While the art of traditional fashion design has remained alive in Ethiopia, it has remained in the traditional space. For the most part, it’s still not something you wear every day and even in those instances, the overall design of the clothes we see today isn’t innovative. To find out if the industry has evolved and how it has evolved we went down to see SewaSew Design, a family-owned and operated fashion design studio that is doing interesting things in the Ethiopian fashion world.
Sewasew Hailu, the founder of the studio, is a self-taught seasoned fashion designer that has been actively creating in the field for more than 15 years. Her work was showcased around the world, from the US to fashion hubs like Milan and Paris. Presently, Sewasew operates a design shop with her son Ableny who manages the business side of the shop while she handles the creative work. The shop is known for creating modern clothing items with traditional gabi fabric.
This is what the mother-son duo, had to say about their work and the fashion industry in Ethiopia.
Sewasew: The People
Sewasew was founded because we wanted to make traditional clothes more accessible in the “ready to wear” market. However, the story doesn’t start there. I was always interested in creating designs out of everything I see. It has been a passion of mine and I was always curious about how clothes were made. This interest was something that was inherited from my grandma, a religious artisan who excelled in what she did. Ever since my childhood, I have reveled in the creation of new stuff. While I complimented this interest with formal education, what carried my interest beyond that and into a profession is experimentation and curiosity.
Creative Business: Struggles and success
When I first started I only had one sewing machine and worked from home. I stayed away from designing any dresses or coats, I tried different things and that garnered attention and slowly as word got around I opened my first shop. Things didn’t stay stable for long, I had to close shop right after I took out a loan for the business, and for the next five years, it was an uphill struggle. When COVID-19 came here and when we had to stay home, I took out my sewing machine and started to make masks. Unexpectedly, the demand for masks grew and we were able to start again.
This gave us enough of a running start to do new things. This doesn’t mean things were easy. When we first designed our jackets we bought the raw material with Ableni’s salary. He had a job back then and with every month’s salary, he spent a good portion on finding the right materials that would suit our vision. The excitement of creating and our determination to not give up or lose hope kept us going. My son and I had big dreams. Those dreams pushed us to keep experimenting.
After getting it right, we made a couple of jackets and started to get out there on social media and promoting it in our circles. The initial response was less than encouraging. I think it’s my youngest son that bought the first jacket but other than that, not much. Ableny, went door to door and asked around to see if anyone was interested. Alas, there were not many takers. Whatever revenue we made was invested to create new jackets and new designs. In the excitement of creating, we had no idea how we’d pay for a shop we had to rent. It was a blend of hard work and excitement to see Ethiopian culture expressed in fashion and cater to mainstream audiences and not just as something you see during the holidays. Now we’re more or less successful, we’re getting orders from everywhere from Japan to Gondar.
We chose the Gabi because it’s unique to Ethiopia/Eritrea. The final product is also something you don’t see anywhere else. They have a look and feel that’s just so unique to us. Moreover, it is non-polluting, organic and for the most part handmade. There’s also the process of making that’s only found here in Ethiopia and Eritrea. So if you choose this material and scale production, you’d be encouraging artisans here.
Coming to the fabric, it’s something that ages gracefully, the more you wear it and wash the more it adds to the character and beauty. It’s also easy to manage and something you can manipulate (when you make it) for the weather.
This is something that has to grow. We felt that it was something that can scale up and completely change the way things are done. You can imagine how something like this can impact the local handicraft industries positively. Things can change for the better when we use home-grown assets to express ourselves.
How art changes
I hate doing the same things twice. It’s something that I am unable to do. That’s why I love the runway. Our business doesn’t give us the same artistic liberties the stage does. The runway for a fashion designer is a sacred space where you can show what you’re made of and where experimentation happens. It’s also, in our sector, where you see the art evolve. The runway allows for the designer to let go of the anxiety that comes with creating something new and just create.
Yet, you don’t see many opportunities for people to create and showcase their work. It’s essential for the entire creative sector, not just fashion. Creatives need to be seen to have support but rarely do we see someone come to dig out talent and provide a platform to express and explore.
Moreover, art evolves when it stays in the minds of people. For that to happen, your art needs to be meaningful. You don’t want your work to be a one-off, you want something that stays in the minds of your audience long after they’ve left your event.
In the realm of traditional fashion, it’s treated too much like a business. And while it is a business that’s not all it is. That’s why you see the same thing almost everywhere. Very few people see it as an expression of identity.
Carrying it forward
There was a time when Chinese companies came here and started to mimic our traditional clothes and produced them in mass shaking the market in the process. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was a wake-up call. Because at the same time, there was an unreasonable price hike on traditional clothes. The inflation wasn’t a response to the expense of raw materials. Sure, the prices had increased but it’s not so much that it demanded 80-60 thousand birr for a dress. It’s completely unreasonable. So when the foreign competition showed up, they saw the gap it created and took advantage of that.
Their entrance showed us the advantage of practicality in fashion and scalability. You can’t expect people to buy traditional clothes just because they’re traditional. You have to adapt and make it practical for people to wear them if you want to survive.
That’s also how art survives. When foreign designers show you fashion that is completely out there, they’re showing you what their brand can do. If you look closer the stuff they produce at scale is more practical and can be worn whenever.
The main point here being, art and business have a mutually beneficial relationship. They feed off each other. in the creative industry, one needs the other to survive. That’s what makes us a great team. One is creative, the other a business person. What one lacks the other has.