Fashion Star: Ali Hewson

Designer Ali Hewson shares what it's like to be a modern day wonder woman

Fashion Star: Ali Hewson

Photo by Helena Christensen

What makes a modern day wonder woman? Between charity projects, raising four children and being married to U2 rocker-with-a-cause Bono, Ali Hewson fits the bill. Edun, the fashion label she co-founded in 2005 with her husband, is committed to fostering grassroots trade and sustainability in Africa. Through a network of factories, eight of which are in Africa, Edun employs local craftsmen to manufacture its ethical collections. Proof of their potential – French luxury conglomerate LVMH purchased a 49 percent stake in Edun in 2009 with the express purpose of supporting their vision of growth in Africa. In addition to the contemporary label, Hewson also oversees Edun Live, an African-made T-shirt line, and Nude, a natural skin care collection. We sat down with the visionary during her recent visit to Toronto for an event at Holt Renfrew, where the line is carried in Canada.

How did you and Bono come up with the concept for Edun?
“It evolved out of his trips to Africa. Bono would come back saying, ‘They don’t want aid, they want trade.’ The cotton industry and the factories are there, but at that point many [manufacturers] were moving to China. We thought, what could we do? That was the naive thought in 2002. By 2005, we finally [got it] together to have our first collection. Here we are in 2011, and we still feel like we’re just getting going.”

When you started, ethical fashion was a new concept. What advantages are there to being a groundbreaker?
“We were at the forefront of the movement, and because of that, we came out of the stalls ahead of ourselves. We probably should have learned the organization of the industry a bit better first. We were enthusiastic—maybe before we had our product ready. That’s why I have a huge amount of respect for designers, and anybody who works in fashion, because it is intense. It was a huge learning curve from 2005 to 2009. For a long time, we felt like we were building a table where we would just get the fourth leg on, and the third leg would fall off! It’s quite a complicated process, and it’s certainly not superficial.”

How involved are you in the creative direction of the label?
“We will talk about concept and colour, but our designer Sharon Wauchob comes up with the design. It’s totally her, 100 percent, but she’s very gracious and allows me to throw in my two cents. Sharon is able to take the inspiration she sees in Africa, deconstruct it, and then reconstruct it back into a modern interpretation.”

As EDUN grows, how are you increasing your trade involvement in Africa?
“We have [partnered with] the Crochet Sisters in Kenya, and have collaborated with a little shoe company called Sawa Shoes, which was set up by three [Paris-based] guys in Cameroon. We’re also working with a jewellery [company], Made, in Nairobi. They make pieces out of bone and brass, as they did in the [Fall ’10] Louis Vuitton campaign for the charm on the bag.”

What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?
“Last year, we [visited] farmers we work with in a conflict area in northern Uganda. As a result [of the conflict], people had to leave their land for 20 years and are now moving back. We set up an organization—with Invisible Children and the Wildlife Conservation Society—to give them tools and oxen to help them farm the land. Edun’s been instrumental in this work since 2008. Now we have 3,500 farmers there, which is incredible. We’re hoping to get to 8,000 in the next two years.”

Why do you think edun has struck a chord with people?
“It’s about the product—ours is really beautiful. Now that we also have the muscle behind us with LVMH, we have the strength to actually push forward and get the product to the point where it should be.”

Where do you dream of taking the label next?
“We never wanted [Edun] to be small. The more we grow, the more we can produce, which means increased jobs and trade to Africa. I hope that people will find the clothes attractive and buy them so that desirability becomes sustainability.”