Interview with fashion designers Olivia and Alice of Lalesso

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The View had a very inspiring chat with fashion designers Olivia and Alice of Lalesso. The two founders share about their heritage and culture, how they got in business together, their view of the business, and what inspires them.

TV: Hi Olivia and Alice, how are you? Tell us a bit about you.

OK: Great thanks Rinaldi, hope you’re well too. I was born in Mombasa, Kenya and grew up there, I went to boarding school in Dublin from the age of 13 which was quite an experience. I then decided to seek warmer climates for my tertiary education and found myself in Cape Town where I studied fashion design for 3 years. That’s where I met Alice and Lalesso was born! I now live in Cape Town most of the time but Kenya will always run strongly through my veins and be the place I truly call home.

AH: I was born in Bath, England. My family moved to South Africa when I was 7 and settled on a farm outside of Cape Town. It was a wonderfully creatively inspiring place to grow up. I started sewing at the age of 12 on my mothers sewing machine and fell in love with creating clothing. When I finished high school I traveled Europe for a year and then came back to Cape Town to start the 3 year course Fashion Design.

TV: How did you get in touch with creativity, and was this already defining for the rest of your life?

OK: I think growing up in a place like Kenya creativity is all around you – not only in a visual sense but also because of the lack of ready made resources you are forced to create. When I was growing up there there was very few clothing stores, basically non existent homeware stores – if you wanted a dressing table for example you didn’t go out and buy one, you designed it and got it made. It’s amazing how this kind of upbringing has really shaped my creative mind set – I guess it’s a kind anything is possible ideology which is so priceless.

AH: My mother is an artist and from a very young age I was painting, drawing, building, you name it. There was always a strong focus on creativity and self expression in our house. Being creative has always just been a way of life for me, not something I get ‘in touch’ with so to speak, just a part of me.

TV: Can you tell us about your culture and environment? For example, what are very recognizable characteristics of your culture and the place you grow up?

OK: I can almost shamelessly say that I have been so entirely blessed to have grown up surrounded by utter beauty – Kenya is a country of astounding visual stimulants no matter where you go. The fusion of cultures I was exposed to was also hugely impacting – from Masaai bead adornments to the rich Arabic architecture found in the coastal areas. My upbringing was very liberal and I was so very fortunately exposed to a completely lateral open world. I would say that my cultural upbringing was some what unique in that it can’t really be defined by an existing culture but more learning to live and love ones surrounds, appreciate everything that you do have and not the things you don’t – respecting those around you and learning that we are all one and the importance of supporting each other where ever we can.

AH: I grew up in a pretty multi-cultural environment. My father is Swiss and my mother English. Before moving to South Africa we were living between Greece, Switzerland and England. My father grew up in Tanzania and always longed to move back to Africa hence ending up in Cape Town. We grew up with the typical Swiss and English traditions and occasionally a South African one thrown into the mix, like braaing and my father would go game hunting. My parents are very liberal and open minded so it was a wonderfully eclectic upbringing.

TV: When was the first time you got in touch with fashion? This moment also made you decide to study fashion design?

OK: My mum always used to make us dresses when we were youngsters and ever since I can remember I had a total fascination with her sewing machine. I remember the moment that I realised I could take any piece of fabric and turn it into a 3D item to WEAR – I felt like the whole world opened up. I can remember making clothes from as young as 9 years old.

AH: I can not ever remember not liking clothes. My mother used to make us amazing costumes for parties and festivals. I remember she made me a silver princess dress what was my absolute favourite. We also had a very vast dress up box which was constantly used. When I was older I started making my own clothes and altering second hand clothing I bought at charity shops. I always knew I wanted to do something creative and it was a toss up between drama or fashion. I am so glad I went with the latter!

TV: Then at some point you met each other and thought, “Let’s start a brand together!”?

OK: That’s right, as I mentioned we met at university. Alice came to visit me one holiday in Kenya and we dreamt up the brand idea there.

AH: The brand happened very organically and from the beginning seemed to have a momentum of it’s own.

TV: When people think of fashion and luxury cities, the usual names come up like Paris, Milan, London and New York. Have you seen a change towards Africa and the crafts there? How do people respond when they find out your brand is African?

OK: We most definitely have seen this change and it’s so absolutely amazing to be a part of it. When we first started almost 8 years ago people would almost take some convincing to take a brand from Africa seriously, today people just can’t seem to get enough of it.

AH: As Olivia mentioned there has been a huge shift, especially in the past 5 years. Lalesso’s whole brand ethos encapsulates so many different parts of Africa and we have had a generally good response from the public. It really is wonderful to see how the fashion business in Africa is booming!

TV:Tell us about Lalesso, what does it mean, how is this brand truly you, Africa, and also global?

OK: Lalesso’s ideals are centered on 3 real defining principles; ethics, summer and print. The combination of those three factors gives birth to a gentle, effortless yet distinctly striking brand ideology. Our designs are simple but the prints make them stand out. Our ethics are extremely important to us and we strive to make them synonymous with the brand – in doing so helping to change peoples mind set on how they buy fashion – be more conscious about where their garments are being made.

TV: You also established SOKO. Why, and what is that exactly?

OK: When we first started the business we had our own small team of tailors, this rapidly grew as the brand grew and before we knew it we were managing a clothing production unit as well as a clothing brand – and it was spreading our resources too thinly. We wanted to focus on the brand aspect as we knew that had the power to spread Africa to the rest of the world but we didn’t want abandon the amazing team we had just spent 2 years building… and that’s how SOKO was born – we met this amazing lady called Joanna Maiden who was involved with the Ethical Fashion Forum in London, her and her husband were looking to move to Africa and I pitched the idea of an ethical production unit to her – one that any brand/designer could use. She loved it and took it on board, thus became SOKO!

TV: Can you share a bit about your creative workflow? Do you travel with a camera and sketchbook?

OK: What I love about our creative workflow is it’s not just designing garments, we design the prints as well. What this means is that it’s a full on process from print inspiration which comes from all walks of life to the prints giving inspiration to the garments which are obviously inspired by Lalesso’s carefree summer ideals. Sketch book, camera, pin board… gather gather gather, design design design – I love it!

TV: We are sure that you are a big inspiration for many Africans, to work with whatever passion you have, and dream big. How important is it for you to be such a role model?

OK: That’s quite a humbling question as with the nitty gritty cogs and wheels of running a business I honestly don’t look at that side of it at all. I think being a role model is one thing but being able to put that into use and actually offer real time advice is what’s more worthwhile to me. When we started Lalesso I was only 21 and if I knew then what I knew now it would have saved a lot of time and money (although I wouldn’t change it for the world). I am always so happy, more than happy to give whatever advice I can to people starting out – it’s a brave move and anyone making that choice deserves all the help they can get.

TV: Aside from Lalesso, what kind of creativity do you like to do in your spare time?

OK: I recently bought a house in Cape Town and I’m absolutely obsessed with creating my dream abode – it really is a dream come true. I love interiors and how such a small thing like a plant or a rug can transform entire space. I also find huge creative inspiration in nature – climbing and exploring the multitude of mountains in the western cape is pure therapy for me – there’s just something about a waterfall cascading through wild nature that gets me!

AH: I also absolutely love interiors and recently renovated my apartment. I love painting and cooking! I am a vegetarian and love creating new healthy veggie recipes. I also really love music, I find it so inspirational and am constantly listening to something. The app 8tracks is amazing for discovering new bands.

TV: Thank you Olivia and Alice!

Check out their stunning designs on the Lalesso website.