🌍Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
You know that feeling when you see something so beautiful and you immediately think to yourself “I gotta have that”? That was how I felt last October after eyeing leather bags by Ethiopian apparel and accessories brand NEGESTI at the Creative Futures presentation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was immediately drawn and captivated by the refinement of the bags which had me doing all kinds of mental editorials of my wardrobe and what I would pair them with. I luckily bumped into Aron Zenebe, the creative director of NEGESTI and after a short exchange over loud music, we kept in touch the result of which is this conversation about all things NEGESTI, fashion and design. Scroll down to read what we talked about.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how it played a role (if any) on your decision to pursue a career in fashion?
I grew up with trendy and fashion forward parents and women in my family (more than 20+ women overall), so that helped me see what style is since childhood, without necessarily knowing what it meant. My grandmother’s “Lagerfeld” like repetition of style (she was was a beautiful, dark-skinned woman who always wore white) I think, subconsciously, played an important role in terms of understanding a personalized sense of style. After high school, I went to France (Lyon) for college. and My eight years there reinforced my love for a rooted style and a sense of rooted style. I also think Ethiopians have a rich sense of style and art of living in so many aspects of life (food, architecture and fashion) that goes back to the Axumite Civilisation and when I revisit such aspects especially as an adult it makes me want to dig more and give it a modern interpretation through style/fashion and avoid the generic.
What is behind the name NEGESTI?
NEGESTI is my grandmother’s first name. Her chic and simple style was something that everyone in her hometown [Nazareth, Ethiopia] recognized her by. In my opinion, every Creative Director tries to somehow contribute to women finding and perfecting their sense of style that they’re comfortable in, no? For me, she embodied the end goal of a Creative Director: a woman comfortable in her own skin and attire. So the choice of channelling her while creating was an obvious one.
Was your first creation a smash hit or was it one of those ‘oops better luck next time’ kind of designs?
It was luckily a positive. It was a wedding dress for a long time muse that I did with the help of a good seamstress called Haymanot (from Haimi Design). Both Haimi and the client are based in the US (and I’m based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) so communication throughout the process (fabric choice to fitting) was very challenging but it went well and the bride was happy. I had positive feedback on it so I was satisfied.
What is the process like for you when it comes to designing a bag or a dress?
Inspiration comes from anywhere for me. The more it is related to culture the better. I don’t think there’s like a pattern I follow but when I find something or someone that triggers my motivation to dig more, I just go for it. I really focus on trying to come up with products that are the contemporary interpretation of that inspiration. I don’t know if you can call that a process but that’s what I do. Then as you’re working on it sometimes you might tune or change a few things but that’s on the technical side of the process.
As an Ethiopian designer, what aspects of your culture influence your creativity?
Ethiopian architecture is something that constantly fascinates me. Especially work of arts like Lalibela, Debre Damo, or Fasiladas Fort or Axum. The perfection of their execution and symbolism around the details is something I thrive to duplicate in what we do. Ethiopian women are a constant source of inspiration too. Especially in terms of how they think and their attitude when it comes to their cultural side. In Addis for example, you can see a woman in her everyday attire and when she decides to wear traditional attire, hairdo and jewellery something changes. It’s something that I believe many Ethiopians can testify to. The culture is rooted and still very vibrant that when you see her dance or stands as she’s in a traditional attire it’s really something unique. Something that inspires you to innovate in that field and make it modern so she can be inspired to wear it every day.
Aside from Ethiopian culture, what else influences your designs?
Other cultures, whether they be from Africa or the rest of the World inspire me. French fashion influences me. Fashion photography, music, galleries are other sources of inspirations as well. And as I said inspiration can also come from unexpected places and when it does I just go with it.
What are your top 3 bags that when you look at them you feel they are your best creations so far?
I don’t think I have my best creation yet [laughs], its maybe way too soon [laughs]. But for now, I think the “Jah” (inspired by Ethiopian Royal Crown), “Menalebet” (inspired by Darth Vader) and upcoming “High Priest” bags are my top three.
It can be argued that the Ethiopian fashion industry is dominated by women, what is your experience like being a male fashion designer in Ethiopia?
So far it has been good and as for the female designers in Addis Ababa, those that I’ve met have been a pleasure to meet and are doing good work! However, I think a perception of fashion through a male designer was something that needed to evolve as well. I might be an Ethiopian male designer but the style that we’re trying to create through NEGESTI has to echo beyond Ethiopian borders too. That’s the goal. So when you think about it, working alongside the female designers can only help reach that goal faster.
What is the best advice you have received in life that you carry with you to this day?
“Understand your condition”. I think I really live by these words.
If you had to do a Kanye and Jay Z ‘Watch The Throne’ type of collaboration with a fellow African designer and put out a line, who would it be and why?
Osman from Ethiopia. His leather work is something I appreciate. I was still in college when following him and for that time and even now his work is very relevant and original. And the choice we made to start with accessories first [at NEGESTI] and working with leather has helped me appreciate what he used to do and still does more. So I believe we could collaborate well.
What is happening right now with NEGESTI? Any projects we should be looking forward to?
We are continuing to work on original pieces and tuning our collection that we did for the Creative Futures /Vogue Italia competition where we were finalists. And we’re at the very early stages of implementing an interesting first presentation of our products involving other art-oriented entities and more.
What goals do you have for your brand?
I would be happy to see NEGESTI become a frame of reference of style. Seeing it go global. Become a brand that creates jobs and works constantly on putting out modern creative output in the fashion world would be the end goal.
What is your biggest achievement to date as a designer?
[Laughs] – I think it might be too early for that question no? [Laugh]. Becoming a finalist for the Creative Futures /Vogue Italia competition after only three days at the workshop was for me an unexpected achievement.
What would we find in your closet? What are your favourite items to wear?
Jeans, shirts, quasi-hipster like pieces and blazers, ties etc. Jeans, shirt and boots are my favourite items.
Off the top of your head, Nairobi or Johannesburg? Why? / Milan or Paris? Why?
Huh, tough. I would go with Nairobi and Paris. Because I really like the positive energy that Kenyans have – at least for those I met here and in Kenya- and their culture. And Paris, because It would be great to see what one can do with French fashion as an Ethiopian and France is also like my second home. But I like Joburg and Milan as well and I’ve never been there either so, not a fair question [Laugh] – but a good one! [Laugh]
Images: from the designer