Luxury is often associated with exclusion. However award-winning, internationally acclaimed premium leather and accessories designer, Edmond Chesneau, has had a different approach to the craft. The master craftsman was inspired to start Luxury Leather Africa (LULEA) and the ‘Centre of Excellence’ in Thika to do more than just create luxury leather goods that meet global market standards. He wanted an enterprise for social impact. TDS sits down with Chesneau to understand his role in improving the connotation often associated with ‘Made in Africa’.
You were quite successful in Ireland, why did you decide to come to Kenya?
The economic crisis was very severe that people weren’t buying luxury. I was like a lion that was trying to feed on mice when it was used to big game. So when I got the opportunity to come to Africa, I took it. And then I fell in love with the country. I came to Kenya via invitation from a local firm to help start a production unit which didn’t work out but I had already transported all my equipment from Ireland where I was set up and this is equipment that could employ 135 plus people.That’s how many people you have employed?
No, we’re just building the business and presently employ seven to eight people. Lulea is actually part of the Growth Africa Accelerator program to get ourselves investors to help grow the brand into a sizeable business that will provide more sustainable job opportunities to families.
Why is it so important for you to stress the ethical and sustainability angle of fashion with your brand?
The philosophy of the business is ‘do well, do good. Feel good about it’. We believe that if you do a quality product, it can give you opportunities in terms of trading in the marketing and also, finance and social change. Because by providing quality we create margins and these margins can allow us to pay our workforce well. Another social aspect, we are training the workforce to a very high level that is hard to find in Kenya.Even when the rest of the world is going in the fast fashion direction?
For us it is very much based on our philosophy. I’ve been in this business for over 40 years and it’s my personal philosophy that it isn’t right that one side of the population anywhere, in any country, should be left behind. If you can give the opportunity to change things, by being a benchmark not only by the things you produce but also the way you produce, you have to do exactly that.
How does the training occur?
Most of the workers we take on have basic training in the craft but we bring them much higher. By that I mean the training we provide gives them the skills to start and finish a bag by themselves. Most of the articles and products that we make have been worked on by one person. We also try to be gender neutral. But the main thing for us is the candidate has to be willing to learn. Training is so expensive you don’t want to waste it on someone who has no interest or passion for it and is doing it to fill up their day. They have to realise that they have an opportunity to change their lives when working with us. The rule of the game is we are a quality producer and quality remains the centre of our production.How many units per month does that allow you to make then?
Around 20 -30 units but our product is in the high quality game. So it isn’t the numbers that drive them but the attention to detail. We are a much different production unit because I encourage them to take their time to ensure quality standards are kept. Every stitch has to be in place. It’s a small production at the moment but we are working with Growth Africa and getting involved with crowd funding campaigns to change that.
Does crowdfunding actually work here?
We are using Kickstarter which is an international platform and we’re doing that in collaboration with a PR/digital Communication Company. Kickstarter is a huge international platform with over a million strong network. That said, crowdfunding is not an easy thing to work with.What does Ethical Fashion Mean to Lulea?
Our logo, the elephant, is a symbol that has two meanings. One, it’s there as a description of the company. Elephants transfer their knowledge from the matriarch to the community and elephants are also highly sociable animals. It is an animal that looks after the members of its family. This is very much the philosophy of the company. We look after our staff very well. On the other hand, the business model is not preditorial in nature. It’s definitely a for-profit business but it is a business designed with a heart. We also are involved with the elephant conservation initiative.We very much get involved with the local community there [in Thika]. There is a lot if unemployment there like for example one of the young men we recruited is a young father and was just looking after cows a year ago and now he’s one of our top artisans. It’s really changed his life dramatically. Being out of Nairobi is key for us because it’s decentralized and because the people there are so eager to learn and to get a job. And they work very hard to keep it.
You recently had the Indigo campaign…
Yes, that is something we just recently left behind and we will be embarking on the new Kickstarter campaign in the next two months. It will be to raise funding to get the business to grow. It will be in partnership with an elephant conservation. I can’t divulge too much information at the moment but it will have a connection to the elephant conservation.You found craftsmanship lacking in Kenya… why do you think this is the case and what can we do to improve this?
The main part is that very little investment is made to train the people. Most of the production facilities around here have workers with very little training and most are self-trained. The lack of training that people are getting is amazing. Then there are very few people in Kenya with the ability to coach like how I am able to train. I have coached people from my own factory in Ireland, but I’ve also coached people in the UK and very successfully in china.
For me it’s very much for me about legacy. I’m very interested in passing on the knowledge so I’m getting involved with training programs, SMEs and I’m also supporting upcoming designers by providing not only production advice but also creating prototypes for them. I’m 63 and while my peers are retiring I am feeling just too young for that. I just have so much that I can teach and knowledge I can pass on that it would be sad if I kept it to myself. And here I can really create a big impact in the industry and also socially through the people I employ.What is the new collection?
I have not named it yet… we literally made one prototype last week. We’ve been creating that collection for the past two, three weeks. So it’s not fully complete just yet. But we are still keeping within the leather fabric product. We are using two hand woven materials, which is cotton and wool. We also moving into using lamb skin for our higher end side of the collection and, we are also working in giving an affordable range of products in the collection which will be very well made as well. I can tell you that it will be absolutely gorgeous.
When will it be available?
The product range will be between KShs8,000 to KShs20,000. We are just redrafting, understanding the market better and just trying to make it more available to a wider audience.
Final thoughts: How can a consumer know for sure that a fashion brand is practicing ethical fashion?
Sadly the ethical tag is used a lot of times loosely in order to gain profit and not actually live up to the term. It’s very difficult to see this from the product because you can’t judge a product just like that. You have to go a little in-depth in terms of how things are done. You don’t have visible proof about this because it’s all happening underneath and behind the scenes.One way a company raises a red flag for me is if they are doing products that are too cheap and too good to be true. Somebody has to suffer and more often than not, the workforce is the one who will pay. I call this the ‘squeeze-squeeze’ factor. You squeeze everybody, nobody makes money and the consumer gets a relatively okay product but to me it’s not socially sustainable to maintain this model. That’s why we’re choosing the model of quality that allows us to sell at a better price point. Also that makes the product more export suitable. A lot of product out there just doesn’t meet that standard. A lot of it I think is to do with the mentality here that cheap is good. Cheap is not good because in that model imposes very small margins and hurts the workforce. Nobody does well in that model.
Owning your very own quality-crafted LULEA bag is as simple as heading to the online shop here.