When Ali Hewson and her husband, Bono, founded socially conscious clothing brand Edun in 2005, they set out to create a business that would generate trade opportunities in developing regions, particularly Africa.
This story first appeared in the December 10, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Hewson is the first to admit that early on, the label’s mission sometimes overpowered the product itself. But with the backing of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which took a 49 percent stake in the label this year, the couple is looking to correct that.
“We were so keen on our mission that we made compromises that maybe we shouldn’t have made with respect to our customer and the fact that they should have great clothes,” said Hewson, sitting in the loft in New York’s TriBeCa district that serves as the company’s showroom. “Without great clothes, we don’t have a business, so it’s important to get that end right.”
With LVMH’s backing and new Edun chief executive officer Janice Sullivan, who joined the brand in September, Hewson is spearheading an expansion. It’s not a full relaunch, but more like a discreet overhaul of the collection, which initially lacked the infrastructure to make a meaningful impact.
The changes are visible with Edun’s first pre-fall collection, which is being previewed in the showroom, and, within it, a capsule collection dedicated to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the global soccer extravaganza in South Africa from June 11 to July 11. These will serve as platforms for the company’s next big move — hiring a creative director to take Edun to the next level.
“We believe Edun will be a force over time,” Mark Weber, ceo of LVMH Inc. (U.S.) and chairman and ceo of Donna Karan International, said in an interview in Paris earlier this week, adding the new designer will be hired in time for the spring 2011 fashion season.
Edun will “most probably” have a runway show to unveil that collection, likely in New York, he added. “I believe the business will grow very rapidly once the entire team is in place,” he said.
Asked if LVMH’s stable of in-house names — which includes Marc Jacobs, Fendi’s Karl Lagerfeld and Celine’s Phoebe Philo — might one day act as guest designers for Edun, he replied: “I wouldn’t rule it out over time, but that’s not in the cards.”
According to Weber, LVMH’s role in the partnership includes providing financial resources, technical know-how and expertise on creating a sustainable business model and managing such day-to-day operations as sourcing and production planning.
Weber said Bono and Hewson’s convictions have had an energizing effect on the LVMH organization, which already boasts an environmental charter, but no brand platform for sustainable products. “He’s the real deal,” Weber said of Bono. “He’s one of the world’s great sellers and he’s always selling ethical values, always.
“The advantage of Edun is that the founders are serious; they are people that care. They have invested their own money to try to make the world a better place,” he continued. “Bringing that vision to life is our responsibility.”
LVMH’s support has been instrumental in the recent adjustments.
“We have focused a lot on the mission, and in a way we have compromised a lot on design, and what is great with LVMH coming onboard is that we can really now expand in many ways — get our focus on design, because without design we don’t have a mission, and without the clothes being amazing and desirable, we don’t have a business,” Hewson said. “We’ve now got an opportunity to really stretch into areas where the capabilities are, and bring that knowledge, from the mission point of view, back into Africa and help them expand their capabilities.”
Sullivan, the Liz Claiborne veteran who previously ran the Calvin Klein Jeans business at Warnaco Group Inc., has focused on improving the brand infrastructure and building a team with new talent in areas such as design, production and manufacturing, sales and finance.
Hewson and Sullivan wouldn’t disclose details on the search for a creative director, or disclose names of designers they have approached. Hewson said the designer will be named “within a season” and will be someone who can “grow with the brand.”
According to sources, Alexander Wang and Sharon Wauchob are among high-profile talents to have been approached by Edun in recent months.
“The design piece is one of the most important pieces, with somebody who can bring a distinctive design point of view, somebody who has the creativity to pull together the ethos of Edun and express it through the clothing and the brand identity,” Sullivan said.
Hewson said she was eager to create a pre-fall collection now, and a capsule collection timed with the World Cup, for a May delivery.
“We have had a search out for the right creative director and want to make the right choice on that, but didn’t want to lose momentum,” she said.
“There is the symbolism of the world coming to Africa,” Hewson said. “It’s a huge thing for Africa to have this responsibility, and to be given this level of respect in sport and be trusted with the World Cup. We wanted to be a part of this moment in African history. They start to see themselves back on the world stage, which is so important.”
Hewson pointed out that in the Eighties, Africa accounted for 6 percent of world trade, a number that has shrunk to 2 percent in recent years. The continent has suffered severely from poverty, famine, wars and widespread HIV and AIDS.
“Part of lifting people out of poverty is trade, which is why we’re there, in a very small way,” she said. “It is so important to them to rebuild their world trade, so hopefully, after the football comes, so will the world trade.”
The World Cup capsule collection is inspired by notions about the continent, from dusty, desert hues, to washes that give the pieces a worn-in, traveled look, using all natural, organic fibers. The plan is to have some proceeds of the capsule collection benefit Africa, though details are still to be determined.
Sullivan said the company plans to partner with one or two retailers on this delivery. Currently, Edun is available at Nordstrom, but the executives aim to build the business at department and specialty stores beginning with the pre-fall season.
“Part of the old Edun sourcing structure didn’t allow them to expand into all the classifications,” she said. “One of the things we did was to expand the sourcing base to include [many places], whether it’s China, Peru or India…the best people to do what needs to be done. We will always remain dedicated to Africa. We will always have a part of the collection come out of Africa. As we learn more and more about what Africa can handle, my intention is to be able to migrate more there, but not until they’re ready.”
Hewson added, “We are learning that in fact to really deliver on time, we need to go to where the capabilities are. We need to bring that information back into Africa and grow the factories that we work with there.”
Pre-fall wholesale prices in men’s and women’s range from $198 to $298 for outerwear; $248 to $298 for jackets; $98 to $118 for jeans; $38 to $68 for knits, and $128 to $148 for sweaters. Dresses wholesale from $178 to $198.
Weber said Edun’s initial focus, beyond the capsule line tied to the World Cup, would be jeans and T-shirts made in Africa from organic cotton. This includes an initiative to support 1,200 families to grow the fibers, and to buy from them at a guaranteed price.
The executive declined to discuss sales figures for Edun, describing the current phase of the company as “quietly starting all over.” He noted the plan is to split volumes roughly between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The deal with LVMH came together after Hewson and Bono met LVMH chairman and ceo Bernard Arnault socially, and told him about the concept for Edun. “He is a very smart man,” Hewson said. “He recognizes that consumers are looking for more value in what they buy and how they spend the money. They want to know that what they’re buying is something they can rely on and trust, and it has to have a double value. It’s not just a trend coming, it’s a wave.
“We had to learn our way through what we wanted to do and what we can do,” Hewson added. “That’s why merging and partnering with LVMH has been so great because they give us a protection, they give us opportunity, they have a very strict code of conduct and structure, and we can work with them and work with some of their factories, work with our factories and bring knowledge back to these factories so that our mission can actually be achieved.”