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.
Max Osterweis, Suno – fashion designer
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.
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.
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.
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.