Max Osterweis, the cofounder of the Suno fashion label, was surprised when he received a fax from his mother while she was on an extended safari trip in Africa in 1994. “She said she was buying a house in Lamu, Kenya,” recalls Osterweis, who at the time was a fledgling filmmaker and screenwriter living in Brooklyn. He quickly hopped on a plane to the picturesque island off the coast of the mainland. “I thought she had lost her mind, but then I arrived and realized she had actually found paradise.”
Lamu became a second home to Osterweis, and he built up a collection of vintage kangas, the colorful cotton scarves that East African women traditionally wear. Each kanga is unique, hand-printed with a whimsical message or enlightening proverb, such as “A ripe mango has to be eaten slowly,” or “To aim is not to hit.” The fabric design might include such motifs as flowers or images of Barack Obama. It didn’t occur to Osterweis to create a fashion line using the kangas until he witnessed a local election in Kenya devolve into violence. It was 2008. He reasoned that employing local artisans might help bring a measure of stability to the region.
“I started Suno purely out of ignorance,” says Osterweis, now 39. “I thought this would be a side project, something I would do on the weekends.” He teamed up with Erin Beatty, an acquaintance and clothing designer who had worked at the Gap and Donna Karan, to create a small collection that would debut at New York Fashion Week in 2009. They met a talented seamstress in a Nairobi workshop who helped them cut apart kangas and stitch together the pieces to make simple tops and dresses. They named the company after Osterweis’s Korean mother, Suno Kay.
What Beatty calls the “maximalist quality” of their exuberant shirtdresses and tunics, their zany prints (colorful fruits, feathers, and even cell phones) and bold pairings, was an immediate hit with fashion editors. Orders came in from boutiques such as Opening Ceremony in New York and Ikram in Chicago. To deal with their overnight success, Osterweis quit his day job making films for the likes of Nike and Amnesty International, and Beatty left her post at independent fashion label Generra. They also needed to source new patterns. “We couldn’t keep tracking down the same pattern from the ’70s to remake a dress,” recalls Osterweis.
The duo set up factories in Nairobi as well as in Nakuru, a city two hours away in the Rift Valley, and hired local workers who had previously made hotel uniforms. “We didn’t have a blueprint,” says Osterweis. “But we knew we needed to grow the talent pool in Kenya to make the clothes.” They brought in an experienced pattern maker from New York to teach the local women how to refine their cutting and sewing techniques. Osterweis and Beatty also contracted some of their production to a Nairobi factory run by a British woman who trained and employed single mothers. When odd-size fabric cuttings began to pile up, Suno used the scraps to make a line of limited-edition shoes and pajamas, with a percentage of the profits going to wildlife preservation. From the outset, Suno was a pioneer in creating stylish clothes with ethical credentials, and as it has gained more fans and accolades, the company has held fast to its ethos of creating beauty through a beautiful process.
Between trips to Kenya, Osterweis and Beatty began to research other countries where they could experiment with new designs and fabrics. Although they built their brand on graphic African textiles, the duo has found inspiration in everything from Japanese shibori indigo dye to armor from the Middle Ages. When they decided to produce sweaters, they collaborated with artisans in Peru to design alpaca-wool knits. For complicated embroidery and beading, they set up shop in Delhi, where the local seamstresses had more experience with such techniques. “It’s about building relationships with people around the world,” says Beatty, just before heading off to India to inspect pieces for the Fall 2014 collection.
For this season’s lineup, Osterweis and Beatty were inspired by the photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, who chronicled Roma people at a camp near Bucharest between 1990 and 2006, as the group amassed a fortune from dealing in scrap metal. What struck Beatty was the rags-to-riches element. Suddenly, these nomadic people “lived in McMansions with elaborate murals on the walls, curtains, and computers,” says Beatty, “but they still wore their traditional, peasant-style clothing.” She translated this look into a collection with old-world folkloric touches, including lace ties and frayed hems. In her mash-up of modern and traditional, she used such luxurious materials as silk jacquard and gold thread.
Inspiration isn’t found only in distant locales. For their next collection, Osterweis and Beatty have been exploring the work of artists from the U.S. arts and crafts movement, such as Sheila Hicks, and those from American modernism, such as Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s this sense of curiosity that not only fuels their creativity but allows Suno to create conscientious opportunities all over the world.
This appeared in the October 2014 issue.
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