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The clothing industry is reaching out to people who want to protect the earth and believe that people who work should receive a living wage. Eco-fashion clothes are made using raw organic materials such as cotton grown without pesticides. With the eco-fashion industry still in its infancy stage the main responsibility lies on manufacturers and designers to find sustainable materials. Ruth Woldeselasie is a designer with a passion for eco-friendly fashion and an organic lifestyle; she has her own clothing line called “Urban Roots, Eco Couture” that promotes environmentally conscious materials. She spoke with Capital’s Eskedar Kifle about where this dream is heading.
Capital: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Ruth: My name is Ruth. I was born in Ethiopia and have lived in Europe, the US and other different parts of the world for around 15 years. I have been doing fashion all my life. I studied about organic life style, designing and marketing management. Mostly I have worked in the fashion industry.
Capital: How did you get into the fashion industry?
Ruth: I was in Ethiopia going to school and at the same time I was working with Genet Paradise a participating designing company in my fashion show which is going to be in August. I started working there with Liya Kebede also. We also worked with an Italian modeling agency. After that we all went to different countries to pursue modeling. Some of us went to Paris and some of us to New York. I went to Paris for a month first but then I contacted a modeling agency called New Face Modeling Agency, which was located in Rome and I worked for them, I started taking different classes for photography, makeup art and modeling. So since then I haven’t stopped working in the fashion industry.
After being hired by New Face I started going to different countries; working for designers like Moschino, Jean-Paul Gauitier and Ralph Lauren. Although I didn’t do runway modeling, I worked in the showroom for the designers, and I did exclusive shows for buyers.
Capital: How did you get involved in eco-friendly fashion?
Ruth: It was around the time I moved to London, I didn’t have anything to do at that time. London is one of my favorite cities; I like the people and lifestyle. As I walk around looking at places, a shop that is called Dailies for Organic caught my eye. I went into the shop/restaurant and saw that everything they sold was organic and natural. I became a frequent customer and saw famous people like Claudia Schaefer and Hue Grant also enjoying this organic life style. The shop used to give courses on how to live an organic lifestyle and I was very interested in the idea and I had time on my hands, you know as a model you may have a lot of free time. I worked with Dailies for three years taking the trainings they gave and I learned a lot of things. That’s how I became part of the organic idea; at that time I was also working to be a designer and I tried to merge the organic lifestyle with fashion.
Capital: When did you get into designing?
Ruth: When I was working in the showrooms as a model I had a lot of free time because I might only have one customer a day. When we have free time, me and the other models we used to read and try to create our own clothes, we used to take ordinary clothes and try to make them interesting by cutting the cloth and adding different fabrics to it. People who work as models come from different countries, different cultures and styles and you learn from everybody. I have also worked as an intern for different places and I also have designer friends. That is how I developed my designing skills.
Capital: How far have you taken the designing? Have you done your own fashion shows?
Ruth: I was one of the designers that showed their work at the African Fashion Week, which was held here in Addis Ababa. I also did the Rotary Club fashion show which was held in Sheraton Hotel. Like I said before, after I finished my training and work abroad I came straight here because this is where I wanted to work. This is my country so I wanted to bring the whole eco-friendly fashion to my country and Africa as well. The idea of eco-friendly is very new here. I want to give the knowledge I have to others in that area. All the clothes I make are eco-friendly and I make them from recycled materials. For example, when we dye cloth we don’t use chemicals, there is another alternative like using flowers and other plants to get the color we want. When I make bags and some clothes, I take pieces of leather which other factories throw out and use them. When I had my fashion show at the Sheraton Hotel, I showed clothes made out of plastic, I’m not saying people should wear plastic but I want people to understand that once plastic is produced it takes a very long time for it to decompose and the only way it can be saved is if it is recycled, that’s why I made the plastic clothes, so people can think about those things. I started with just an idea, then I started learning about how to make recycled clothes by searching on Google.
Going back to what I learned about organic food, we need to think about the chemicals the go into the food we eat, naturally fruits will go bad in a few days but when you see some fruits that are sold in supermarkets they last for over a month, that is not right, that means there are chemicals in the food that makes them last longer and could potentially be hazardous to people’s health. So we need to ask about the things that go into the food we are eating, it’s the same with clothes, I want people to be aware of their choices. In Africa most things are organic; I hope things continue to be that way. That’s why as a designer I want to shine some light on these issues.
All the designers’ that will be featured in the upcoming fashion show are working towards the same goal, creating eco-friendly fashion.
Capital: The eco-friendly idea is not well known in this country, people don’t really have the luxury to care about making environmentally friendly purchasing choices, most don’t see the environmental consequence the things they buy will have. There aren’t many places that provide training or education on how to make better choices. So if the awareness is not there to begin with, as a designer how do you plan to create the market for your products?
Ruth: That is correct, before I got introduced to an organic lifestyle, I didn’t care about the things I ate or the clothes I bought because I didn’t know the effect they had on myself as well as the environment. But after I was introduced to the organic lifestyle, I started making better choices. Like you said there aren’t any places that will give education on how to live an organic life style in this country. So right now the market might not be there but there but it will be once people get the awareness. The other thing we are trying to promote is making our own clothes by using our own materials. My clothes are simple, they don’t have patterns, they are made out of cotton and they are something that can be worn day to day like t-shirts. I don’t use machines to make the cloth because there is already a lot of labor in this country and I can provide employment opportunities.
At the upcoming fashion show, we will feature a lot of young designers that have not been in the spotlight. These designers are very creative and if consumers see that there is something that is made in Ethiopia that has the same quality plus is eco-friendly then there is no reason they wouldn’t be interested in buying it. So, one of the aims of the fashion show is to give these young designers the chance to show their work. Some of the designers that will be participating are women who used to be prostitutes but now are being helped by different NGOs, they recycle plastic and make them into bags. There are also designers living with HIV who, through NGOs receive training about how to make jewelry.
The fashion show is our first one, in the future we plan to do more working with different African designers. We are also working with the African Union to bring the whole idea of using sustainable materials in the fashion industry to the rest of Africa.
Capital: Why do you think most designers seem to produce the same kind of designs all the time? It seems like all they do is try to make a modern twist on cultural clothing but nobody has taken the steps to actually create something different, something that is not affiliated with the culture of the country. Where is the creativity?
Ruth: I think to bring a new idea is very difficult. To make the transition to something else is a challenge because there are norms and a culture that is imbedded in the industry; it is hard to pass that barrier where nobody really wants to take a chance with something different. There is also the problem of patenting. Designers get their work copied and sold everywhere all the time. When you invest a lot of thought and time into creating something good and then it is copied, it is very discouraging. Another reason might be that most designers here don’t get the chance to go out of the country to become exposed to different cultures and lack of ideas that might also contribute to the similarities of designs.
Capital: What advice do you give to designers who want to follow in your footsteps and get involved in the eco-friendly fashion industry? Where do they start?
Ruth: We actually do give free trainings to people, but we also live in a world that it is very easy to get information on things. People need to familiarize themselves with the concept and educate themselves. All it takes is a little time and a lot of commitment. I am also here to impart the knowledge I have about the topic, I’m doing the fashion show which will be held on August 3rd at Radisson Blu for the same reason, to introduce the idea to people; bringing awareness to bring change.