Max Osterweis, Suno – fashion designer

by admin on March 4, 2009

Max Osterweis turned his love of Kenyan fabrics into a new fashion line called Suno, and the results are spectacular. Max first started collecting these colorful fabrics, called kangas, on his first trip to Kenya in 1996. His foray into the fashion world could not have been predicted given his background in the film industry. A film student at New York University, Max went on to direct a dark comedy that went to the Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Warner Brothers, and later produced a documentary and worked as a freelance director for Nike, Amnesty International, and Weiden + Kennedy. In 2008, he brought the same creative instinct to the launch of Suno (named after his mother), and to the fashion world has brought a fresh and soulful voice.

Suno by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

Suno by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

What do you love about Kenyan textiles, and kangas in particular? Did you ever envision doing anything with them down the road?
I was first drawn to kangas because of their bright colors. I would see them on women and wash lines in towns and villages around coastal Kenya. I initially bought some new ones to use as pillow coverings, but was quickly drawn to the whimsical iconography used on some of the older kangas. As I started to look for older kangas, I soon discovered that there were kangas from all different eras that employed aesthetic tastes from each era – psychedelic patterns from the seventies, geometric patterns from the sixties, even US dollar bills and American flags from eighties. There were also kangas that memorialized historical events — some more significant than others — from Kenyan independence to the release of a new (Eveready) battery. Once I started collecting them, it became a bit of an obsession. I suppose I often had thoughts about what I could do with them, but did not really actively explore doing anything about it until last year.  

Max Osterweis, photo by Sarah Elliot

Max Osterweis, photo by Sarah Elliot

With your background in the film industry, how did you embark on the Suno line? Did you have any experience in fashion design and production or connections that gave you confidence you could succeed?
I had absolutely zero experience working in fashion or fashion production before starting this. I did, however, have a lot of friends who worked in fashion, and I saw that the process was not so far from film making that it would feel completely alien. The process could be collaborative, and with the help of experienced people, I did not feel like it would be an impossibility. I was able to produce some wonderful samples in New York, I showed them to my friends at Opening Ceremony who said they would love to carry the line, and then I went to Nairobi to go make it — not realizing that the making it was the hard part. I moved forward with the confidence of nescience.
What drives the design of your garments, and is there a dialog that takes place between your NY pattern makers and the artisans in Kenya who do the construction?
This may be an obvious answer, but the design is driven by what I would like to see women wearing. The inspiration for that comes from all over. For the first round there was not much of a dialogue between the artisans in Kenya and our pattern makers in New York. We had neither the time nor a clear picture of how it would all happen — I was literally figuring it all out as I was going. However, in the future I think there may be more of a dialogue as we begin to understand our process better. The people we work with both in New York and in Nairobi are incredibly talented and have a lot to teach one another (not to mention me), and I think our designs and products will benefit from a true dialogue between all parties.
Suno, by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

Suno, by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

Suno by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

Suno by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

You mix some higher end materials such as silk charmeuse with the kangas in the garment construction — what you’ve referred to as ‘elevated contrast’. Tell me about how you come up with these combinations.
In a way, the design dictated the trims we used. For the first collection I wanted to create an elevated line of clothing using vintage cotton kangas. Considering the main element had the potential to be perceived as something bound for the beach, I started with shapes that would feel at home on cosmopolitan city streets or at cocktail parties and then worked from there. Elements like exposed Riri zippers or Shindo ribbon or silk charmeuse trims and linings came out of that.
Suno, by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

Suno, by Max Osterweis - photo by Tina Tyrell

There is a modern and happy theatricality that comes through in the photos of your collection. What do you think your film background brings to this line?
The photos from the lookbook absolutely have their roots in my film background. I had been a huge fan of the work of Malik Sidibe and had always wanted to do something that was inspired by his photos from the sixties and seventies. Somehow I never got around to it in film, but was able to use that inspiration for this project. My interest in all things visually beautiful is probably what brought me to film in the first place and now brings me to fashion.
Where do you see your Suno line going from here, and do you have an overarching mission?
I hope that we can train a highly skilled workforce in Kenya capable of doing anything we dream up. There are a lot of talented people in Kenya with the capacity to become highly skilled tailors. There are also a lot of highly skilled artisans in Kenya that work in fields other than the garment industry. We’ve already begun exploring designing and producing things other than women’s wear. The social part of the mission is to create a sustainable, visible brand that does most of its production out of Kenya — something that has the potential to affect lasting positive social change and hopefully inspire other businesses to think and act similarly.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

xoliquoricexo 03.30.09 at 3:09 pm

great interview!

Lucy Copp 03.31.09 at 2:57 pm

These clothes are amazing. My brother just came back from Kenya having been there all year. He brought back the most amazing fabrics. If you ever need to hire a personal assistant, I am very good at organizing and I LOVE fashion. Especially fashion that is made ethically and spreads cultural awareness.

Kiki 04.08.09 at 11:40 am

I think what you are doing is amazing! I too was thinking about doing some production out of Africa, but I dont know anything about the resources there. Is there any advice you have for someone trying to do some fashion out of Africa?

Ian 04.10.09 at 6:45 am

I just read this link in the NYT, it seems Mr. Osterweis is ahead of the curve! Hopefully he will profit from the growing trend.

carol wipp 08.10.09 at 7:29 pm

How do we order your clothing?

admin 08.10.09 at 7:52 pm

Hi Carol – It looks like you can email for information on how to purchase their clothing. The new lines are fantastic! – Kathryn

esther 09.07.09 at 12:25 pm

as a kenyan, its great to see yet another westerner come up with a sweet story about african resources and DRUM the reality of the unfortunate place africans have in accessing world -markets, the Kanga has been an east african garment and lots of local kenyan designers some amazing outfits/styles BUT market-access is limited to them so as much as i would like to hooray SUNO, we have designers all over kenya doing fabulous clothing using the kanga…..this is business as usual- white man go to africa and redeem it- its about time this whole nonsense stopped and equal opportunities given to africans

admin 09.07.09 at 1:33 pm

Esther, I appreciate your comments about access to world markets, and I do my best to seek out and showcase the work of artists all over the world. I think the fact that Max Osterweis sees beauty, as you do, in the kanga fabrics does not do anything to diminish his story or his creativity in incorporating them into his designs. Whether it’s music or architecture or some other mode of artistic expression, inspiration for creative work can come from any source, which is what my blog is all about. If you have suggestions about Kenyan artists you think I should profile, please let me know! Thanks so much for your insight and comment. – Kathryn

Als Simmons 02.18.10 at 9:15 am

what’s the price range?

admin 02.18.10 at 9:49 am

Price and sales information is available by contacting the Opening Ceremony showroom at email Happy shopping! – Kathy

anne 07.10.10 at 11:50 pm

I am a Kenyan living in phoenix Arizona and was excited you are promoting the Kenyan economy. I can be supplying the fabrics(khangas) to you if given the opportunity.

Please contact me on the above email and would be glad to do business with you.


connie 01.08.12 at 11:42 pm

love, love, love your clothes – congratulations!

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