ON A RECENT FALL evening, some of Washington D.C.’s fashion influencers gathered in a Penn Quarter loft to see and shop the Suno Fall/Winter 2015 collection. The brand is known for eye-catching prints, vivid colors and intricate embroidery, and the signature look is bold, modern and feminine. Suno is for women who, in the words of Creative Director Erin Beatty, are “successful, confident, creative and aren’t afraid to be noticed.” Not surprisingly, the trunk show was a huge success among the fashionable set craving a departure from conservative D.C. power dressing. Apparently, this tends to happen when Suno holds trunk shows in markets that are viewed as traditional or conservative compared to New York or L.A. According to Suno’s sales team, “Women fall in love with Suno because the clothes are unique, and because they always get compliments when they wear them.” Who can resist clothes that make you look and feel special?
But there is more to the Suno story. These are what Vogue critic Suzy Menkes recently called “clothes with a soul.” The brand was founded almost by accident in 2008 by Max Osterweis, an NYU film-school graduate with no design background and no pressing desire to enter the world of fashion. What he did have was an impressive collection of vintage kangas (traditional scarves) acquired during his frequent trips to visit his mother in Kenya, and a desire to make a difference. Osterweis was deeply disturbed by the the post-election violence that he witnessed in Kenya and wanted to do something to help its local communities. His solution was to turn his collection of kangas into clothing (something he says he had been promising friends to do for years) using Kenyan workers. He founded Suno in 2008, teamed up with Beatty, a Parsons graduate and former designer at the Gap and Generra, and with the help of their Kenyan tailors created 1,000 one-of-a-kind pieces out of repurposed kangas that would eventually become Suno’s first collection.
Suno has come a long way since that first collection in 2009. It was a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2012 and 2013, and won the CFDA Swarovski award for Women’s Wear in 2013. The brand has developed a loyal following among women who are known for their strong personal style, including Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, Sofia Coppola and Rihanna. The clothing is sold by high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Barney’s New York and online retailers Net-a-Porter and Shopbop, to name a few. Yet despite its success, Suno remains loyal to its original mission of providing jobs and fair labor practices for workers in certain underdeveloped economies. It now conducts a portion of its operations not only in Kenya, but also Peru and India, where it has opened its own factories and sent American tailors to train local workers. The goal according to Osterweis is not charity, but rather the implementation of sustainable, ethical practices. “Our internal motto is ‘beautiful things beautifully made,’” he says.
I had the chance to chat with the Suno team (Osterweis, whose official title is CEO, and Beatty) recently about the brand, their inspirations, aspirations and fashion in general. Here’s a taste:
Q: How would you describe the Suno brand in three words?
A: Thoughtful, colorful, optimistic.
Q: What or who were your greatest influences in terms of personal style or general sartorial aesthetic?
A: Our friends, art and both of our mothers. The brand is actually named after Max’s mother.
Q: Erin, I always wanted to be a fashion designer – mostly so that I could make the types of clothes that I would look best in and want to wear. Are you your own muse and if not, who is?
A: (ERIN) I am my own filter I would say, but no, not my own muse. I’m inspired by beautiful things around me, what I would wear or what I am craving is somehow separate. I think that plays more into how we style and build out the line.
Q: Max, I know you are not a designer, but how involved are you in choosing/ sourcing fabrics, themes, and how they are translated onto the runway and ultimately worn by women?
A: (MAX) This really depends season to season… At the beginning of the brand it was just two of us working with my collection of vintage fabrics. Now we have a great team of talented designers working with us, all of whom know much more about fabric than I do!
Q: I am really impressed by the thoughtful way that Suno incorporates not only fabrics and fabrication techniques from other countries, but themes from works that both of you have seen or read (e.g., photos of Romanian gypsy tribes, Georgia O’Keefe, the Bertha Mason character from Jane Eyre, works of American Folk artists) into your collections. Would you say that your thematic choices are random, or is there a common thread, and if so, what is it?
A: (ERIN) I think that often our themes are about women, their condition and the pressures they feel. Although our clothes are a bit fantastical at moments, we like to ground them in reality – why would you wear this, what will it say about you, etc. We want our clothes to inspire women to be themselves and to shine.
Q: Your F/W 15 collection had what I would call a few “safe pieces” that were a departure from what one expects from Suno – e.g. monochrome, clean lines, little or no embellishment. Is there any pressure to stick to the original script in terms of design choices (Erin, I think you refer to it as “maximalist”), and/or do you think there is there room for “simple” in the Suno vocabulary?
A: (ERIN) Yes. Well, I hope so. I think in general we are colorful and embellished, but in terms of a collection, you must create a balance. You need breaks, moments where you can take a breath, so that you can fully see and appreciate the color and vibrancy of the rest!
Q: How committed are you to continue working with local communities in Kenya and other places where you have built factories or trained workers, given the brand’s rapid expansion and presumably larger orders?
A: (ERIN) Very committed. We visit every single factory we work with – whether it be in Kenya, India or New York City. We had to take a step away from Kenya for a while due to some serious production issues, but we are currently figuring out how to produce special items with them, as they were the original inspiration for our vision.
Q: Suno is launching its first line of shoes in collaboration with Nicholas Kirkwood for Spring/Summer 2016, and I’ve read that Max is keen on doing menswear and perhaps home decor at some point. How do you decide when/which of these strategic expansions/collaborations make sense?
A: (ERIN) Actually, we were working with Nicholas for shoes for the past few years but for SS 2016, we finally launched our own shoes! We try to tackle each of these projects organically – launching them when the time feels right and collaborating with people who feel like a good fit.
Q: The recent departures of Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz have brought to light the pressure on designers to churn out so many collections per year, and more importantly, the pressure on designers to be, in the words of Elbaz, “image makers” with “loudness” being the point of every look. Do these concerns resonate with you in any way?
A: (ERIN) Yes. And I agree with Elbaz, that beautiful design is rarely loud, and we are in a very loud place right now. The world is changing and I’m not sure what it will look like in 5-10 years. At this moment, we’re just all in a place where we’re desperately trying to keep up. That said, everyone needs clothes and will continue to need clothes – so we have that going for us.
Q: Finally, any fashion mantras you live by? (For the record, mine is “Walk softly, but in a killer pair of shoes.”)
A: (ERIN) I always like Coco Chanel’s “Before leaving the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” Although Suno is quite loud, I always think we should be precious with what we wear – never trying to say too much. That certainly doesn’t mean no prints or even print mixing, it just means, make the message palpable.
Sylvia Colella frequently writes about fashion for MyLittleBird.