SAWA Shoes, beautiful sneakers, carried at Revolver, are created entirely in Africa, from design concept to fabrication. Clean and vintage look and feel. These shoes are so much more than just a boss pair of sneakers. Medhi Slimani, co-founder of SAWA, has taken the time to answer a few questions for Revolver, and his answers have us super excited and hungry to see more from SAWA in the future.
First off, we love your "About Us" section on your website, including the video and accompanying animations. You make a very clear and definitive statement that you are not a charity or fair trade brand, but you are, in fact, an activist brand. Your shoes are made in Africa with materials sourced in Ethiopia. By creating an entirely African-made product you are adding value to the continent and working towards changing misconceptions of Africa. This might sounds like a lofty goal to some. When and how did this vision come about? And why shoes as opposed to some other product?
The SAWA project was created in 2009. The idea consists of combining 2 passions : shoes and Africa. We took the bet to have the courage of our opinion: let’s use Africa to sell our shoes but let’s do it honestly by producing our shoes there. The idea was to produce there so that all the added value would benefit Africa. Sure, this project seems lofty but we were convinced that it would be soul-rewarding and could trigger a strong interest from the market. When we were looking for money to finance the project, most of the banks considered it as an impossible project. I remember the banker telling me “If it was possible to make shoes in Africa, the all footwear industry would be there.”
Where does your design inspiration come from?
If you go around in any African capital (Dakar, Yaoundé, Abidjan, etc.), your attention will be caught by what people are wearing: for sure you will see one guy wearing an authentic vintage “Le Coq Sportif” sneaker that your father used to wear 20 years ago, one guy wearing a “Moncler “ down jacket from the first collections of the brand, and I am convinced that the all “Ralph Lauren Polo” archive from the past 20 years can be found in Africa. In Africa, there is a huge business of second hand clothes which are bought from Europe and USA. So Africa has gathered tons of vintage apparel and footwear. African capitals are really vintage fashion museums… We tried to catch this vintage attitude to design our shoes.
Do you feel that Africa is reflected in the design of SAWA shoes? (Despite the obvious, we particularly love the "Made in Africa" stamp on sole, or maybe it should be "soul", of the shoes.) Do you feel you are creating a distinctly African product?
I tried to define what is exactly an African product. Is a last generation of smartphone “made in Africa” an African product ? Is a traditional tam-tam “made in the USA” an African product? Must an African product to be made of eben wood, wax textile, etc?
For me an African product is a product made in Africa. Industrially speaking our shoe is an African product. Fashion wise, I still think that it is an African product because I do not limit African products to ethnical fashion.
Do you feel your vision and designs have been received differently by the different communities in which they are debuted? Is the response different in Africa versus Europe versus the United States?
A lot of European countries used to have a colonial empire within Africa and continue to benefit from the African immigration during different phases of economic growth. USA has an African side thanks to the afro-american community. Asia never had an African colonial empire and as far as I know there is no afro-asian community there.
Today Asia is the region where we make the most of our sales. What does it mean? Does this confirm the precursor power status of asian consumers? Does it mean that we achieve our objectif to be a fashion brand before being an African brand? Does Africa trigger more things in Asia?
At the end of the day, I just tell to myself that I should stop trying to make philosophy and just focus on the next collection (laughs).
Have your designs been swept up by the world of sneaker collectors? With SAWA's clean and vintage-inspired designs, I can easily see Sneaker Freaker followers going crazy over the shoes! Is the sneaker-collecting demographic a market you have aimed for?
I know the Sneaker Freaker community in France and I am not sure they are going to go crazy for our shoes. I mean sometimes French sneaker freakers totally miss the evolution of the footwear market. Do they care about a shoe that can be eco-friendly? Do they care about a shoe that can be an activist statement? Do they care about a shoe that is fair trade?
Sometimes I even tell myself that if Phil Knight had created Nike today in France, the current French sneaker freaker community would have laughed at his Cortez which was just a copy of an Onitsuga Tiger.
On the other hand, we received a warm welcome from the Sneaker Freaker team of Hypebeast.com who always has kind words for us.
I read in another interview that SAWA is an action towards something, not a reaction against something else, meaning that you did not pursue an African-made shoe in response to the abundance of Chinese-made products, or, for that matter, any product created in any other place. Is it difficult to have to explain the political or activist roots of the brand? It seems like you are coming from a much more positivist vision of what creating a local product means as opposed to a reactionary point of view.
Once we explain the activist roots of SAWA, things are quite clear. But without explanations people tend to think that SAWA project is the embassy of the people against “Made in Asia” products or people against the big footwear companies. I have not created SAWA listening to “FIGHT THE POWER” from Public Enemy. In other words, SAWA is just a fashion brand which took the bet to create a normal business with Africa. We just side with Africa and Fashion.
What's next for SAWA? We'd love to hear about your inspiration, goals and dreams.
We are now working on the next collection and we would like to introduce 2 colors specially for women in a framework of a project that we called “United Industry of Africa”. In this project we will work with suppliers specialized in jewelry and traditional textile.
In the long term I wish SAWA to be successful enough to bring enough business in Africa.
(All photographs here within are from SAWA Shoes' Lookbook shot in Addis Ababa.)