Magazine article The New Yorker

Magic Lantern

Magazine article The New Yorker

Magic Lantern

Article excerpt

Last week, Reed Krakoff announced that he would be leaving his longtime job, as the creative head of Coach, to focus on his own fashion line, the Reed Krakoff collection--minimalist luxury sportswear that is favored by, among others, Michelle Obama. But, before he could turn his attention to the transition, he had a project to complete in Chelsea.

In a back room of the Friedman Benda gallery one recent morning, Evans Wadongo, a twenty-seven-year-old engineer from Kenya, waited nervously for Krakoff. Wadongo was wearing jeans and a charcoal-gray sweater vest buttoned over a checked shirt. He is the inventor of a safe, easy-to-fabricate alternative to kerosene lanterns, a solar lamp called MwangaBora--Swahili for "good light"--which he distributes to villagers in Kenya and Malawi, through a nonprofit he founded. He was hoping that Krakoff could apply his Midas touch to the lamp project.

Krakoff, who is forty-nine and mostly bald, strolled in. He had on jeans, a navy polo shirt, and glasses with thick black frames. The two men were meeting for the first time, to oversee the installation of a so-called "charitable selling exhibition" of a thousand lamps, which cost twenty-five dollars each to produce, and would be offered for two hundred and fifty dollars, to benefit the nonprofit. The lamps are the same ones that Wadongo supplies to rural communities--they are made from scrap metal, with glass globes, and are shaped like camping lanterns. But, at the gallerist Marc Benda's request, these had been editioned, stamped with the numbers one through one thousand. Krakoff had also designed small felt sheaths, in a variety of bright colors, to cover the lanterns' handles--the flourish, perhaps, that would make the lamps as desirable as this season's must-have handbag.

"I didn't want to do anything that was in any way decorative, or that would obscure the seriousness of what it is, because it is a serious thing," Krakoff said. "In terms of color, literally we just saw what excess felt we had in the warehouse."

"Yes, it's a bit of something that makes it look more attractive," Wadongo said. "It looks like something that someone would want to keep for a long time." (Of Krakoff's fashion designs, he added, "In Chicago, I just met a lady with one of your bags and she really loves that bag.")

Wadongo had flown in from Wisconsin, which he deemed "kind of rural," and where he'd been speaking with students about social change. Before that, he'd been in Chicago, and in St. …

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