Meet EILAF: The Brand Contributing to Sudan’s Rich Creative and Ethical Economy
Written by By Hannah Makonnen
After years of unrest and conflict happening across the country, Sudan saw a 39-month revolution of its political power, with protests erupting throughout, finally coming to an end in October that year. Following its settlement, Eilaf Osman, founder of her eponymous brand, began questioning what it meant to be Sudanese after the years of oppression that had preceded. She became interested in finding ways to document the remaining treasures of Sudanese art, traditional artisanal weaving techniques and sustainable practices that had survived in its wake, finding ways to thread her findings back into her work.
Though many embark on the journey of building a brand, not as many do it with such care for the communities they sit amongst. For EILAF, this is Sudan and the wider East African region. A place where they not only pull inspiration from, but base their design studio out of, working with the local artisanal craftsmen to produce handwoven bags and accessories from cotton and natural materials.
“What we’re doing is disruptive”, explains Eilaf. In building a brand that truly supports the livelihoods of the weavers it works with, she disrupts the ethical framework of how clothing brands interact with their garment workers. For EILAF, this is in the form of collaboration.
Since its founding in 2020, they have gone on to win the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize 2022, they most recently showed at Paris Fashion Week and are soon to be stocked with Matches Fashion, come June 2023. Speaking to Eilaf, we talk of her family, the love she carries for her culture and the importance of sustainable ethics when working with the Sudanese community that stands at the very core of her practice.
Can you explain the context behind EILAF and its Sudanese origins?
I am Sudanese, but was born and raised in the US. After I finished studying, I went to Sudan and worked for the UN as a natural resource management strategist and got to see so many potential projects that could have empowered the livelihoods of marginalised women. The projects never really came to fruition because of obstacles put forward by Sudan’s previous regime.
Particularly with art, it came to be seen as a form of resistance and couldn’t be celebrated publicly. Tribes went underground with their precious artwork to safeguard it. The tensions from the regime spilled over into tensions between neighbouring tribes, so there was a lot of distrust.
After the revolution, there was this sense of a post-revolution glow, but then came the question: ‘What does it mean to be Sudanese?’, ‘Who are we after all the divisions?’. I became interested in how ones art could be part of the conversation about Sudanese identity.
My parents left Sudan before the regime happened, so they always spoke of Sudan and this golden era, nostalgic, light. Of its rich culture, of joy, of happiness and expression. When I finally got a chance to go on my own after the regime, I went in search of this Sudan.
How did you develop the weaving process of the bags with these communities?
Sudan’s history is steeped in oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation. So, it was important to find out what craftsmanship remained after years of wars. For example, towns that were known for a particular type of basket weaving, may only have two elders left in the tribe that still know how to do it. I started working with local NGO’s to research and archive different artwork from marginalised tribes, especially those in conflict-ridden regions.
When I first started, I focused on direct-to-consumer sales. You know, in the two and a half years since I started working, I have only launched three bags, because really prefer to concentrate on product and design. It meant I could delve deep into the design and product development side and control how much I produced.
I work with the weavers’ community in Uganda and we started an experimental garden two years ago to create sustainable flower dyes, that’s how we dye our baskets. It was a massive undertaking, we had to conduct an environmental study on what flowers we could introduce and how they would impact the main cash crop, which was bananas. This was in our main centre and the spread it throughout 12 villages.
Now, I’m releasing new baskets as part of a whole new line with the weavers community in and inaccessible and rural part of Sudan. It was a complicated supply chain and design process that required a lot of ground quality and production control, and expensive shipping. It had to be done, it’s important to me.
You touch on something happening in the African and African diaspora community, where brands and retailers use themselves as a tool to build the wider African infrastructure. I can see this emulated in your work.
For sure. Back in 2021, I kept hearing this term ‘Creative economies’ and I think it really fits. Because in Sudan, I was part of such a rich community of young people, photographers, stylists, and models. They were talented young Sudanese kids who were developing their craft and skills. ‘Creative economy’ is such a great term to describe this kind of cluster of young creatives because they have really developed an ecosystem.
It’s a pillar of my brand to contribute to the creative economy of Sudan and Uganda by providing livelihoods to our weavers, strong livelihoods. We want our weavers to feel comfortable saying “I can’t afford tuition for my child’s university this month”, so we can use a pot of money we have set aside for situations like this. What we’re doing is disruptive, and we want our weavers to make great salaries, have health care access, and daycare for their children. When I say that to people, they stand amazed because they aren’t used to companies giving these kinds of benefits.
So for you, it’s about using this creative economy to build ethical welfare for your weavers?
Exactly. I recently had a conversation with a close friend of mine about capitalism in the West. My friend made the point that we have become so accustomed to the small comforts that capitalism provides, such as running water, electricity, and cars, that it’s difficult to imagine an alternative system. While we may feel grateful for what we have, this mindset can also make it challenging for us to mobilise and protest for things like healthcare, which we may need but don’t necessarily feel we deserve.
I’m trying to be a part of the change, by providing financial opportunities to communities whenever possible. To challenge the notion that having healthcare is a luxury and demonstrate that it’s possible to value both social welfare and craftsmanship.
You can find EILAF’s products on their website, linked here.