The man behind Negesti:
An up and coming Ethiopian brand
Aron Senay is looking to dominate. He sells a lifestyle, not just handbags. The carefully designed handbags and accessories, largely targeted at female customers, craft a personality. The visual advertising of his brand Negesti indicates as much. Fierce looking women and handsome men are ready to conquer and flaunt, their bags serve as weapons of destruction, and of desire.
Named after his grandmother, Negesti is a relatively new brand in the market. Created in 2017 and showcased in the Creative Futures and FA254 fashion design contest, Negesti is steadily gaining traction, largely driven by Aron’s unflinching dedication to fashion.
“I like fashion. My grandmother Negesti was from Nazareth and she always wore white. Somebody notices who you are because of how you dress. It shapes a personal narrative,” he believes.
His brain is an encyclopedia of fashion. An afternoon spent with Aron can be quite educational to one unversed in fashion. Designers’ names, aesthetics, African, European, American, ideals fashion houses are built on, haut couture … he has consumed it all. Negesti is a fairly new venture for him, having worked in event management and design for the past few years. “I’ve been sketching since I was a baby. My childhood dream was to take over 2 houses. I wanted to design for Chanel. But I’m only 75 days old.” He hopes to create an internationally recognized brand.
“Tom Ford never sowed a day in his life,” says Aron, mentioning the American fashion designer and previous creative director at luxury fashion houses like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Technical skills are no longer as necessary if a designer has the artistic vision in mind and the tools to express it to the craftspeople. But he has a workshop where he handcrafts each item he sells. He also designs clothes on special order.
“We don’t have to go backward when we have come so far. We shouldn’t have to keep relying on government or foreign investment to support creative industries. A simple idea on a piece of paper can create millions of jobs. But, it doesn’t create a handful now.”
As with several other creative sectors in Ethiopia, fashion is uniquely open to any passionate individuals willing to invest their time and money. Western brands like H&M have chosen Ethiopia for its cheap labor. While fast fashion has engulfed the world with cheap material to be replaced every season (thereby contributing to a global pollution crisis), there is growing room for local products made by local designers. Mafi, Yefikir, Yohannis Sisters and a few other brands create ‘high-end’ items for a largely wealthy clientele.
“There should be a clear demarcation between designers and manufacturers,” he adds. He is referring to designers that create authentic pieces in contrast to ‘ones that Google image search and make a hundred replicas of one piece’. Aron specially alters a piece to match his client’s personality, each handbag an echo or an amplifier to an inner identity. Carrying a Negesti handbag is a statement; not an item a woman is saddled with because pockets aren’t enough.
“International fashion is new all the time. Fashion can’t be a luxury in Africa. We can’t run it that way. Visually and brand-wise, it needs so much work. People want to tackle it as a business. They didn’t get into it because they love fashion. If you don’t love fashion don’t work in it. If you want to help designers, set up an investment firm.”
Although a new designer in the city, he knows everyone. Of course, the local fashion community is rather small. “They all know me because I’m loud. They would have crushed me if I wasn’t talented. We need to work together to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We need a cycle of learning and teaching from younger and older designers.”
His description makes Ethiopian fashion seem cutthroat. And Aron is competitive. Each Negesti item is built to his own standard of excellence. “You should never take yourself seriously but take your work seriously. We should be revising all our forgotten standards. Perfection did not come from the west. Same knowhow was applied to build Axum or Lalibela. I don’t let the French tell me I have standards. I don’t need anyone to tell me I have standards,” he says.
Aron laments the lack of creativity in the local fashion scene. “We see the same cuts, ponchos every time. 80 percent of designers just recreate the 1980s. It all comes down to what you’re making--it’s not interesting enough. You need to be challenged.”
He contends that Ethiopian designers have not yet mined Ethiopia for fashion inspirations. “We have limited Ethiopian culture to tibeb. We have condensed 3000 years of history and hundreds of cultures to tibeb. ‘Ethiopian’ isn’t defined. “He mentions Japanese Designer Fei Kawakubo’s house Comme des Garçons and the continued influence Japanese design principles have had on high-end fashion, seamlessly blending the east and the west.
But he also gives credit where credit’s due. He appreciates Hub of Africa, fashion incubators in Addis and talented designers with great vision including Osman Mohammed and designers like Mafi who he says paved the way for emerging artists.
Of course fashion in Ethiopia is very different from the west or even the rest of Africa and Aron is aware of that. “The fashion scene is negligible. Shiro meda and merkato dominate the market. It needs to be more accessible. People shouldn’t have to pay 300 birr to attend fashion events. I don’t like brands that call themselves luxury brands. Let the thing speak for itself. It’s good to hear from people and have a conversation.”
He also adds that Ethiopian society, more specifically designers, don’t respect women enough. “Fashion in Ethiopia is not feminist enough. That’s one of the problems.” And what does he want Negesti to be? “I want an army of tiny Negestis dominating. I want to see them defending themselves on the street. Doing whatever they want. It’s not about disrespecting Ethiopian culture. It’s about working with in the culture.”