Fish skin leather rocks Nairobi’s catwalks

Fish skin leather rocks Nairobi’s catwalks Blue Fashion scored a hit at the Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi. Photo: FAO/Luis Tato

Necks craned as the lithe Kenyan models displayed their stylish dresses, purses and shoes at the Blue Fashion show that was held as part of Kenya’s Blue Economy Conference.

New fashion designs always attracts attention from fashion show attendees, and when that couture is crafted from fish skin leather, fish scales and seaweed fabric, audience engagement reaches new levels.

Even seasoned fashion designers needed time to get their head around it. Kenyan fashion designer Jamil Waliji, Head designer at JW Couture, whose Blue Fashion designs were unveiled on the catwalk of Nairobi, was a complete newcomer to ocean- and lake-sourced fashion.

“I knew nothing about Blue Fashion until I was approached to take part in this fashion challenge,” Jamil Waliji admitted.

“I was told that the Commonwealth Fashion Council and FAO were involved, and that it would focus on sustainable fashion and saving the oceans, so I wanted to learn more … The more I learned, the more it surprised me that so few of my colleagues knew anything about it either, and they were intrigued when I began sharing my experiences working with fish skin.”

Prior to the Blue Fashion event, he travelled to Kitale in western Kenya to visit Victorian Foods – the site where the fish skin leather he was using for his designs was created. Back in 2007 the company’s CEO James Ambani first began buying Nile perch from Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake on the border with Kenya and Ethiopia. Its remoteness makes it hard for the fishermen to get their fish to market and Kitale, the nearest large market town, is about 36 hours away over rough, dirt roads.

When James Ambani started working with the fishing communities, he paid them for their catch and arranged to transport the perch via cold-storage trucks to Kitale, where it could be processed as fillets and shipped out to be sold both in Kenya and abroad.

Since the fish is sold in fillets, the skin was largely wasted. With fish of these sizes – mature Nile perch can reach 1.85 metres in length  –  that’s a lot of fish skin.  He and his wife came up with a plan to make better use of that wasted fish skin, which was mostly buried as a fertiliser, a decision that could also add value to the Turkana fisherfolk communities who could earn more for their product.

“The idea started off with my wife exploring the possibilities of making fish leather out of it. Honestly, it sounded like a crazy idea to me at first,” he said.

“But we started out in phases. We received some training from a friend who knew a little bit about it. From there, we tried to process the leather with our slight knowledge. At first, it really didn’t turn out very well. But later on, we managed to get it right and to understand the formulas. My wife undertook some training in Singapore, learning how to perfect the fish leather production. And here we are.”

Today the factory produces fish leather that is shipped all over the world to be used in the design of shoes, purses, clothes – there’s even interest from the automobile industry to begin producing luxury interiors in fish leather. Fish leather can appear like snake or crocodile skin. But unlike those species, there are no restrictions in trading fish leather, which is generally a by-product of food products, and therefore not endangered.

Importantly, fish leather and Blue Fashion can offer additional opportunities to add value and provide employment and bolster livelihoods for fisheries communities. This is one of the tenets of FAO’s Blue Growth Initiative, which seeks to balance the sustainable management of aquatic resources with economic and social benefits for local communities.

“Our Blue Growth Initiative has begun to look at Blue Fashion as an alternative income-generating activity for fisheries communities, especially for women and youth,” said Jackie Alder, FAO FishCode Manager.

“This is something we consider carefully when we have communities that do a lot of fish processing, and we have fish skins and other parts of the fish left over. By having the opportunity to produce fashion products, such as fish skin leather, we have a real opportunity to generate new employment opportunities for those communities, and also to provide the fashion industry with alternatives for more sustainable material.”

“We believe that the fashion industry must look at responsibility within the industry, and to build responsible value chains,” said Sheena Frida Chiteri, Founder of the Strategic Fashion Development Consortium, speaking at the Blue Fashion event.

‘In the fashion sector, when we work with fish skin leather and Blue Fashion, we see tremendous gains for fisheries communities. There are significant opportunities for adding value to their fisheries harvest through expanding Blue Fashion activities.”

And how can designers not be inspired by this new, sustainable material?

“I was inspired to create garments with fish skin leather, to infuse the local fabric, the leso, with the fish skin and European materials,” Jamil Walji enthused.

“I wanted to bring out a combination that has never been done before … Just by sitting and feeling, it inspires you, the idea of joining them together to form a huge surface area to work on gives you ideas and motivates you to make something that’s totally different, because you would be looking at the edges and grain lines of the fish in order to make your design, and at the end of the day, these lines create your design lines, and enhance your look.”

Designer Deepa Dosaja, another Kenyan fashion designer whose works were unveiled at the Blue Fashion show, spoke about the creativity the material inspired. Her stunning, elegant dresses alternate fish skin leather with playful, eye-catching ruffles created with fish scales.

“With the dresses we’re showing today, we dried and dyed fish scales and made use of those to embellish the dresses,” she said.

“I learned that sequins actually have detrimental effects on the environment, so I was interested to experiment with this sustainable, decorative option of fish scales and worked to make them look like decorative petals. Working with the fish leather was also a creative process. For these dresses, we mixed different colours and textures of fish leather, to provide a unique look to these creations.”

An advantage of the fish skin pattern is that the look is governed by the grain of the fish skin, meaning that no two purses or dresses will ever be entirely the same – a uniqueness that is fully appreciated by fashion designers, and their clients.

As the fashion industry is the second most polluting sector in the world, there are real questions over making room for improvement. Could a sustainable Blue Fashion industry, one that prioritises fish skin leather – much lighter and more resilient than cow leather – serve as a viable alternative to high-end fashion?

The success of the Nairobi fashion show illustrated that there’s a very real interest in sustainable, lake and ocean-sourced fashion. Can Milan, Paris and New York be far behind on the Blue Fashion bandwagon?


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