t yet pro­duce the qual­ity it needs on the con­ti­nent.

“We used to have a very pure idea about work­ing in Africa. We took our de­sign­ers out there and said: ‘This is what you have to work with — they can do this stitch, use this ma­te­rial, you can’t have that but­ton.’ So we re­ally lim­ited our de­sign­ers.”

The la­bel has learned its lessons. “We will wait un­til we have cracked mak­ing shoes in Africa. It will come in time. In the mean­time, we make them else­where. De­sir­abil­ity is so im­por­tant.”

Just as im­por­tant is that the busi­ness should make money. Yet can a com­pany that, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides the work­ers at its fac­to­ries in Mada­gas­car with a doc­tor, den­tist and nurs­ery hope to be prof­itable? “It had bet­ter be. It has to be. That’s why we are here,’’ says Hew­son. “That is for us to prove. We are not there yet, but there is a lot of good­will to­wards the com­pany. Peo­ple want to see it suc­ceed.”

And not just any peo­ple. One of its sup­port­ers is Bernard Ar­nault of the lux­ury con­glom­er­ate LVMH, which aside from tit­u­lar brands Louis Vuit­ton and Moet Hen­nessy en­com­passes ev­ery­thing from Dior to Tag Heuer. It is about as far away from the hemp macrame im­age of eth­i­cal fash­ion as it’s pos­si­ble to get. Ar­nault bought a 49 per cent stake in Edun in 2009, in the af­ter­math of a wob­bly pe­riod in which multi-mil­lion-pound debts mounted.

“Ar­nault is a very smart man,” says Hew­son. “He knows this is the way for­ward. He can feel that this is what the con­sumer wants, to know what they are buy­ing.” That’s not all he knows. “We needed LVMH’s muscle, its busi­ness know-how. Be­cause what we were try­ing to do was re­ally too pi­o­neer­ing. We weren’t able to pro­duce or de­liver on time.”

In re­fresh­ing con­trast to most in­ter­vie­wees, Hew­son seems al­most anx­ious to ’fess up about what she doesn’t know, what she can’t do. She re­sponds more quickly, more en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, when she doesn’t have the an­swer to a ques­tion than when she does. I ask her if sus­tain­abil­ity in fash­ion and beauty (Hew­son is also in­volved in the Nude brand) is in­evitably for af­flu­ent con­sumers. “I don’t re­ally know the an­swer to that,” she says. “I hope as things grow that will change, but I don’t know.”

Surely fash­ion with a con­science is al­ways go­ing to cost more, so will not be a choice for all?

She pauses. “You don’t need to buy some­thing for your child that is made by some­one else’s child.” There is surely an un­de­ni­able logic in that.

‘We knew noth­ing when we started, as you could prob­a­bly tell, but it is amaz­ing how the com­pany has grown and stretched’ ALI HEW­SON


Edun founder Ali Hew­son, above; cre­ations from the Edun spring-sum­mer 2016 show at New York Fash­ion Week in Septem­ber last year, left FASH­ION PIC­TURES: GETTY IM­AGES

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