Exclusive Q&A: Designer Max Osterweis of SUNO

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Max Osterweis, Suno‘s founder and designer, not only wants to create beautiful clothing — he also wants to shed light on the recent economic and political turmoil in Kenya. His latest collection seeks to “cross decades and continents” by combining diverse textiles from Japan, Italy, and Tanzania, and infusing it with the chic style of New York.

It is this juxtaposition of cultures that epitomizes SUNO and makes us break out our wallets each season. The initial process takes place in New York, but all final production is held in small workshops around Kenya. The benefits seem to be endless not only is a stunning collection produced, but it provides a way to showcase local talent and stimulate Kenya’s struggling economy.

Although SUNO has only been around for a year, it has already made quite an impression on the fashion community. Like other conscious brands (think TOMS Shoes or Stumptown Coffee), Osterweis feels compelled to do something in Kenya that could “potentially create lasting social and economic change while not just writing a check to an aid organization.”

The idea for SUNO started with a set of kangas that Osterweis had collected over the years. A kanga is a large rectangle of printed cotton that women from the coast of East Africa have been wearing since the mid-1800s. They are typically bold, brightly colored designs, and are sold in identical pairs. SUNO takes a modern twist on these traditional textiles by seamlessly combining them with antique zippers, silk charmeuse trim, and mother of pearl buttons.

We were lucky enough to catch up with the designer over email as he was shooting his Spring/Summer 2010 collection on an island off the coast of Kenya. Can you imagine what that was like?

Flavorpill: How did you start SUNO?

Max Osterweis: I started SUNO in 2008 after the post election violence in Kenya. I felt that starting a business that employed, celebrated, and nurtured local talent in a way that could be visible, I could do good locally and also affect the world’s (and their own) ideas about what could be possible in Kenya. I had been collecting textiles from the area for over a decade, and had long promised friends that I would make them skirts or dresses using the textiles. So, starting a fashion brand somehow seemed to make sense.

FP: Where was the last place you traveled, and how did it affect you?

MO: I’m writing you from Nairobi, and I just got back from an island off the coast of Kenya where we shot our Spring/Summer 2010 lookbook. It was a dream to capture the beauty of the island with the beauty of the new collection. But, honestly, it was a little strange having to wake up at 5 in the morning and working 12+ hour days in a place designed for halcyon holidays. Luckily, I stayed on for a few extra days after the crew left and got to sleep in, go swimming, sailing, and catch up with friends.

FP: What is your fashion design background?

MO: Does the last 12 months count? Before that I had no professional or academic experience in fashion.

FP: Describe your ideal customer. What is she like?

MO: My ideal customer appreciates beauty, has a sense of adventure, is fun, flirty, intelligent, and thoughtful.

FP: What is the next step for your company?

MO: We’re already starting some experiments in a couple different product categories. And we’re just about to start designing Fall/Winter 2010.

FP: Tell us about your inspiration for your current collection.

MO: Fall/Winter 2009 is an interesting collection because it is our first using materials other than kanga. We started off by gathering and/or developing fabrics from Kenya, Tanzania, Italy, and Japan. We found inspiration in women from the ’40s, but also shapes and details from the early ’60s. Although the inspiration came from different eras and different continents, we kept it unified through theme and shape. It is an evolution from the first collection and also hints towards the future.

FP: What are you currently reading or watching right now?

MO: I’m reading two books right now: Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, which is a very interesting take on why aid has not worked in Africa. There’s a lot in it that I agree with and some I don’t, but I’m definitely finding it a worthwhile read. I’m also reading The Beautiful Fall by Alicia Drake, which is a great book about the lives and careers of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Watching… I wish I had more time to watch movies. I used to watch roughly ten movies a week, and now I don’t think I’ve seen ten in the past year.

FP: Who would you love to collaborate with?

MO: There are so many artists, filmmakers, musicians, and architects who I would love to work with that I don’t think I could name them all. At this point I’m thrilled to be collaborating with the team I’ve got in New York and the team in Kenya. In terms of our existing talent pool, I think we’re just starting to show what we are capable of.