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Sunu Splashes Senegalese Style into LA-Made Luxury: On Brand

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It’s a landmark year for the fashion industry, which has seen more highs and lows in a matter of months than designers, shoppers, investors and supply-chain stakeholders could have imagined was possible. But even in a time as unusual as the present, the sector’s penchant for pushing trends has remained intact. This time around, though, those movements are less about color palettes and cuts, and more about brand values.

In Los Angeles, Senegalese-American designer Moustapha Ndiaye has watched this metamorphosis take place. Ndiaye has been running his own apparel line and factory, Renaissance Creative Studios Los Angeles, since 2016, but the events of the past eight months have served up new opportunities for the business based on changing brand and consumer appetites.

Born in West Africa, Ndiaye, who emigrated to the U.S. to study finance, put aside a career in accounting to pursue his true American dream. “Renaissance means rebirth, and it was almost like a rebirth for me,” he said.

Moustapha Ndiaye in his Los Angeles studio.

Moustapha Ndiaye in his Los Angeles studio, modeling a tunic style worn on stage by Lenny Kravitz.

Ndiaye’s lifelong love for fashion was supplemented by his business acumen, which pointed him toward an untapped market of other artists who were looking for a way to manufacture small batches of unique, upscale, artisan-crafted apparel not just domestically, but locally. Like-minded L.A. designers needed a production hub for their creations, he thought, and in the process, he could fund his own brand.

“I thought, I’m going to set up something like a manufacturing studio where I can make my own stuff, but that the same time provide these services for people like me,” he said.

Ndiaye, whose creations incorporate fabrics, trims and motifs from his global travels with a heavy focus on West African textiles, has become a mentor to his cadre of brand partners. He has shepherded emerging brands like Tribe of Wild and Libanati through the sampling and production process, helping to act as a conduit for relationships with local mills and downstream suppliers across the globe.

Born in West Africa, Ndiaye, who immigrated to the U.S. to study finance, put aside a career in accounting to pursue his true American dream.

A leather and pony hair jacket from Sunu’s debut collection.

Renaissance keeps its operations lean, with just three to four sewers on hand at any time and a mere handful of machines. Many of Ndiaye’s own creations are one-of-a-kind, based on the fact that he mostly hand-sources small batches of material, not reams of fabric, for his line. Despite the company’s small footprint, Ndiaye’s line has made it onto the backs of A-List performers like Lenny Kravitz and Lorde by cultivating relationships with local stylists and a small network of specialty boutiques catering to a very exclusive clientele.

While the line has historically focused on men’s wear, the designer recently announced the launch of Sunu, a women’s wear collection inspired by the blending of both Western and tribal traditions. The moniker means “Ours” in the native language of Senegal’s Wolof people. Handmade indigo-dyed coats and jackets made from vintage, hand-woven African cloth are some of the line’s standouts, along with brightly colored kimonos, caftans and streetwear-inspired sets.

Floral printed bomber and joggers from the newly released Sunu collection.

Floral-printed bomber and joggers from the newly released Sunu collection.

“I wanted to showcase the voice of the artisan,” Ndiaye said, pointing out that luxury brands have been using traditional African fabrics for decades, though the end consumer is rarely apprised of a product’s history or the inherent meaning behind its materials. “Sunu is a story about fabrics that were worn for centuries by kings and queens,” he said, whether sourced from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, or Burkina Faso.

When asked why 2020 seemed like the right time for an introductory women’s line, Ndiaye, who has always designed clothes that he himself wanted to wear, said that this year has presented a “gray area that we’ve never seen in fashion,” and that he needed a way to bring a new and meaningful challenge to his work.

“No one knows how this is going to turn out,” he said of the fashion landscape at large. “Barney’s has all these people running their company and they can’t figure it out, so I thought, I’m just going to shuffle the deck and do something new.”

Other designers and brands seem to be looking to mix things up too, he said, in light of the turbulent trade landscape and the massive disruptions to global supply chains that have stalled businesses across the globe. Renaissance has seen a small uptick in interest from American labels looking to bring production stateside, though much of that interest seems more probative than actionable.

A long indigo-dyed coat from the new Sunu womenswear line.

A long indigo-dyed coat from the new Sunu womenswear line.

“I’ve had requests from people who want to move from overseas—but they still want the price of overseas,” he said. “They want to make in the U.S., but want to pay what they would pay in Pakistan or Bangladesh or China.”

Still, the unprecedented confluence of circumstances that have shaken the industry has also afforded glimmers of opportunity for Renaissance, which espouses a unique point of view: American-made and globally sourced. “I looked at my email today, and I had an email from a pretty big luxury brand,” Ndiaye said. “It was one of those things where you say, ‘Wow, they’re looking at me?’”

The shifting sourcing landscape has validated Ndiaye’s ambitions to expand the Renaissance mission globally—namely, setting up production in West Africa. “It is one of my dreams to have manufacturing there—to actually make the textiles and be a part of that process,” he said. Countries like Senegal stand to benefit from the globalization of the supply chain in a way they never have before, he added.

“One of the excuses that brands have made was that there was instability in these countries,” and that it was unappealing to do business in places plagued by tensions between military regimes, he noted, arguing that conditions have greatly improved in West Africa over the course of the past decade.

“These zones are becoming more stable and you can actually go there and manufacture, and bring those pieces here to the West,” he said. “I would love to be a part of that, so that’s what I’m working on.”

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