2010 May 25
Summer Designer Series: SUNO
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(NEW YORK) It may be summer vacation, but we’d hate for you to lose your fashionable way in a haze of sunshine and margaritas. Introducing The Daily’s Summer Designer Series: every week, we’ll introduce you to a new (or new-ish) designer to keep you on top of your game until September’s Fashion Week arrives. (It’s only 15 weeks away, after all!) The inaugural column belongs to SUNO’s Max Osterweis, who’s been on the tips of everyone’s tongues since even before Kate Bosworth’s tie-dyed Coachella dress and Michelle Williams’ Cannes frock. Osterweis and partner Erin Beatty founded SUNO in 2008, taking inspiration from Osterweis’ extensive collection of Kenyan kangas, or printed pieces of fabric used as everything from headwraps to baby carriers. So Max...
What brought you to Kenya in the first place?
My mother built a house in Kenya. I first went to visit her about 15 years ago now; she vacationed there and didn’t come home, so I went to go check on her. She found an amazing place where she subsequently built a home, and I started visiting her regularly. I saw kangas on women and on clotheslines and I started collecting them right away.
Is it difficult to produce your collection in Africa?
I visit a lot. During our first collection, Erin and I went for about 3 months. It presents its own set of hurdles—production in Kenya is not at all what production anywhere else looks like. We’re really working to develop an industry there at the level that we need. They do do garment production there, but it’s fairly low-end, and it’s not a huge industry yet, so what I’m trying to do is expand a skill set. There’s one workshop that we work with where there’s handful of skilled tailors, and we brought someone from our sample factory to help us out with our first collection. We’ve since found a much bigger factory capable of doing volume, but there are still only a handful of tailors that are capable of doing what we do.
Why is it important for SUNO to produce in Africa?
Because I have that relationship with Kenya. I was there a couple years ago after the post-election violence. It was on the cover of every newspaper in the world. I thought Kenya was ready to change for the better, and then that happened, and I was afraid that tourists would stop coming and foreign investors would stop investing. Kenya is reliant upon foreign investors.
How often to you visit now?
About four or five times a year, and it’s different every trip. I’m actually going next week, and this trip I’m going with Nadia Bradshaw, my head of production and sourcing, and we’re bringing our tech designer. We’re going to sit on the factory line and figure out what we’re doing well and what we need to do better. We’re meeting with people in customs and shipping to figure out how to streamline that process. There’s corruption there, and it’s difficult to get people to change the way they do things. It’s nothing that’s unmanageable, it’s just that things take a little longer. That being said, we know what to expect—we work that into our calendar, so we can still deliver on time.
In your latest collection, you’ve started to design your own prints. Are you still using your Kenyan textiles or are you starting to deviate away from that?
We still use the kangas a little bit, but I think it’s more fun to design the prints on our own at this point. Plus, we don’t want to be pigeonholed.
What are some of your favorite kangas that you’ve found?
Some are my favorites because of the color combinations, some because of the images. One kanga had cell phones and feathers on it. I love the Michael Jackson one. I have one that has the UN’s Millennium Development Goals on it. There’s one from the ‘60s with the Eveready cat—you know, that battery logo with the cat and the lightning bolt—all over it. There’s a classic one with a swordfish that I like. There are quite a few that I won’t part with.
Kate Bosworth and Michelle Williams have recently been spotted in your dresses. How important are celebrities when building a brand?
I didn’t realize how important it was until it started happening, and I was seeing how many hits we were getting on our website. Once it happens, it keeps feeding itself. We just keep doing what we do, and then people ask for it.
Who else would you love to dress?
Penelope Cruz, Gwyneth Paltrow, Carla Bruni.
How have your sales been? We hear you’re selling out at Barneys…
They’ve been pretty good. They’ve been steadily improving.
Will your growing business affect the way you produce?
We’re constantly changing production. When I started, we didn’t expect to do massive amounts right away. We started with nine tailors, and now we’re working with a factory of 500—although not all of whom are capable of doing what we need.
What other brands or designers do you admire?
As far as brands, Apple. Nike. Patagonia. Designers? I love Dries Van Noten and Marni, and I love what Alber Elbaz is doing.
Where do you think SUNO fits into the fashion industry?
When I started this I felt like—this may sound kind of big—but I felt like I wanted to create a new paradigm for what luxury goods should be by going back to an older model. It’s not enough for things to be beautiful, but the process has to be beautiful and the intent has to be beautiful. That being said, we still have to make things that are covetable. It’s not enough to have the good intent and good process; when someone’s walking through Barneys, they’re not looking at the back story.
Who is the SUNO woman?
There are a lot---I'm just finding this out! With the first collection, Erin and I were thinking about dressing our friends, and we did a trunk show and realized we were reaching groups we didn’t expect. We went to Colorado, where Erin’s from, and there were women in their 70s buying SUNO shirts. There are girls in their teens buying it as well. And then as far as celebrities, we’ve had Michelle Obama…
How was that?
I was in shock. It was surreal.
Where do you see SUNO in ten years?
I don’t think there’s a limit to what we can do. I’d like to try everything.
Does that mean expanding into new categories?
As much as we can.
Do you think you’ll always produce in Kenya?
At this stage, with every season it’s about 70 or 80 percent in Kenya. There are always pieces we have to do elsewhere because of time or skill, but it is one of the reasons I started the company. I think it’s still evolving, the goal. But I’d like to help build an industry—cleanly, by the way—and I hope that can affect the way Kenyans think of doing business, and how the world thinks about doing business with Kenya.
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