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Saturday, 06 March 2010

The lesso: A long rectangular piece of cloth, brightly coloured and patterned, the traditional attire of Swahili women living along the coastal regions of East Africa. Since 2005, the lesso has taken on a different, rather more international role as the inspiration and centrepiece of clothing brand Lalesso, which is currently taking the fashion world by storm.

Five years has seen founders Alice Heusser and Olivia Kennaway place a little known cultural garment squarely on the map, with everyone from ethical shopping boutiques to Topshop clamouring to get a piece of their unique vision of contemporary African fashion. In a decade that has seen dresses grow in importance, Lalesso, which releases just two collections a year and focuses exclusively on summer wear, is a celebration in the rise of easy to wear feminine clothing. Designs range from the short and fitted to the long and billowy, but whatever the shape the emphasis is undoubtedly on clean, simple lines that let the fabric do the talking.

However the reasons to really take note of this company aren’t simply down to strong designs and command of the catwalk. Lalesso’s mark of quality actually starts with production, where the community takes centre stage. Keeping the number of collections down ensures workers are not put under any undue pressures. In addition seamstresses receive well above the average wage, and the company offers loans, maternity leave, crèche facilities and sick pay. Lalesso tries to involve the wider local community in as many ways as possible. There are nuns making the crochet featured in designs, unemployed beachboys crafting buttons from coconuts, and Masaai fashioning up the beaded bracelets used on swing tags. In an industry that is far from transparent, Lalesso has everything to shout about: great design and strong ethics that place social responsibility at the heart of production.

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