Melanie Reichler has been in the fashion business for over 30 years. She’s worked in production for many major fashion labels, such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan and the like.
In 2009, Melanie joined the fashion label Edun as head of production. After decades in the business, she wanted to do something different, something that would be meaningful, and help other people.
For those of you who don’t know, Edun is the fashion brand launched by Ali Hewson and her husband Bono in 2005. The brand’s mission is to help build African trade by, both, producing a portion of their collection on the continent (approx. 40% of Edun’s SS12 range is made there) and by casting a positive light on its infinite possibilities to encourage others to do the same.
I had the pleasure of working alongside Mel (as we call her), for the past 3 years, prior to leaving my role as Edun’s Global Marketing Director last year. Her passion combined with her wealth of experience made for an insightful interview.
When you started at Edun what were some of the highlights and some of the challenges of working in Africa?
The highlight is you can do it. You absolutely can do it. It’s difficult for a variety of reasons… Africa does not have transportation and fabric that is available on the continent is limited (especially for the needs of a contemporary collection).
However, in terms of the people having the ability, there is no question they can do it. They are intelligent and talented, and in some ways, much more talented than other people I have worked with in factories elsewhere.
The challenge is that Africa is not as fast due to lack of infrastructure. Unfortunately, in an industry where everyone wants things fast, fast, fast it’s difficult to compete. You have to have buy-in from all areas of the business, starting with design, who have to work on an earlier schedule than normal.
Edun silk, Yoruba print jumpsuit made in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Edun
Challenges and Commitment
The challenges can be overcome with a plan. The company, however, and all that work there must really have the desire to want to do it. Without the drive and desire it won’t happen.
What are some of the steps a brand should take when producing in Africa?
First you have to find factories (and they do exist). After you find the right factories, you have to plan. If you can do that, it makes it so much easier to work there. Production planning will help reduce long lead times.
How does this affect the development process?
The system that works best is to make a portion of your samples in Africa. Not a big portion, as flying fabric in is not cost effective and time consuming, so it’s best to make most of your samples in NY (or whatever city you are based).
Once you receive the buy, all your patterns should be ready to send to the factories in Africa.
Improvement and Highlights
Since you started working for Edun are there any factories that have increased their capabilities?
The biggest improvement is the factory we work with in Kenya who have always been committed to increasing their capacity.
We also found 2 new sweater resources in Kenya, which can do smaller quantities – specialty hand knits. These factories work more so with groups of women who work locally from their homes so they can take care of their children.
Edun glass streak, mixed print, wrap tie dress made in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Edun
What are some countries you feel are primed for fashion apparel production?
I would say definitely Kenya for fashion and Ethiopia for more mass production.
We also found a great men’s shirt factory in Eritrea that is Italian-owned, with offices in Italy, which make it easier to communicate (Eritrea is near Ethiopia where internet access is limited). In their case, we work with the Italian office, so communication is less of an issue.
Do you use African fabrics for Edun?
Today, we import most of our fabrics. African traditional textiles are a bit coarse, which is not relevant for the contemporary market. What you can make there is tee shirt fabric, but only 30 singles.
The capability is not there, in terms of having the right machinery to spin and knit a finer gauged fabric.
If a textile manufacturer were to invest in the right machinery, it would make African factories more competitive, but it requires investment. This is assuming the staple of African cotton is the length that’s needed for fine gauge knits (60 singles).
The Future Looks Bright
In what category do African countries have the biggest opportunity?
In terms of apparel the most opportunity is still in low price, in my view, because you need quantity to make money.
That said, brands like Suno and Edun can make a difference because of the type of garments they make. The difference is that those brands have fewer units.
In order for a bigger contemporary brand, like Theory, to bring their production (or a portion of it) to Africa – they have to want to do it.
You need a brand that believes in the cause. It’s a new system and a new way of doing things that’s also incredibly rewarding. If you can get a team and senior management to care about the message, that would be huge.
In terms of fashion, we need more people who are willing to connect in the way that brands like Suno have done.
In order to build infrastructure the commitment also has to come from government to make their country an attractive place to do business.
The more Eduns and the more Sunos there are, the more proof there is that it works, but it’s not cheap and it takes time.
Any closing remarks?
The more people who bring their business to Africa, the better it will be… There’s amazing scarves and jewelry, so many beautiful things that can be made there today.
There’s also great talent on the continent… if brands collaborate with young African designers, that’s another way to move things forward.