Ali Hewson: Edun regained

They live in a mass slum; she lives in luxury. But Ali Hewson – perhaps better known as Mrs Bono – is determined to bring a little bit of paradise to these African lives;and in so doing, she is breathing life back into her ethical-fashion company

Craig McLean
Sunday 30 May 2010 00:00 BST

As schools go in Africa's second-biggest slum, the children of Bidii Nursery are lucky. They're in class from 8am to 3pm and are fed basic meals. There are 90 of them, aged one to seven; 35 are orphans. The school roll, written in a jotter, includes kids who don't seem to even have a second name: Robert, Dennis, Brian.

The children have to share five teachers and one room of approximately 20ft by 20ft. The walls are bright with posters featuring lists of English words. The floor is hard-packed earth. The toilet is a flyblown hut out back. Neighbouring jerry-built developments are encroaching on the school's modest footage. And some of those children who have parents are leaving Bidii. Mum and dad can't afford the monthly school fees of 200 shillings – the equivalent of £2.

This is Kibera, a jam-packed mass of corrugated iron roofs, mud walls, twisty alleyways, 1.5 million people and no running water. It is a city within a city – Kibera billows out from the edge of Nairobi, capital of Kenya. Some westerners might know it from The Constant Gardener, the 2005 film about the corrupt practices of first-world pharmaceutical companies.

That's how I "knew" Kibera. But obviously I didn't really know it. The smell, the smoke, the crunch and squelch underfoot of rubbish and gnawed cornhusks, the swampily faecal pools, scrubby patches of Brussels sprouts, people crammed everywhere. The shop-shacks selling buckets of coal, handfuls of potatoes, grooming, surgery: Ongare Success Shop; Humble Beginnings Salon and Beauty Shop; Bongo Vibes Pub; Family Planning & Circumcision. It is a lot to take in.

Ali Hewson had no direct experience of the poverty in Kenya either. In 1985, shortly after U2's career-making performance at Live Aid, she and her husband Bono went to Ethiopia. In 2005, she visited Lesotho, to check out the factories which Edun, her and Bono's ethical fashion company, had established in the southern African kingdom. I was with her on that trip. Lesotho, a small mountain state decimated by Aids and unemployment, was overwhelming too.

But Kenya is new to her. She is here to visit Made, a fair-trade jewellery and accessories company established in London in 2005 by Bristol-born Gerson Barnett and his Italian wife, the designer Cristina Cisilino. Made wanted to use African skills and African raw materials – many of them reclaimed and repurposed (glass from beer bottles, rubber from flip-flops) – to create hand-made products for western boutiques and chainstores. And to create jobs for African people.

In 2007, Cisilino and Barnett took their principles and, along with their son, moved to Nairobi. Now they employ 65 local people to make necklaces, earrings, bracelets and bags that are sold in Whistles, Topshop and John Lewis. They play to the strengths of their Kenyan craftspeople: the Luo tribe are adept at metalwork, the Masai know how to work beads. And they work with visiting collaborators, such as the Dutch jewellery designer Natalie Dissel and Livia Firth, the wife of Colin Firth and co-owner of Eco boutique in London, using locally sourced and recycled raw materials.

Hewson wants to see how Made does things: how it runs as a business, how it turns the profits back to the local people; in 2008, Cisilino and Barnett founded a non-profit organisation, Made Africa, to promote and support educational and training projects. It sponsors Bidii school.

"They're very forward-thinking," Hewson says approvingly after a morning touring Made's airy, light-filled workshops a 10-minute drive from Karen, the Nairobi suburb named after Karen Out Of Africa Blixen, on whose former farmland the western outskirts of the Kenyan capital are situated. "They have developed new ways of designing and putting jewellery together. We can really work with that."

Hewson is impressed with "how they make everything here on the ground, from the bone beads to casting their own little parts for necklaces and bags. That's very exciting – we can send our creative director here and she can work with them."

Hewson is also in Africa to kick-start the relaunch, five years after its inception, of Edun. Despite the deep pockets which she, Bono and his brother Norman Hewson used to launch the company; despite the input of the well-regarded New York designer Rogan Gregory; despite the clout of the world's biggest rock star, it wasn't enough to make Edun the trailblazing profitable, ethical, desirable fashion brand Hewson wanted it to be. In 2007, the three shareholders had to pour money into the company, and in 2008, Edun parted company with Gregory. The company slipped off the fashion radar.

Then, last year, the luxury-goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) bought a 49 per cent stake in Edun. A new creative director was hired: the Paris-based, Northern Irish designer Sharon Wauchob. And a new chief executive was appointed: Janice Sullivan, a no-nonsense fashion pro with stints at Calvin Klein and Donna Karan on her CV, came in to oversee Edun's New York headquarters.

Now it's all systems go again. Earlier this year, Edun, via Made, gave the pupils at Bidii box of crayons and asked them to draw pictures that could feature on a range of T-shirts. In the schoolroom, Hewson meets Fidel, four, who drew flowers and trees, and Kelvin, six, who drew footballers. They are two of the designs Edun has used on the T-shirts, part of a capsule collection showcasing the new, improved, better-funded, better-marketed Edun. They'll be in select shops – including Liberty in London and Brown Thomas in Dublin – next month, in time for the start of the World Cup in South Africa.

"If you were to ask any fashionista, she'd say, 'World Cup what?'" admits Sullivan, but, insists Hewson, "It's an opportunity." Edun's first full collection under the new regime, for spring/summer 2011, won't be unveiled until New York fashion week in September. But, given that news of the LVMH deal was announced last May, "we wanted not to go dark" in the interim. Hence the capsule collection, a kind of taster.

"It's an incredible thing that Africa is being trusted with the World Cup," says Hewson. "We wanted to be part of that celebration, and to celebrate the relationship with LVMH."

Which is nice. But not as nice as the $32,000 that the wholesale sales of the T-shirts – 100 per cent of the profits – have sent back to Bidii. "Maybe," says Hewson, "that will build their toilet and secure their garden so they have somewhere to play."

Edun has come a long way since its beginnings. In early 2005, I met Hewson, now 49, and Bono, now 50, who she started dating at school in Dublin 35 years ago. We spent an afternoon on the Luggala estate, 5,000 acres of County Wicklow wilderness owned by a member of the Guinness family. It was a short drive from the couple's home outside Dublin. They were launching Edun with a photoshoot for Vogue. Edun was Hewson's initiative, but Bono (no surprise) was doing the talking. '

"Having been involved in political processes," he told me, "you start to realise that revolution isn't going to happen with a big gang of people storming the Bastille any more. Change comes in tiny steps before it makes a big jump. And those tiny steps are people deciding where they spend their money. Shopping is becoming a political act. People are seeing that with their dollar or their pound, they can change a lot. They can close down giant petroleum companies by not putting their petrol in their tank. They can close down food companies – McDonald's is on its knees because people basically felt maybe they don't believe in what it stands for any more."

The fast-food giant wasn't really on its knees, but you could see what he was getting at. As well as Edun-branded items aimed at the purses of fashion-forward women in New York, Paris and London, there would be Edun Live, a diffusion line making African-sourced T-shirts. These bulk items would target the concert-merchandise business; U2 (of course) and Coldplay were lined up as early customers.

"We're just trying to do the right thing, and effect some change, without throwing a few bricks through a few windows," added Hewson. For all her previous campaigning experience – against the radioactivity that drifted across the Irish Sea from Sellafield, in support of the Belarus children poisoned by Chernobyl – and certainly compared with her rabble-rousing hubbie, the mother-of-four was a quiet, and quietly stylish, presence. She said that she didn't want her four children wearing clothes "that they don't know where they came from. We're offering a choice: these clothes are made with respect for the people who made them."

So Edun would be sourcing organic cotton in Peru, making denim in Tunisia, and machining clothes in Lesotho. Hence my trip with Hewson to the latter country a couple of months later. The Clothing Zone factory in the small border town of Butha-Buthe was housed in a former brewery. It employed dozens of local women on a fair wage in a well-ventilated environment. It was no sweatshop. At the town's Qalo high school, $10 from every Edun Live T-shirt sold would help build a water well. Butha-Buthe and Clothing Zone were a model for how Edun, on a macro level, might start changing the way the fashion industry operates.

Except it didn't work out that way. Sometime after a subsequent visit Hewson and Bono made to Butha-Buthe in May 2006, Clothing Zone closed. Why?

"There was some..." begins Hewson as we sit down to talk in her quiet Nairobi hotel at the end of a hectic day. She sips herbal tea throughout our interview and juggles phone calls from one (or more) of her children. "We were the only people in there giving orders in the end. And it was slowly being wound down." She believes that the South African owner, for motives she professes not to know, "was basically not paying attention to it". There were further factory problems at another site in Lesotho, in Uganda and in Madagascar.

Hewson also concedes that the Edun "mission" overshadowed the product. What does that mean? "We had a very pure idea that we wanted to work in Africa. So we brought our designers here [to Africa] and said, 'This is what you have to work with – they can do that stitch, they can use this material, and you can't have that button because we can't get it from here to there in time...' So we really limited the designers."

Edun hadn't quite reverted to the outmoded cliché of overly worthy, ethically groovy clothes – dungarees woven from hemp, hairshirts made of guilt – but "we just didn't pay enough attention to the aesthetic. It's important that we have beautiful clothes, and the mission part is secondary to that."

The net result was that in late 2007, it was reported that Edun had $3.6m in outstanding bank loans while the three shareholders were owed $7.9m. Not an issue, insists Hewson, and not just because she and Bono can well afford it. (U2's 360° tour was the highest-grossing tour in the world last year, taking $311m from 44 concerts; they'll have more than doubled that by the tour's end this coming October – should Bono's back get better, that is.) Edun is a "very strong business, a very ambitious business", she says. "The first five years of the company is about putting money in and building the trade. So of course we had to support it. We're still here supporting it now, because we believe in it. But yeah," she says in the smiley, even way she says everything, "it hasn't made money – it hasn't made a profit yet. But it's growing. It's growing."

It's growing with the help of LVMH, the luxury-goods house responsible for, its titular brands aside, Krug Champagne, Glenmorangie whisky, TAG Heuer watches, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Dior and several other top-flight fashion labels. Ali Hewson and Bono first met LVMH's all-powerful chief executive Bernard Arnault in mid-2007. The Paris-based fashion mogul came "with other friends of ours" to "our house" for lunch – probably the Hewsons' villa in the south of France, where the family spend time every summer. "He understood that there's a coming demand for ethically responsible clothing. So he was very interested in what we were doing, and wanted to know more. We met a couple of times after that, and it just took a while to sign the papers."

Over two years, in fact. But Hewson knew it was worth the long haul. "We knew we needed LVMH's muscle, its business know-how. Because what we were trying to do was really too pioneering. We weren't able to produce or deliver on time."

Did they really need its cash as well?

"Absolutely," Hewson fires back. Edun had to "reinforce" its staff, shake up its organisation, step up its game. Now it has an operation in China – a global manufacturing powerhouse, but one known for its questionable labour practices. So has Edun sold out its ethical principles? No, she insists. The "single biggest negotiation" between Hewson and Bono's lawyer and LVMH's legal team was over a compliance manual: a set of rules codifying certain standards that must be upheld by Edun: "The ability to come and go within the facility [ie: no locked doors], you can't take workers' passports..."

The Edun team was convinced that LVMH would follow through on the smaller company's founding principles. "And we always felt that they are honourable people – and the company is, completely. It's run in such a tight, ethical way. It's been an amazing company to be part of. Really supportive."

So Edun has come a long way. And so, since the weekend, has Hewson. She started off on a family holiday in "the Caribbean" – pressed, she concedes it was the millionaires' playground St Barts (she knew how that would sound) – then flew to New York, where the family has been living in an Upper West Side apartment since last September. There, she rendezvoused with Janice Sullivan and they flew together to London, before catching a connection to Nairobi.

Manhattan is a useful base for the family. Hewson and Bono's eldest children, daughters Jordan, 21, and Eve, 18, are studying at Columbia and NYU; U2's touring schedule made the east coast of America a good hub; and Hewson has been able to keep in close contact with the Edun base in the funky Tribeca neighbourhood, monitoring the post-LVMH overhaul. "I've been seeing how the operation was being upgraded on a daily, weekly basis. It's been amazing to see how far it has come in six months. I couldn't have done that if I was in Dublin, as I'd have to keep going backwards and forwards."

Not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Mum might be enjoying the daily walks across Central Park with her sons to their "really rigorous" Jewish school on the Upper East Side. But Elijah, 10, and John, nine, are missing their friends. They want to go home to Ireland, "fast". Unfortunately for them, the next leg of U2's tour is due to start in the US (and a planned trip back for Glastonbury is off thanks to their dad's bad back).

Bono, agit-rocker extraordinaire, is well used to the snarky comments of those turned off by his grandstanding. "He's always been sanguine about it," says Hewson. "He's always known, if you wanna get anything done you've got to stand in the firing line sometimes. He doesn't do it for the warm fuzzy feelings. He does it to actually bring some change about, and highlight issues that were being pushed under the carpet. And he does it very effectively. But," she adds, they both understand public fatigue at celebrity charity agitators. "Bono will say to you, 'I'm sick of Bono, and I am Bono.'"

Five years ago, Hewson told me she was uncomfortable with being a spokeswoman for Edun; with using her celebrity currency, such as it was. How does she feel now? "I suppose I'm more comfortable with it," she replies slowly, not sounding that comfortable. "But I still just want the clothes to stand for themselves." She wants to make a statement with fashion, but not in the way one might expect from the stereotype of a Rock Star Wife. "I've always wanted this company to be about the clothes and what it's doing. And not really about me. I much prefer to be in the background on everything."

Yet she is savvy enough to know that's impossible. From a PR point of view, she is one of Edun's greatest assets. But she'll keep putting her boots on the ground, inspecting the supply chain: after Kenya, she's off to a remote corner of Uganda to oversee an Edun fashion shoot, and to meet with representatives of a cotton farmers' collective that the label is supporting. Her and Bono's founding vision to help Africa help itself – business not charity, trade not aid, the fishing rod not the fish – drives her on. And then, as soon as possible, she'll be on a plane back to her kids in New York.

So, in five years, what has Ali Hewson learnt about fashion? "How tough it is!' she laughs. "I had no idea. It's a business you have to be passionate about. Or you just won't be able to stick it."

The stakes are high. If Edun doesn't work this time, Ali Hewson and Bono will have lost a few million from their huge fortune. But people in Kenya and Uganda will have lost a lot more. "They don't have an income. That's what's heartbreaking about factories that we've worked with closing. Hopefully, as Edun continues to grow, we can rectify some of that. Because it's people's lives. It's people's lives," Hewson repeats. "You see it in those kids today in that school. Made is doing an incredible thing supporting that school. Those are the things that do change people's lives forever."

To see and buy the Edun range, visit

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