On the streets of Kigali, the hill-and-valley capital of Rwanda, women tower above the crowd. Their shorn heads balance bundles of sweet potatoes, cases of Coke, tanks of gasoline, bags of charcoal. Many wear puff-sleeved blouses made from batik, a fabric imprinted with melted wax, then stained in intense vegetable dyes. The dazzling tops clash riotously with long, patterned wrap skirts: chartreuse leaves, fuchsia stripes, royal-blue blossoms, scarlet starbursts. Rwandan women are masters of print mixing.
I take them in from the back of a safari truck, cruising along Kigali’s hillside roads. Motorbikes weave around us, trailing pop radio in a dialect I’ve never heard before (Kinyarwanda, English and French are official languages). Fresh off a 28‑hour journey from Toronto, I roll down the window to listen; the strangely sweet scent of charcoal fills my woozy head.
I’ve landed with Alexandra Weston, the director of brand strategy for Holt Renfrew. She’s the brain behind H Project, the retailer’s store within the department store, which highlights different cultures through handmade clothes, accessories, jewellery and housewares. Last year, Weston and her team went to India. This year, I’m tagging along to East Africa as they visit some of the small-scale producers making goods for the shop. The proceeds will be divvied up to benefit the artisans and their communities; to date, H Project has raised $600,000 for various causes. The idea is a canny one in our provenance-obsessed era, when artisanal, ethically made anything—whether it’s the grass-fed steak on your plate or the faux-leather tote on your arm—is big business. Weston’s vision is to harness that desire for one-of-a‑kind goods to help lift the people who make them out of poverty. “But,” she says, “H Project isn’t just about charity. It’s about supporting small businesses by bringing their work to an international market. I really believe the fashion industry is on the brink of a huge change when it comes to social responsibility.”
In part, she’s talking about the humanitarian collaborations that have become de rigueur for designers in the past few years: think of the $1,680 Maleficent-inspired Christian Louboutins Angelina Jolie designed to raise money for orphans in Africa. Or of the Feed bags made by Rachel Roy and Tory Burch to provide meals for hungry kids. She’s also talking about a 360‑degree approach to ethical fashion that employs craftspeople in developing countries, fairly sources local materials and incorporates traditional methods and aesthetics not as mere motifs (kitschy tribal and animal prints) but as integral to the beauty of the things themselves (polished cow-horn cuffs or baskets bedazzled with white Masai beads). This means we’ll be visiting sewing, beading, weaving and jewellery-making operations, from tiny no-electricity co-ops in Kigali’s countryside to the slicker operations in bustling Nairobi.
After settling in at our hotel, our posse, which includes two videographers shooting a documentary that will be played in-store, meets up with Rwandan natives Rosine Urujeni and Grace Tsuni Uwase. They run the Kigali bureau of Indego Africa, a non-profit that connects women’s craft co-ops with designers and retailers, provides business education and runs an e‑commerce site to sell their goods, all of which are luxury priced (rightfully so, given the handwork involved) and Anthropologie appropriate.
Indego works with 18 co-ops, which employ around 600 women. Such female-run groups have become an institution in the country since 1994, the year of the genocide. In just 100 days, between April and June, Hutu extremists killed more than 800,000 Tutsi, a minority group that had historically enjoyed greater social status and wealth than the majority Hutu. The horrific conflict left behind some 50,000 widows, a 70 percent female population and a shattered economy. “Women were left to rebuild Rwanda,” Urujeni says.
The co-ops are one of many factors driving Rwanda’s recovery and earning the country a reputation as a forerunner of women’s rights in Africa. The parliament is 64 percent female, the highest proportion of any parliamentary system in the world, and new laws have finally given women the right to inherit land and share assets in marriage. Although this rise of female empowerment is still complicated—domestic abuse and lack of education in rural areas remain pressing issues—when I visit Kigali’s co-ops, I’m overwhelmed by stories of independence slowly and steadily achieved.
Urujeni and Tsuni Uwase take us to De Couture Cocoki, a two-room building where around 25 women work on 70‑year-old Singer sewing machines powered by hand-cranks. “They’re saving for electric machines,” Urujeni tells me, “but they cost $500 each, so it’ll take some time.” (The median income per capita in Kigali is $697 a year, which gives you some sense of the investment.) “We [Indego] offer advice, and we can subsidize the first month of rent, but the goal by the end of one year is independence,” she continues, articulating an idea I hear throughout the trip: this is business, not charity; trade, not aid.
The operation looks sparse, but its founder, Emelienne Nyiramana, a 38‑year-old in a sharp blue skirt suit she designed herself, says that when she started out in 2007, she had just five machines to share among 40 women who worked out of her home. Their big break came in 2011 when Dannijo, a New York City–based jewellery brand, commissioned the co-op to make wax-print pouches for its signature bib necklaces. Cocoki has since produced friendship bracelets for J. Crew, and today it’s working on slouchy tie-dyed shorts and chevron-print batik aprons designed by Dannijo for H Project. (The sisters behind the brand, Jodie and Danielle Snyder, have commissioned several pieces for this year’s shop.) Now there’s a machine for every seamstress. Even more impressive, they all have bank accounts and health insurance, and most can afford to send their kids to school.
The next time I see Nyiramana, she’s teaching a business education class to 20‑odd women at Indego’s offices. On this day, she gives the floor to Weston, who delivers a talk on brand building, which, she argues, is essential even for the tiniest operation. She shows the class how their goods will be displayed in the store and urges them to write personal stories on the hang tags, because people want to read—will pay money to read!—about them. The biggest chatter comes when she shows the women a breakdown of pricing. A bracelet that wholesales for $15, for example, retails for up to $58 in Canada because shipping and import fees add between $23 and $46. Even I, who routinely curse the duty on my online U.S. purchases, am surprised by the cost. Later, over Tusker beer and thick sweet-potato stew I douse in akabanga (a chili sauce so potent it’s dispensed via eyedropper), Weston tells me the import costs are barriers for a lot of North American designers and retailers who want to work with artisans like this.
Over the next few days, we visit embroiderers who stitch trompe l’oeil Dannijo necklaces onto baby bibs (cheeky statement pieces for tots) and stop in on a one-room co-op where 12 women are hand-beading exquisite rainbow-coloured cuffs for NYC designer Jill Golden. One tells us that the money she earns goes toward buying baby formula—many of the women are HIV-positive, and there’s a high risk of transmitting the virus through breast milk. They have endured incredible hardship, but my greater impression is of their ferocious resilience and, in many cases, kindness.
At a basket-weaving operation, for example, a no-nonsense 60‑something woman pulls me down onto a mat where she’s making a gorgeous black-and-white swirl-patterned platter that would be at home on a tony dinner party table. She patiently shows me how to wrap and pull the sweetgrass. We don’t speak the same language, so I only realize my skills are lacking when she laughs, takes back the disc and undoes my work. Before I leave, she thrusts a dozen friendship bracelets onto my arm. Everywhere we go in Kigali, the women sing and dance us goodbye. When we board our flight to Nairobi, I feel like I’m leaving a gentle town, not the massive city I’d only known from news stories.
Nairobi, by contrast, feels like a mad hive of activity. The Kenyan capital of 3.36 million suffers from traffic so thick it can take several hours to cross town. At one point, our van, four buses and innumerable cars face off at an unmarked intersection for over an hour. Civilians get out of their vehicles and attempt to direct traffic, while our Kenyan host, Julianna Silvester, Weston’s old friend and the co-owner of Royal African Safaris, rolls down her window and flips the whole tangled mess a middle finger. (Silvester is the Olivia Pope of the Nairobi leg of our trip—the second an issue arises, it’s handled.) Once we get out of the packed core, I glimpse regal old estates down long roads lined with magenta flowers, hidden behind barbed-wire gates. They’re remnants from the city’s expat heyday in the ’40s, when such Hollywood stars as William Holden and literati like Ernest Hemingway made it their getaway.
We’re here to meet Simone Cipriani, a Tuscan-born spitfire who prefers a hug to a handshake and sports Orange Crush–coloured pants. A former Italian leather tycoon, then a long-time UN officer, he founded the Ethical Fashion Initiative in 2009 to help empower marginalized people in Africa. Cipriani and his team connect designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and the breakout Italian-Haitian Stella Jean, with a network of 7,000 skilled workers, 90 percent of whom are women.
We’re joined by Jean, who has become a dear friend and collaborator of Cipriani’s—“It was love at first sight,” she says of her mentor. The former model and Armani protege produces 40 percent of her collections using craftspeople and materials from Burkina Faso, Haiti and Kenya. “My goal is to make Africa a starting point, rather than a constraint,” she says. And if you look at her clothes, which combine pristine Italian tailoring with blazing-bright batik, plus imagery and craft techniques from Burkina Faso and Haiti, you see she treats these places, their traditions and materials with couture respect. For H Project, she’s designed bracelets forged from recycled oil drums (a mid-century Haitian practice known as fer découpé) and painted with African animals in a simple style she calls “naive.”
Cipriani unabashedly tells us it’s possible to make luxury goods in the slums of Nairobi—a jarring juxtaposition, but one he believes is essential for changing lives. After we tour the EFI’s HQ, he shuffles us into a van he had tricked out with Wi‑Fi for those snail’s pace commutes. Before anyone realizes where we’re going—this trip is not on the itinerary—we enter one of the city’s densest and poorest areas: Korogocho. “I’m sorry,” he says, sounding adamantly not sorry, “you can’t leave without visiting the people and seeing where these things are made.”
Between 150,000 and 200,000 (no solid population records are kept) live within a one-and-a‑half square kilometre area next to one of Nairobi’s largest dumps, where locals scavenge metal scraps, car parts and brass to sell. Most houses are one-room huts made of salvaged materials. Crime and addiction, says Vincent Oduor (who was born and raised in Korogocho and now works as an impact assessment manager for the EFI), are a way of life here. Our route in takes us past dozens of lemonade stand–style vendors selling tools from the dump, bananas and beer. We pass through a corrugated-metal fence into a cluster of buildings Cipriani calls “the university” because there’s a hairdressing school where newbies are mastering the art of the weave, plus studios for tailoring and bamboo furniture making. Under a covered patio, a dozen women delicately sew glass beads onto Sass & Bide bags to form the words “love more.”
I feel like an interloper, but my apprehension melts when the women jump up from their patio chairs, grab us and start dancing. Cipriani shakes their hands and high-fives the rambunctious kids. They all know him well. This slum is where he stays when he visits (he currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland). Most of these women were sex workers not long ago, he tells us. The money they now make, around $8.70 per day, is above Kenyan minimum wage and many times what they made through their previous trade. On one wall inside the tailoring studio, I spy specs for a line of Vivienne Westwood backpacks and baguettes in loud tropical prints. Cipriani tells me he brought the grande dame herself here and Ilaria Fendi, too, on a separate visit in 2012. Never afraid to shock, he walked them right into the garbage heap that stretches out like a lake beyond the university’s fence. Both designers have become repeat collaborators and vocal advocates for the EFI. “I didn’t bring them here to tell a sad story,” Cipriani says with force. “I wanted them to see the alternative—if these women weren’t working, they’d be in the dump.” Later that day, he takes us to a perch with a clear view of the expanse where countless people are rummaging. Everyone in our group falls silent.
This experience, and many others along the way, humble and sober me, yet I understand what Cipriani means when he says he’s not telling a sad story. It would be easy to dismiss the dump as a wasteland, and equally as easy to dismiss fashion as a frivolous pursuit that has no business there. But later, as I watch a group of teenage boys melt and mould brass knobs from the dump into elegant boho pendants, intricate stacking rings and dainty studs, the unlikely marriage makes sense. When we’re back home and have had time to reflect, I email Jean to ask her impressions of this day in Korogocho. She writes, “It was during this moment that I realized my job is more than just aesthetics—it needs a purpose behind it and a meaningful road.” She’s speaking as a designer, but her words ring in my brain the next time I go shopping. At its best, fashion is always more than “just aesthetics”: how we dress can be about expression, exploration, rebellion or empowerment. Maybe it can be about humanity, too.