By Sara Bauknecht
WWR Article Summary (Tl;dr) This article profiles the life and work of Tereneh Mosley, a Pittsburgh fashion designer who is collborating with the Maasai women’s artisan group in Kenya to create eco-friendly clothes. The designs are drawing plenty of attention but so is the mission behind this business that has a focus on the economic empowerment of women.
In the past couple of years, Pittsburgh native and designer Tereneh Mosley has launched a fashion line, traveled to Kenya to work and live with the Olorgesailie Maasai women’s artisan group, and showcased their collaboration of eco-friendly clothes and accessories in Paris and New York.
And she’s just getting started.
Last week, she headed back to the Big Apple to premiere a fall 2016 solo collection at New York Fashion Week.
Later this month, Pittsburgh will get to see designs from her Idia’Dega line, plus the latest from her collaboration with the OMWA group of Kenya.
They’ll be on display at The Mattress Factory on the North Side as part of a new small series of curatorial residences and programming under the direction of cultural producer and artist Casey Droege. The exhibition also will feature video and photos from Mosley’s travels.
“I’m very excited to just celebrate Tereneh’s work,” says Droege, whose background is in fiber and textile. “I think what she’s building is really incredible.”
Her early trips to Kenya were about trust building; Mosley watched the local artisans at work in hopes that they would embrace her and her idea to create a collection together that someday could help support their families. She returned to Kenya for a couple of months last summer, thanks to funding from the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments’ Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program, to design with them pieces for a spring collection.
“Coming back and showing the pictures from the show we did in New York and Paris, they started to see that this was something that could really grow,” Mosley says.
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The artisans earn a consultancy fee for their designs, plus money made from sales.
“Slowly it’s building, and that’s really great,” Mosley says.
But the journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Her makeshift home in Kenya is a hut or tent; two were destroyed by dust devils during her latest trip. Out of the 36 women Ms. Mosley routinely works with, only one speaks English. Recently, she began learning their language to ease the communication barrier.
“It’s still kind of a work in progress,” she says with a laugh.
Next, she wants to expand the collaborative process to include artisans from other cultures. She spent a month last fall traveling across the Northeast exploring Native American communities to partner with. Her goal is to come up with some sort of “virtual studio” where the OMWA group in Kenya could remotely collaborate with artisans from the Oneida Indian Nation in New York.
“I’m still trying to figure out the logistics,” Mosley says.
So far, the response to these collaborative collections has been wide-ranging, from surprised to impressed.
“Sometimes when you hear Africa or Maasai, you think bright colors and beads everywhere, almost like an ethnic costume. When they see a long hemp silk gown or pantsuit and a beautiful cotton shirt, they go, ‘Oh, wow. I didn’t expect that,'” Mosley says. “I’m trying to educate people that this isn’t a charity case. It’s really about collaboration.”
She also hopes her adventures and events back home, like the exhibition at the Mattress Factory, inspire people to think big.
“I want young people across the board, especially young African Americans, to see my passport with extra pages,” she says. “You can do whatever you want. You can broaden the scope of what life can be if you just build it yourself.”
And she’ll keep thinking big.
“I have this dream where we have a full runway show and all the (OMWA) women come out after the show at New York Fashion Week,” Ms. Mosley says. “Just to have them all there and to have (Vogue’s) Anna Wintour and the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine in the audience, that’s my hope that can happen.”