Fashion Radar Picks Up: Ethiopian Leather: A Fair-Trade Luxury Label Shows Ethiopia's Report Capacity in Finished Leather Goods

Article excerpt

by Trade Forum editorial team

World trade in leather and leather products--worth more than $60 billion in 2004--is expected to grow. With a quarter of the world's sheep and goats and 15% of its cattle, Africa is bursting with potential, but there is a gap between resources and production. African countries produce just 14.9% of the global output of hides and skins and hardly any ready-for-market finished leather goods. When a country such as Ethiopia makes high-end leather products, it shows that promise can become a reality.

Ethiopia has tremendous potential to develop leather exports, which the Government has singled out as a priority sector. It wants to move the country's production up the value chain from the "wet blue" stage to "crust" leather and finally to finished leather and leather goods.

ITC is contributing to this process through a project called "Made in Ethiopia", led by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Not only are they producing leather bags and other accessories, but they are aiming at one of the most difficult markets: high-end luxury fashion.

Project participants have formed a cooperative between local companies and created a new brand--Taytu--named after the legendary, strong-willed Empress of Ethiopia who reigned from 1889 to 1913.

Taytu is already attracting attention. The label's first collection will be ready at the beginning of 2007. It was showcased at Premiere Classe, the prime accessories trade show in Paris, in September 2006. Big fashion retailers in London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and New York placed preliminary orders.

Culture and ethics are selling point

The decorative, colourful accessories include leather handbags, wraps, sandals, shoes and jewellery. They are a unique blend of ethnic and sophisticated modern design.

"We chose not to compete on price and mass production, but in markets where we would have a competitive advantage," says ITC Market Development Officer Simone Cipriani. "Our marketing concept is based on understanding the importance of the origin of a given fashion product for a certain kind of new consumer."

Extensive market research and preparatory work for the project showed that handcrafted Ethiopian leather goods, particularly handbags, would appeal to consumers defined by fashion gurus as "new authentics". These affluent people are interested in quality, beauty and exclusivity first--and are willing to pay for them--but they also want products created by a fair process.

Such consumers have traditionally bought into the qualities of big-name luxury brands. Today, they are gravitating towards products they believe reflect their personal style.

"We are witnessing the emergence of a new trend, where what really matters is a product's capacity to convey a message about the personality of the consumer," Cipriani explains. "Many consumers are more aware of global, ethical issues. They want a product to communicate involvement, activism and hope for a brighter future."

A tall order for any product to fill. But the enterprising partnership of people behind the elegant Taytu line meets the discerning shoppers' criteria: they are new-world creative, work collectively under fair conditions, share profits and are boosting family incomes. Through an innovative use of traditional raw materials, they are creating highly individual and contemporary pieces, imbued with ethical value. Their collection delivers a charming artistic, abstract edge that breathes Ethiopia, but caters to the Western market.

Strengthening social capital

"We brought together 12 manufacturers in a cooperative and designed a fashion collection with them based on Ethiopia's cultural traditions," says Cipriani. The project also recruited Italian accessory designer Barbara Guarducci to find the right balance of handicraft, fashion and culture. She spent six months working with the selected manufacturers, while UNIDO consultants trained local leather workers and suppliers. …