By David Kattenburg
Mention Rwanda to someone, what comes first to mind? Bloody genocide, most likely. Certainly not swank men’s fashion.
Think again. Over the past year, two Dutch entrepreneurs have been marketing boldly colored made-in-Rwanda men’s blazers up and down the Netherlands, under the label Afriek.
First they take Amsterdam — then they take Berlin. Listen to the story here:
How did 26 year-old Sivan Breemhaar, a human rights/conflict studies grad, and 29 year-old Kars Gerrits, with an international relations degree, get involved in men’s fashion? And what are these blazers the two are producing? “Very special ones,” says Breemhaar. “Bringing worlds together” is what it’s all about, Gerrits adds.
Kars and Sivan met back in 2011, while living in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. He was interning at the Dutch embassy, growing weary of “life in the diplomatic bubble.” She was doing her Masters research on the Rwandan education system. Both were inspired by African sartorial style, by the beauty and originality of African clothing and craftsmanship. Why not launch an African-style fashion product in Europe, they asked themselves?
The first idea that came to mind — Sivan’s — was flip-flops. Following a quick poll of family and friends, they switched to men’s blazers. Dutch fashion giant Vlisco sells African-style threads to the famously conservative Dutch, for big Euros, Kars and Sivan reasoned. They could do likewise, using African fabric and craftsmanship.
Three years later, Afriek blazers are now on sale in the Dutch cities of Groningen, Utrecht, Eindhoven and Amsterdam, and in Antwerp, Belgium.
One would have to be an extrovert to wear extravagantly colorful jackets like these. “It’s not for everybody,” says a saleswoman at an Amsterdam shop where Afriek blazers hang from racks. “But for the right guy, it can make him look excellent … I see this kind of relaxed guy. And he buys this because he likes it; he thinks it’s cool, and he just puts, like, pants on. He’s very easy going. That’s the type of man I see with this, actually.”
It’s their beauty that make these blazers so special, says Sivan. “It’s something completely different than the Netherlands,” she says, sitting beside Kars in her Amsterdam flat/office. “We all dress the same, almost. Everyone has the same clothes. And there everyone is unique in their dress.”
“The idea behind it is to show the beauty of Africa and combine it with our European way of looking at fashion; the European trends,” says Kars.
Bringing worlds together in trendy Amsterdam is easier said than done — certainly at a price tag of 289 Euros. Kars describes the typical reaction of men when they hear what an Afriek blazer costs: “They come to the shop. They look at the blazer, they think, this is it; very nice blazer. But then, they see the price, they think, but I’m not going to buy it now, so then they have to think about it; talk to their wives; get their wives to the shop; ask their wives …”
“Some people are very, like, oh, this is too much for me,” Sivan pipes in. “But once they wear it, it actually really looks good if you combine it well. There’s a lot of women who say, ‘Why isn’t this for us?’ But it’ll come later. We start with the men.”
Kars and Sivan’s project has taken them back and forth between Amsterdam and Kigali, where three energetic tailors assemble Afriek blazers on second-hand German sewing machines. Fabric comes from Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria; lining from Italy; threads and buttons from Germany. Tailors earn ten percent on each suit they sew. Way higher than what clothing workers in places like Bangladesh earn.
Still, is it “fair trade”? Branding is tricky. “When I came there for the first time, I wanted them to follow the Fair Wear organization guidelines, so that we could say we’ve got a Fair Wear jacket, or blazer,” says Gerrits. “So I told them, you can’t work more than 48 hours per week. And they started saying, well, why? If I work sixty hours, for instance, I can make two more blazers, I earn more money, and I can send all my children to school!”
Afriek lets their tailors work as hard as they’d like – but they’re encouraged to rest on Sundays. Sivan and Kars have found other ways to deal fairly, and turn their product into a story – something fashion artists like to do. Inside each Afriek blazer: a label bearing the name of its tailor. In the end, these blazers sell for their beauty, says Sivan.
“If you brand it right, I think, there’s the fashion people; the people who see this blazer in a magazine and think, like, wow, I really have to have it. And that’s, actually, I think the most sustainable part of your customers, because those are the people who are willing to spend so much money for a blazer they really, really love.”
In the end, these two Dutch entrepreneurs are pragmatic, with more than one clothes horse in their stable. Says Sivan: “Because we decided, blazers – they’re very expensive for most people; also very outspoken – so we added a line of T-shirts with a little pocket of African fabric to our line. The threshold isn’t that high for buying a T-shirt, with a weird, funny pocket.”
T-shirts with pockets are just the start. This winter and early spring, Kars and Sivan will travel to Rwanda to launch a brand new, more diversified line of Afriek products, including men’s pants and button-down shirt.
Meanwhile, Afriek jackets will appear in Berlin shops this March. An Afriek presence at highly trendy Bikini Berlin is in negotiation. A women’s collection may follow in July Fashion Week.
Back in Amsterdam, Sivan and Kars will present their blazers at one of those trendy “pop-up” shops the city makes available to up and coming fashion artists, in otherwise empty commercial spaces; blazers with unique stories that began in Africa; stories for young Dutch shoppers to carry forward, on their own.