“With ethics + sustainability as a driving force behind what we do, we believe that the future of the fashion industry is one where sustainability is the norm, where we will no longer need to talk about it, educate, drive for change – it simply is.”
Olivia Kennaway, owner and founder of African ethical fashion label, Asha : Eleven is truly an inspiration to us. She embraced the need for and move to ethical fashion long before it became the burning issue it is today. She has been unwavering in her pursuit of creating a fashion label that makes beautiful clothes with a sustainable and ethical supply chain. Launched in October 2018, Asha: Eleven is the culmination of 15 years of studying, working, and immersing herself in all aspects of the value chain of the fashion industry.
An ethical design ethos
The design ethos of Asha : Eleven is beautifully simple. To create inspired and beautiful things to make you feel inspired and beautiful.
“The energy of the brand is light and focused towards doing good”, says Olivia. “Asha : Eleven believes in timeless, trans-seasonal fashion which is made to last. We believe that less is more.”
Olivia is passionate about building an inspirational label that considers both planet and people by taking sustainability to the next level. We caught up with Olivia to learn more about how a girl from Kenya launched one of our favourite African ethical fashion brands?
THE JOURNEY TO ASHA : ELEVEN
Cape Town via Mombasa and London
Olivia was born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya – an upbringing she says fueled her passion for ensuring the ethical treatment of those involved in the production process. Growing up in Kenya, with no access to a traditional high street, also had another profound influence on Olivia – the confidence that you can turn any idea into a reality with the right attitude and skill set.
In 2004, she arrived in Cape Town, now “very much her second home”, to study fashion. Here she met Alice, her future partner in her first ethical fashion label, the popular Lalesso launched in 2006. That year, she also attended a talk by the UK-based, The Ethical Fashion Forum. Their advice to her when she asked how she should go about making Lalesso an ethical fashion brand – just do it yourself. So, she returned to Kenya where she set up a small workshop in her parent’s garage with a couple of seamstresses. And thus her ethical fashion journey was underway.
She then moved to London for a few years where she focused on marketing the Lalesso brand. The popularity of Lalesso grew and soon, they were featured in the Business of Fashion’s 500 and being stocked at Topshop’s flagship store in Oxford Circus. It reached a point where Olivia realised that she needed to outsource production. But she had grown her team in Kenya to 15 seamstresses and tailors and couldn’t simply put them out of a job.
Through The Ethical Fashion Forum, she met Joanna Maiden and suggested to her that she take over the team and start an ethical production facility for brands looking to outsource production in Africa. Joanna pondered and finally accepted the challenge and thus Soko Kenya was born. Soko Kenya now manufactures ethical fashion for big brands like Asos Africa.
Creating an inspired brand
As the Lalesso chapter in her life came to a close, Olivia found herself trying to figure out where her “true passion” lies and what really inspires her. This is when she came up with the concept of a “cycle of inspiration” which is at the core of Asha : Eleven.
Olivia regularly travels back home to Kenya where she connects with local craftsmen. They inspired her to find ways to incorporate their traditional skill sets into Asha : Eleven designs. They are in turn inspired by Olivia to help bring these designs to life while working in a caring environment. The Asha : Eleven consumer is inspired by this story which in turn inspires Olivia to continue creating and using these traditional skill sets. This positive “cycle of inspiration” continues to fuel the creative pursuits and designs of the brand.
In pursuit of sustainability
Olivia accepts that it is sadly impossible to create a positive impact clothing business. However, at Asha : Eleven they try to reduce the extent of the negative impact their fashion business has on the people and planet as far as possible.
All the raw materials and textiles are either 100% natural or are recycled or up-cycled. A key feature of Asha: Eleven clothing is the use of sustainable fabrics like quality hemp, linen, organic cotton and TencelTM. (See our post on The Difference Between Hemp and Linen Clothing.) The 100% linen they use biodegrades in 6 months! All custom printing is done digitally which uses less water, has less wastage and uses natural, non-toxic dyes.
Asha : Eleven works with small production houses who have a positive company culture, provide fair working conditions and pay fair wages. This is an often overlooked aspect of ethical fashion but one which is increasingly becoming a critical issue and area of focus for improvement in the global fashion industry.
There is an absolutely no plastic policy at Asha : Eleven.
Wholesale orders are individually packaged in bio-plastic bags (made from plants) which are 100% biodegradable. All retail packaging is either recycled, recyclable, or biodegradable and reusable. Even their swing tickets are made from recycled paper and are designed to be reused.
Distribution presents a more complex “sustainability” challenge for Asha : Eleven. Their answer is to keep it simple and to balance out their carbon footprint by carbon offsetting. “At first it felt like we were ‘throwing money at the problem’ but the process is fairly simple. Essentially the money we pay for our Co2 emissions goes directly towards planting trees which absorb the Co2 and emit more oxygen.”
A QUICK Q&A AND SOME ADVICE FROM OLIVIA ON HOW WE CAN ALL BE MORE ETHICAL FASHIONISTAS
What top 3 tips do you have for someone who wants to embark on an Ethical + Sustainable Fashion journey?
1. Buy quality over quantity.
2. Don’t be too hard on yourself, or too judgmental. Take baby steps. I find the subtle art of bringing your awareness to something really helps – you suddenly find you are doing it without even really trying.
3. Spend mindfully. I spend more but less often. Invest in pieces that you love and will cherish and wear a lot.
What should a shopper be looking for when trying to purchase more ethical/sustainable fashion?
I would look for transparency and inclusivity across the supply chain. Look for how much the brand is actually disclosing in terms of their “sustainability status”. There’s a lot of greenwashing out there so it’s worth digging a little deeper if you can.
Shoes can be super tricky – what shoe brands do you buy and why?
My summer sandals are from two local brands: Espadril Spain and Galago. I literally need nothing else all summer. My sneaks are from Veja – made from vegan leather and sustainably sourced rubber (also fully biodegradable). I have a pair of black suede boots which I bought second-hand years ago and have lasted me season after season. I don’t plan on retiring them any time soon either!
(You can source Veja sneakers locally at Cape Town-based Maison Mara.)
Finally, what message or words of advice would you like to share with fashion entrepreneurs? They have the potential to inspire others and play a key role in the positive cycle of inspiration you refer to in creating a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry.
YES! Jump on board because it is the only way forward for this industry. Do your homework, there is a lot of information out there. Connect with organisations, both locally and internationally – like the Fashion Revolution. It’s a great source of information and an awesome movement to be a part of – there is a local South African Fashion Revolution community so get involved there. Common Objective also has great resources and is a great network to get information from. Lastly, tap into your intuition because that is where you will sustain your own inspiration and drive. What do you think the future of fashion should look like and how can you play a part in shaping it?
If you’d like to hear more from Olivia, you can listen to an interview with her on The Sustainable Jungle Podcast.
SHOP ASHA : ELEVEN’S ETHICAL FASHION ON EQUILIBRIO
We’ve come to associate Asha : Eleven with an exotic, laid-back style that doesn’t try to conform or follow trends. It is very much a personalized style cultivated by Olivia and her love for Africa. Probably one of the most recognizable aspects of this ethical fashion brand is the unique colourful prints developed each year for their statement Summer collection.
In addition to her seasonal releases, Asha : Eleven has created a capsule collection of trans-seasonal essentials or “sustainable basics”. Made from the highest quality neutral fibers like hemp and organic cotton, these are those items one has in your wardrobe all-year-round, year-after-year.
Here’s a peek at what you can expect to find in her latest collections and fabulous sustainable basics. You can shop the full collection available on Equilibrio by clicking on the button below.
Originally published on 21 November 2019 and updated on 10 June 2021. THIS IS NOT A SPONSORED POST
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