Bono, wife move fashion-for-philanthropy idea forward

New York TimesNovember 28, 2012 

Fashion Edun Spring 2013 Backstage

Models participate in a run through before the Edun Spring 2013 collection is modeled during Fashion Week, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, in New York. Edun founders, Bono and Ali Hewson, will form a partnership with Renzo Rosso, founder of the Diesel group.

JASON DECROW — ASSOCIATED PRESS

As Ali Hewson and her husband, Bono, stood with the fashion entrepreneur Renzo Rosso on an African trip earlier this year, the raw white cotton in the hands of the Diesel founder led to an epiphany.

Why not create a collaboration among three people who believe passionately in the promise of Africa?

This month, tangible results of that trip will take the fashion-for-philanthropy concept fast forward, into a smart business. Bono, the U2 vocalist and a persistent supporter of help for Africa going back more than 25 years, and his wife are expanding the reach of Edun, the fashion company they set up in 2005.

Through a partnership with Rosso, founder of the Diesel group, fashion products sourced or made entirely in Africa, will be sold in Diesel stores under a Diesel + Edun label.

“Bono and I have known Renzo Rosso for over 10 years,” Hewson said recently. “When we decided to travel to Africa to visit both Renzo’s Millennium Village in Mali and our own cotton-farming program in northern Uganda, we realized that the result would be both an amazing journey and a collaboration resulting in a line of beautiful clothes made from our cotton and 100 percent made in Africa.”

Bono is reticent about the overall subject of “Africa rising,” saying he would rather leave it to his African team to discuss aid to the continent in a wider context.

“There is a bit of a minefield here, which you can choose to ignore,” Bono said of his long-term support to African countries. “You don’t have to be an expert on this stuff.”

Bono’s attitude is that Africa is not a poor continent, but rich in everything: people, land, diversity and especially young people, with 60 percent of its population younger than 25.

“In my experience, the entrepreneurial spirit has always been alive and kicking. In tough circumstances of extreme poverty, the survival instinct is an innovative one,” he said, adding that new technology had brought new opportunities to the continent, like farmers managing their money via smartphone applications.

“People want control over their own destiny,” he said. “You can see it in the Arab Spring, you can see it on college campuses, you can see it on the streets of Nairobi. Economists predict that between 2010 and 2015, seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world will be there. For those who think the 21st century will belong to China, look where the Chinese are: They’re in Africa!”

Bono’s participation in founding Edun puts him and Hewson in a strong position to follow the code expressed by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general: “Africa does not need charity, it needs investments and partnership.”

While the entire Diesel + Edun line will be made in Africa, that goal has not been easy for Edun itself to achieve; Hewson plans for 40 percent of its men’s and women’s ranges to be made in Africa in 2013.

The company, which sold a 49 percent stake to the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 2009, makes its clothing in countries like China, Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia and Uganda.

Rosso is as plain-spoken as Bono when he talks about Africa and his enthusiasm for the new partnership. His Only the Brave Foundation is philanthropic, but he says the African projects are founded on good business sense.

“I think working in Africa is both brave and smart,” he said. “Brave because we are currently investing our time and money in building know-how in these parts of the world; and smart because Africa is the next big market, as the Chinese have already understood before anyone else. I don’t feel I am doing it for philanthropy. We are doing it to generate sustainable development.”

The foundation’s initiatives, despite the recent political coup in Mali that has destabilized the country, have included building a secondary school with a dormitory for students from remote villages, laboratories used for teaching job skills and other modern facilities.

“Africa is a rich continent: rich in resources, rich in culture, rich in the ambition to grow permanently” out of its current problems, said Rosso, who also owns the Maison Martin Margiela and Viktor & Rolf brands and the production specialist Staff International, which has licenses for labels like DSquared2 and Just Cavalli.

Rosso said he wants the fashion industry not only to bring trade to Africa, but also to channel and give visibility to the continent’s creativity in style, fabric graphic design and craftsmanship.

Why this new collaboration? Hewson said the benefits will be a “two-way street”: Edun’s Conservation Cotton Initiative in Uganda will be alongside Diesel denim product skills, as well as the global commercial clout of the Diesel brand.

To all three, the initiative is a small but significant part of a bigger picture. As Rosso said: “With this project we want to show to consumers and to the industry alike that it is indeed possible to source, produce and generate sustainable trade and, hence, development, in Africa.”

While admitting that “there are kinks in any industry that need ironing out,” Hewson said her commitment to Edun, along with that of her husband, is to create “great clothes,” creating new jobs and serving consumers along the way.

“We are a tiny company with big ambitions, one of which was to persuade some of the fashion heavyweights to take more interest in this part of the world,” she said. “The business environment is getting easier in many places, and the more people and companies that show interest, the quicker that will change.”

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