American designer fuses Kenyan traditions with contemporary fashion trends
NEW YORK — Where Tereneh Mosley calls home these days depends on when you ask her.
She keeps most of her belongings in storage in New York, where she used to teach at Parsons The New School of Design, and her issues of Vogue magazine are delivered to Pittsburgh. “Thanksgiving dinner is on the North Side,” she says.
For the past year, the Pittsburgh native has split time between her hometown and a hut in Kenya, where she lives while collaborating with the Olorgesailie Maasai women’s artisan group to create a fashion line of apparel, shoes and accessories for men and women that fuses the traditional styles of the village’s people with contemporary trends.
During New York Fashion Week earlier this month, she roomed with former Pittsburgh couple Lesley and Kamau Ware by night and showed off the OMWA + Idia’Dega Tomon collection to fashion enthusiasts, media and potential buyers by day at Warehouse Gallery, an art and creative space the Wares run in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. (The couple displayed their new collection of bow ties, too.)
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Ms. Mosley, daughter of Pittsburgh-based sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. “My main goal is just to have more people see the collection, getting it in retail stores and getting the story out there.”
She’s been working on the line for nearly a year but has been considering it since studying fashion in graduate school, which she attended in Kenya through a scholarship from the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh.
“I just kind of fell in love with everything that was happening and just the aesthetic of the design, the lifestyle, the culture,” she says.
After a colleague nudged her to turn her talk into action, she left her teaching position at Yale-NSU College in Singapore and used her last paycheck to fund her trip to Kenya.
“At the very beginning it was just a matter of spending time,” Ms. Mosley says. “I would just sit there, and a lot of times there wasn’t anyone who spoke English. I would just spend all day sitting there watching them bead.”
The artisans, who range from teens to seniors, bead to help support their families, but it’s not uncommon for days to go by with few or even no sales. Only one woman understood English and helped Ms. Mosley share her ideas with the others about how they could contribute their design skills to a new collection.
“I just sat in the village, hung out with them until [the Maasai women] said, ‘Yeah, we’ll work with her.’”
They relied heavily on nonverbal communication and sketched their designs on papers sprawled out across tables. She showed them images of fashions by designers such as Dior, Givenchy, Armani and Ralph Lauren for inspiration. Together they reviewed sketches, determining which ones to pursue.
“If they didn’t like something, then we didn’t do it,” Ms. Mosley says. “I don’t know if they have a lot of opportunity to collaborate and be creative and have their opinions asked and expressed and shared in that way, and they enjoyed it.”
Some of their creations include beaded loafers with soles made of recycled bike and car tires, colorful beaded jewelry and clutches and leather bags, as well as suits lined with beading, simple dresses belted with bead strands and evening gowns. Prices vary from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. So far, Ms. Mosley has attracted interest from a handful of boutiques, including ones in Germany and France, that want to carry pieces.
Through the New York Fashion Week presentation, as well as similar events in Paris and Pittsburgh in the summer, she’s been gauging which items to manufacture and how many. The beading, shoe and leather work will be done in Kenya, while a lot of the clothing production will be handled in the United States.
She’s financing the project from more than $10,000 raised earlier this year from an Indiegogo campaign with the aim to make the collection profitable on its own, with money going to the Maasai artisans who designed it.
“The thing that sticks in my head the most is there are 36 women in Kenya who are amazing, creative artists who just need an opportunity to show what they can do,” she says. “I want to show them that their work is so great that people all over the world are willing to buy it.”