Inspired by the colorful kangas he'd spotted on women in Kenya, designer Max Osterweis started creating his own. The result is Suno: an eye-catching, playful line whose spring looks are as at home on the city's streets as in Africa.
How did you happen to start collecting textiles in Kenya?
I started buying textiles in Kenya 14 years ago on my first trip there. I was particularly drawn to kangas because of their bright colors. I initially bought some new ones to use as pillow coverings, but was quickly drawn to the whimsical iconography used on some of the older kangas. As I started to look for older kangas, I soon discovered that there were kangas from all different eras that employed aesthetic tastes from each era -– psychedelic patterns from the seventies, geometric patterns from the sixties, even US dollar bills and American flags from eighties. There were also kangas that memorialized historical events — some more significant than others — from Kenyan independence to the release of a new (Eveready) battery. Once I started collecting them, it became a bit of an obsession.
Your Spring 2010 collection mixes, among other things, vibrant colorful prints and a more traditional plaid. How do you pick your prints and combine them?
At this point most of the prints from Suno are designed in-house. Many of them are reinterpretations of old kanga prints, some are inspired by paintings or textiles we have collected. And some of them are simply beautiful pre-existing textiles from mills we like. We are not afraid to mix the prints. If we have put them into production it's because we already think they will work well together.
Your line is inspired by both the women of coastal Africa and the women of downtown New York -- what connections/similarities and differences do you see between the two?
The women of coastal east Africa are obviously an inspiration from the point of view that they actually wear kangas everyday and I started my line with kangas. Walking down the street, even in some rather poor villages there's always a riot of color that is immediately optimistic. They wear the kangas as wraps, headdresses, scarves, belts, tops, baby slings, back packs, purses -- in an infinite amount of ways. New York girls (particularly downtown and in Brooklyn) are equally inventive. They are constantly pushing the envelope, combining pieces in unexpected ways, making the clothes they wear completely their own, or for that matter just making their own clothes. They understand dress construction and are savvy when it comes to the cuts and fits of pieces. New York girls have a wonderful ability to seamlessly mix hip-hop with rock with vintage couture with the newest latest thing. They have no fear in mixing high with low, new with old, recognizable with obscure ... and in a way that's a lot of what we're about.
Suno was recently featured in a New York Times article stating that African influences are suddenly everywhere -- do you find this to be true? Where do you see these influences?
I don't know if, in fact, African influences are suddenly more prominent than they have been in the past or if it is just a case of people suddenly paying more attention. I grew up seeing African influence everywhere and do not imagine the influence will ever go away.
You manufacture your samples in New York's Garment District and produce a majority of the finished pieces in Kenya -- how do you see the present/future of the garment district here, and manufacturing in Africa going into the new decade?
New York City's Garment District has recently suffered the triple blows of the outsourcing of labor, the rezoning of buildings (turning many former factory buildings into condos), and possibly the worst economic environment it has seen in 80 years. It is difficult to say what the future holds for garment production in New York City. As someone who works in the Garment District I understand the importance of having a neighborhood devoted to the industry. From my office I can walk down two flights of stairs and deliver designs to my sample factory, next door to pick up fabrics, or a few doors down to pick up zippers, a block away buttons, another block and I can have labels manufactured. It is an efficient way to work. And I can't imagine being able to accomplish much if the industry was completely spread out.
Africa's manufacturing future is largely up to Africa. Although I, as an outsider, can try my best to make an impact, it is ultimately up to the leaders in Africa to encourage entrepreneurs, foreign investment, make domestic investment themselves, and implement policy that creates an environment that is friendly to business.