Words Bim Adewunmi Pictured Suno Photography Tina Tyrell
Nadiyah Spencer is director of sourcing and production at ethical fashion label Suno.
What drives you?
I am driven by making beautiful clothes with beautiful people. I am not referring to one's outward appearance but their integrity and motivation. Every single manufacturer I work with I have a personal relationship with. Some may find that odd, but it's my way of doing business. I am driven by productive, business relationships steeped in mutual respect.
What do you see as the future of Africa?
That's an ambitious question. I am going to stick to what I know and that's sourcing/production. I am confident that Africa can become a major player in the fashion industry. I foresee more cut/sew factories opening throughout the continent. My hope is that more textile mills are erected which will allow Africa to have more vertical factories that, in turn, will allow them to create garments from start to finish. I'm talking printing houses, fabric-testing facilities...the possibilities are endless.
Often times, companies looking to produce in Africa shun away from producing there because it's difficult to find a variety of high-end fabrics, and shipping fabrics/trim can become burdensome. Bringing this element to the continent will be a turning point for Africa's place in fashion – increasing capacity, capabilities, opening up tons of jobs.
Why is ethical fashion important to the future of Africa?
It's imperative that factories in Africa subscribe to ethical business practices because it's the morally right thing to do. It's not just something that Africans should follow but all countries. Suno prides itself on working with factories that pay their employees fair and livable wages, have clean restrooms, on-site eating facilities, on-site daycare and medical facilities. Happy workers make dedicated workers and that's an ideology that we practice not only in Kenya but within our offices in NY and the other factories we produce in globally.
We've taken it a step further by employing a Kenyan woman by the name of Ruth Mukami who oversees all of our Kenyan operations. One her many roles is to ensure that employees are being treated fairly, getting overtime if needs be and that facilities are up to par. It's easy to make everything look pristine when 'the foreigners' are coming for a short visit. We want ethical work conditions and business practices to be a way of life for all of our workshops, all of the time. We have been fortunate to work with factories that share our ethos and have steadily improved their businesses since working with us. As a result, more business has been coming their way. Being ethical in this day in age, in our industry, is now more than a buzz word – it shows corporate responsibility and attracts big business.
What are the main misconceptions when it comes to women in your industry?
I can only speak for women who are production/sourcing managers and not all roles of women in fashion. I find that production managers can sometimes be made out to be less fashion forward than our design, sales or merchandising counterparts. I have seen some fancy product managers in my day! I also find that sometimes we are pigeonholed as the worker bees who are not always sought after for their opinions on how to improve business. We interact with all facets of the product life cycle and we are on the frontlines in terms of cost negotiations, maintaining company aesthetic and logistics.
Our realm of responsibility is the backbone of the fashion industry. Shipping late or shipping product that does not measure up to clients' expectations can cripple your business. It is our job to make sure that the beauty on the runway matches the beauty on the sales floor, and that it gets there on time, at the right price, and in one piece. It's a lot of pressure and that's why we are a bit intense or a bit high-strung at times.
What are the challenges to being in the fashion industry?
I commend my design team because they have to stay ahead of the trends and season after season produce highly covetable collections. Being creative on demand is a tall order. In the world of sourcing and production, the fact that we are a predominately printed line, produced heavily in Africa, is not easy.
My challenges have been adhering to the Kenyan governments' rules/regulations on shipping goods in and out of the country. A few years ago, Max Osterweis, founder of Suno, Ruth Mukami and I did a goodwill tour with the Kenyan Parliament and other key trade organisations. The goal of these meetings was to introduce Suno and what our mission was with the hopes that they would let us produce our collections there and forgo the sometimes inevitable bureaucratic red tape. It was an ambitious mission but it paid off. We now ship under the TREO and AGOA treaties and our goods are no longer held up in customs clearance for no reason. It's not 100 per cent seamless but it's ions better than when we started.
We are constantly monitoring the political climate in not only Kenya but in Peru and India, where we also produce garments. We produce in NY as well, which presents its own set of challenges – specifically pricing garments to sell with the cost of living and manufacturing being greater here. Each season poses new challenges, nevertheless as a team we tackle them.
What advice do you have for anyone starting out in the fashion industry?
My road into this business was quite unconventional. I went to Spelman College, a Liberal Arts school in Atlanta, GA. During my senior year I was recruited into a newly devised training program by Gap Inc. called the Retail Management Program and it was a nine-month intense rotational program that focused on production, merchandising, marketing and planning/distribution. I was one of the few trainees that loved production – I had a great production mentor by the name of Michele Grear… Programmes like this do exist, but they are few and far between now. I would suggest to everyone interested in a career in fashion to intern – start in high school if you can.
The fashion industry is competitive and you have to give yourself an added advantage. Not everyone has the natural talent to be a designer, but you can have a great job in fashion. I suggest one writes down why they like our industry, lists what they are good at and starts to scout jobs that are aligned with their skill sets. It does not hurt to do an informational interview. It will give you a bird's eye view of what a job entails as well as the company's culture. When you can marry your skills with an industry that you love, and land in a company that you love with people that mesh well, it is an experience that is as beautiful as the garments we create!
In boardrooms and parliaments, on television and the stage, women are increasingly making their presence felt across Africa and on the world stage. The inaugural ARISE 100 list champions just some of the remarkable women shaping modern Africa today.