Bantu Brings the African Surf to Fashion, and Jobs to Africa

Fashion expert Julie Gilhart interviews Bantu's socially conscious founder, Yodit Eklund

I remember the first moment I felt uncomfortable. It was January 2004. I was in Paris during the Haute Couture shows watching a 15-minute fashion presentation that cost over a million dollars to produce. At the time I was the Fashion Director for Barneys New York. It was my job to scout and access fashion trends/ideas in order to help translate them into moneymaking concepts.

As I fidgeted in my chair, watching the jewel-encrusted, heavily embroidered gowns tumble down the runway, I was plagued by the thought that somewhere, not so far away, the money spent to create such mega-glamour could also be used to change the lives of people who had so much less.

A couple of years later I watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. He stressed that we better hurry up and take a look at what we’re doing to the planet, or we’d be in big trouble. Then I heard the Dalai Lama speak, and he said, among other things, that we must do all we can to preserve culture and create beauty.

Then two things changed about me: I began to feel even more embarrassed by the negligence and waste my family of fashion was creating, and I started to surf. Being in the ocean, trying to navigate waves on a surfboard, not only gave me relief from unsettling thoughts, but it was also pure fun. And by immersing myself in water, I felt this amazing connection to Mother Nature.

In 2009, I met Yodit Eklund, founder and creator of Bantu, a collection of beachwear produced in Africa. I was intrigued by the fact she spent her childhood in Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Sudan. I was curious about how she had studied environmental economics at Berkeley in California. I was naturally drawn to the way she wanted to celebrate the joy of Africa’s beach culture. I was enchanted by how she incorporated the funny, traditional wax cloth fabrics and tie-dyes of Africa into sexy string bikinis (perfect for surfing warm waters) and board shorts. African style has always been an influencer in fashion, and here was someone who was thinking about people before trends.

For over 20 years now, I have been looking at thousands of ideas relating to fashion. So many are good concepts, but only a few have the energy to explode. I have found there is no formula. The best ideas are ones that are born naturally out of an extreme passion and belief. Maybe I am naïve, but money is never the driving force in the beginning. At first, the creator pinpoints a thought, executes it secretly, and then invites a few in to observe it. The observers feel the energy, help fuel the idea and then blastoff! Things happen fast in fashion.

And here was Yodit, who was neither short on passion or belief. I was totally mesmerized by the fact that her sole purpose of starting a fashion business in Africa was to create jobs. Most of all, I was amazed at how young she was. I was beyond humbled.

I wanted to know more, so I spoke to the 26-year-old Ms. Eklund about what makes her surf this wave of socially conscious fashion:

What or who inspired the launch of Bantu?

When the word “Africa” comes up, the first images that spring to most people’s minds are starvation, drought, AIDS. I believe it’s possible to add beach, swim, surf, some positive things to the list for once! With beaches from Cape Town to Dakar to Zanzibar to Sharm, Africa really does have a very real and vibrant beach culture. 

After college, I was applying to jobs in my field when my brother suggested I go into fashion instead. We wanted to do something African that would employ people and promote sustainable business. Although I don’t have a background in design, my education did really shape Bantu. For every business, the environment has to be right. When trying to decide which direction to take Bantu, it was pretty clear that a beach brand from Africa would be unique. Really, I wanted to show a bright side of Africa because Africa really is full of light. 

Do you think social consciousness and fashion can coexist?

We have to acknowledge consumerism is a reality in our world today.  We are faced with the option of doing something to make the world a more positive place by producing/buying products we know are going to help solve the problems facing our world. If at the same time we can create something cool and fashionable, I think this could really be a sustainable way of changing some of the realities of our planet. In other words, you don't have to stop being fashionable. You don't have to buy an ugly T-shirt where some of the proceeds go to one cause or another. There are amazing products out there that are stylish and cool that really can change and improve the lives of others and even our own lives.

What makes Bantu stand out in the fashion world?

Bantu is teaching the world that you don't have to sacrifice fashion when you decide to buy a product that can change or improve the lives of others.

Why is it important to develop a fashion business in Africa?

Africa's age structure is one that is set up for either devastating risk or incredible opportunities. Working-age adults are usually defined to be between the ages of 15 to 64, and it was this type of age structure that provided East Asia's "economic miracle." The majority of Africa's population is under the age 30. Despite its ideal population age breakdown, Africa hasn't reached its productivity potential, not because of unwillingness to work but because of lack of opportunity. In order for African countries to reap the benefits, opportunity must be given. The fashion/garment industry has the potential to make a real difference should it choose to create substantial work force in Africa.

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