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