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Out of Africa, Into Asia

A brand started by Bono and his wife to boost African manufacturing now produces mainly in China

The Wall Street Journal, September 09, 2010
By: Rachel Dodes

 

Five years ago, U2 front man Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, founded fashion brand Edun with the lofty mission of revitalizing apparel manufacturing in sub-Saharan Africa.

But when Edun designer Sharon Wauchob unveils her new vision for the label Saturday, most of the clothes on the runway -- some featuring African touches like beads from Kenya -- will be produced in China.

It's a big about-face for Edun, which launched to great fanfare but quickly ran into problems with sourcing and delivery. Shipments from Africa arrived late, and retailers complained about the clothes' design and fit, leading to poor sales. Last year, the collection was carried at just 67 stores globally, down from hundreds in 2006. The "sustainability of the product doesn't have any value unless the fashion is correct," says Ron Frasch, president and chief merchant at Saks, which dropped the line several seasons ago.

Ms. Hewson admits that she and her husband, known for his advocacy of debt relief in addition to his music, were naïve about what it takes to build a fashion brand. "We focused too much on the mission in the beginning. It's the clothes, it's the product. It's a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost," Ms. Hewson says. "The aesthetic we always knew would be important...but we didn't realize how difficult it was going to be to achieve quality."

Thanks to its big-name backers, Edun (pronounced like "Eden") immediately got noticed in a way unheard of for most nascent fashion brands. Rogan Gregory, known for his organic-cotton Loomstate line and his eponymous Rogan NYC denim line, signed on as creative director, and Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue agreed to share an "exclusive" to sell the brand's first collection. Celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Moby and Julian Schnabel came to the brand's launch party.

But the New York- and Dublin-based company says it quickly ran up against the limitations of African manufacturing. Ms. Hewson recalls seeing an embroidered jacket hanging at Saks with the wrist the same width as the sleeve instead of being tapered as intended. The company's longtime communications director, Bridget Russo, says she once hosted a party in the dark, at the chic cabaret venue The Box, to draw attention away from the clothes.

Another factor was the recession: Edun got pummeled as retailers cut back their orders, which increased the money-losing brand's production costs. Ms. Hewson says she considered pulling the plug; the couple consulted with friends like Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist, who encouraged them to stick with the project. "We felt if we failed it would be a double failure. We'd be saying, 'We can't do this,' and then other companies would go, 'Well, see? We've always known that,'" Ms. Hewson says. "Basically we dug our heels in and said, 'We're staying. We're going to make it work.'"

After putting around $20 million of their own money into the still-unprofitable brand, Bono and Ms. Hewson sold 49% of the company last year to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for about $7.8 million. LVMH, the world's largest luxury conglomerate, helped the company recruit new management and a new designer (Mr. Gregory left in 2007), and then tried to convince the founders to expand their sourcing horizons.

Ms. Hewson and Bono initially resisted the idea of manufacturing in China, feeling that doing so would run contrary to the brand's mission. LVMH executive Mark Weber told them, "If you want to argue with the Chinese, you better have the same standards for the governments in Africa," recalls Ms. Hewson.

Mr. Weber, chief executive of LVMH Inc. confirmed the account and added in a statement: "While this business is small today, we believe it can grow in size by building on a noble idea."

Today, Africa primarily produces the T-shirts for the Edun Live initiative, a division started in 2007, as well as some basic denim and tops for the fashion line. Together, African produced-products now account for 15% of the company's sales. The vast majority of the fashion collection, accounting for about 70% of overall production, is now made in Asia, with the remainder coming from Peru. Ms. Hewson says the company's goal is to produce more of its fashion line in Africa over time.

This season Edun is bringing the focus back to the runway, something that was critical for the new chief executive, Janice Sullivan. "The whole celebrity piece wasn't the draw for me," says Ms. Sullivan, a former president of Liz Claiborne Inc.'s DKNY Jeans division who later ran the Narciso Rodriguez designer business. "I am all about the product."

Edun's new designer, Ms. Wauchob, trained at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London and later worked for Louis Vuitton before starting her own eponymous line based in Paris. She says she wants to add "ease and coolness" to the brand. Edun's color palette, which was dominated by brown and earthy oatmeal colors, will be completely different for spring, featuring subtle details like knotting, layered pieces and intricate patterns.

"We don't want anything hippie dippie," says Ms. Sullivan. The collection will be featured in retailers' contemporary sections, with shirts starting at around $60 and jackets topping out at about $800. Saks buyers are attending the show and Mr. Frasch says the retailer may pick up the line if they like what they see.

Barneys, which pared back the line over the past several seasons, recently devoted its Manhattan flagship's store windows to Edun's pre-fall collection and an Edun T-shirt collection designed to coincide with the World Cup. The retailer also threw a party to fete Ms. Hewson, where it served South African beer.

Part of Ms. Sullivan's job has been to balance Bono's tendency towards showmanship. When planning Edun's upcoming fashion show, Bono initially suggested an elaborate outdoor production with models that appeared to be emerging from the water. Ms. Sullivan wondered what would happen if it started raining.

"I felt like a schoolmarm," says Ms. Sullivan. "I sounded like his math teacher saying, 'OK now, Bono, let's just regroup here. We are having a fashion show. Show is the second word. Fashion is the first word." Ultimately, they compromised: the show is taking place in a semi-outdoor space in Chelsea.

Ms. Hewson confirms the account and says the wonderful thing about her husband is that "he is unencumbered by practicalities."

Indeed, for the company's first fashion show, Bono suggested holding it at the debut of The Gates art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park and having J.D. Salinger give an outdoor poetry reading. Although she was unable to locate Mr. Salinger, Ms. Russo says she was proud she got the artists to attend Edun's launch party.

"So you can see how this brand, in the wrong hands, could go haywire," says Ms. Sullivan.

© The Wall Street Journal, 2010.

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