THE INTERVIEW : SAHEL

BY ALICE WILBY

 

SAHEL founder Charlie Davies talks to FutureFrock about Burkina Faso, sleeping under the stars making the jump from mainstream to sustainable fashion.

What was the eureka moment that inspired you to start your label?

It came when I first saw a set of hand woven leather tassel horse reins. A man brought them to my house because he heard I had a horse. I knew straight away they would work as fashion accessories.

Your products are influenced by and celebrate the Fulani artisans and their craft, how do you develop your ideas and products?

It’s about understanding the breadth and limitations of the artisans and their products, as well as the practical and aesthetic needs of our end customer, then marrying the two into a design. I often find new ideas through trial and error.  Some of my most successful products have come from mistakes. For example, a strap that was made to the wrong specifications ended up inspiring our bestselling reversible shoulder bag.

Living amongst the Fulani in the Burkina Faso desert for 7 years sounds like an amazing adventure. How did you find yourself there and what do you miss most about it?

My husband was living there when we met. I was ready for a challenge, having lived in London for most of my working life. We lived quite an isolated life, with hardly any internet connection and little contact with English speakers. Our social life was very simple and I kind of miss that. I miss sleeping out under the stars, too.   

What has been the most rewarding part of creating a sustainable brand?

Seeing the difference it has made to the lives of the artisans. They are now sending their children to school, which is something that they previously had no money or inclination to do.

What has been the most challenging?

Maintaining quality standards and meeting deadlines.  And having to work around political upheaval and other security issues.

What does SAHEL mean and what does the brand stand for? 

We exist to serve artisans by finding them new markets for skills that are in danger of being lost. These artisans are among the world’s poorest people. We follow fair trade principles and we reinvest in their communities. Development through trade gives dignity.

You've pulled in some great labels for your lookbook shoot, the Edun boots are a particular favourite of mine! What are your favourite sustainable brands?

Fonderie 47. They transform AK47s into stunning jewellery and watches. The eye-watering retail prices fund programs to reduce the circulation of guns in Africa.

Stella Jean. I love her respect for ancestral traditions and African skills. Her use of colour and pattern is wild but always elegant.

 

There is a lot of interest in African fashion right now, which by its nature is very sustainable, being rooted in traditional artisanal techniques and local production. How do you see the future for traditional African craft in fashion?

There is a lot of potential for African crafts if only producers are willing to invest the time to understand the people and processes behind them. We must not look to Africa as another source of mass production. Instead we should be nurturing traditional skills by paying well for quality work. Growth will happen naturally and we will have a wonderful source of sustainable fashion for generations to come.

These beautiful brand images were shot by your long time collaborator Tim Bret Day, and styled by yourself. Who else would you like to collaborate with on SAHEL?

Vivienne Westwood. Her clothes are elegant and witty and she cares deeply about sustainable fashion.  

Before SAHEL you worked as a deputy fashion editor for The Observer and then as Fashion Editor for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine. What prompted the move into sustainable fashion?

I loved making great images for the magazine. It was great fun. But after 6 years as a fashion editor it all started to feel a bit pointless. I was promoting consumption without regard for the environment or the poor and this really bothered me. I needed to get out of the rut so I moved to Phnom Penh to start a life-affirming magazine for the garment factory workers.

When you're not working, what's your guilty pleasure?

Going to church!

What's next for SAHEL?

I’m working on a range of products that can be updated rather than replaced. This will take our sustainability to another level.

The magazine you started in Phnom Penh sounds fantastic! Is it still running, can you tell me a little about it?

I started Precious Girl Magazine because they were a large group of women who loved to read about  fashion, beauty, health, stories and emotional issues but there was no one producing anything specifically for them. We made a point of never using models but featuring real factory workers throughout the magazine and the message 'you are precious' was echoed in all that we wrote. They were not regarded very highly by society so we wanted to challenge this. I made friends with several factory workers and saw how they lived. It is a tough life. Precious Girl existed to be a source of hope and encouragement to them.

 

To shop SAHEL, visit their site.