An Interview with José Hendo - Part 1

31 March 2021, by Marella Alves dos Reis

In the first of a two-part series, CS Ambassador, Marella Alves dos Reis, interviews José Hendo, an eco-sustainable fashion designer

José Hendo is an eco-sustainable fashion designer who fights against fast fashion customs and the throwaway culture it represents. She is the founder of the José Hendo brand, the R3 Campaign (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and the Bark To The Roots (B2TR) initiative, which grew from her love of Ugandan barkcloth. She is very interested in the concept of 'sustainable by design', integrating this policy wholeheartedly into her work, whether by material choices, a simplified production process or even clever cutting techniques! Ultimately, the protection of environmental biodiversity is crucial to José, and her use of barkcloth has ensured that this message is conveyed through all her designs.

Figure 1: José Hendo. Image courtesy of Harry Leonard.

Figure 1: José Hendo. Image courtesy of Harry Leonard.

Figure 2: A José Hendo design from her ‘Signs Of The Now’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

Figure 2: A José Hendo design from her ‘Signs Of The Now’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

Marella: How did you first become interested in sustainable fashion?

José: I was on a journey to find more meaning in my work, and I was quite disillusioned by the fashion industry. I didn't feel that I could stay in it if it carried on the way it was, and then that's when I then did lots and lots of research into what happens after we have used the garments... where do they go? Nowhere is somewhere! They do end up somewhere and not in a good place most of the time and causing so much damage. So that's when I decided that, okay, I am going to change things now, and I have to find the tools and the things to work with. So, I needed eco-materials, and that's how I found barkcloth!

M: What initially made you decide on a career in fashion?

J: I'm from an art background, so I did Fine Art, and I thought I was going to become an artist. I thought I was going to be painting and making sculptures and printing - doing all kinds of things! And then, something happened to my work when they sent it off for grading, and with art, it's all very practical. In those days, you were judged from the work that you produced, your portfolio. But it just never got there, so I had no grades to grade. I had nothing for them to grade! So, then I thought, what do I do? I did art for my O-Level and my A-Level, so for two years, I had been in the art room, on my own, working for my portfolio. So, when my work was lost, I was broken. I had neglected all my other subjects and just focused on my art because I knew this was it. I discussed possibly going back and doing another two years of art, but I thought I can't do it - art is the kind of thing where you are giving of yourself as you create. You are building yourself up to your results, so when you don't get it, it breaks you. I was broken. So, then I thought, what do I do? I spent some time doing another subject to do with performing, and I decided to pursue this. So, I decided to go into fashion.

M: Did you come from a creative background?

J: My mother always made things in the house, so there was always a needle and thread, always a machine there, and I could sew. I knew how to make, so I would make things, just playfully. Even though I did art in school, I always made things - I upcycled my clothing and changed things around. From an early age, possibly five or six, I used to make dresses for my dolls, so I always made things. For me, making was not anything new - I knew how to sew using a sewing machine in a straight line because we used to help my mother when she was making things for us or mending and repairing. I find creating very fulfilling; it helps me to express myself because everything we wear is an expression of who and what we are, and how we are feeling in that moment.

Figure 3: A José Hendo design from her ‘Resonance’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

Figure 3: A José Hendo design from her ‘Resonance’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

Figure 4: A José Hendo design from her ‘Signs Of The Now’. Image courtesy of José Hendo

Figure 4: A José Hendo design from her ‘Signs Of The Now’. Image courtesy of José Hendo

M: Do you often wear your own designs?

J: I find that how you present yourself is how people will perceive you. The moment that I mention that I'm in fashion, I find that people's eyes go up and down to take in what I am wearing. So, if I've decided that day to be very comfortable and casual, I'll find myself apologising for my clothes! So, what I've had to do is design my casual clothes. I am very aware of people examining my clothes when they find out that I'm a designer, so from my coat to my simplest t-shirt, it's all me. I'm always wearing myself. It's kind of given me a chance to have people engage more with what I make and what I do because they can see me wearing it, and that makes them more comfortable with my designs. If you're a designer and you're not wearing yourself, sometimes people might take that the wrong way. A lot of what I do is shouting about change, change that needs to happen. If I'm not wearing that change that I'm talking about, then I have to change myself first. It's a lifestyle; I'm not just doing this sustainable angle that I have just for the brand. It's a lifestyle that I embrace away from my work. At home, my children know about this, and they are already practising it. Everyone who comes into my home has rubbed shoulders with it and has taken something away with them. You are the one who has to change first, and from then, you can change others because otherwise, there is no point.

M: What do you enjoy most about being a designer?

J: Creating! I really love creating because I'm an artist. So, from that angle, I love to create, and I could create all day, but then obviously, I have to make sure that now what I'm creating has got a depth to it and a story to tell. It's quite exciting to be in a studio. Now, if I go to the studio, there's no one else coming; it's just me. I love that! I love that space to just think and just be in that creative environment. Everything is just there; the cloth is there, the machines are there, everything I need is there. It's then up to me to just take these things and make them sing. That's the part I really love - to tell these stories through my work. A lot of my work is about functionality, but I also want people to be excited when they see it. I want them to think, 'What? How?'. Plus, it's like therapy as well. When you're creating like that, it clears your mind and focuses you. The other thing that I get out of my work now, which I find exciting is making people change the choices they make through engaging with my work. That's the part that I never saw coming - the fact that I can use my work to create that change and inspire people to be more sustainable and creative.

M: Would you say that barkcloth is your favourite material to work with?

J: Absolutely! It is my favourite cloth to work with - it has elements that allow me to make sculptural clothing with stunning silhouettes. It has allowed me as an artist to express myself and go beyond expressing myself to using it as my primary material. Originally, I thought I was just going to make it work alongside other conventional materials, but now I have found that what it's doing is allowing me to use it to be the action for change. It is totally sustainable and the best ambassador for sustainability, so I can use it to tell the story of change. So, I'm not just pushing it to the forefront of fashion for fashion's sake; it actually is the symbol that I'm using to create the change, which is really exciting.

M: Where can these barkcloth trees be found?

J: These trees are found in Uganda, specifically in the centre. People in Uganda call it a 'Mutuba' tree, and I prefer to use this term instead of the scientific name, as it serves to engage the community and root it within the culture. The tree goes back for many, many years, where it grew all over Uganda and beyond into Kenya, DRC, going down all the way to Zimbabwe. We know that barkcloth has been made in all these places, as well as Malawi and Zambia. However, with the introduction of Christian missionaries and colonisation, the traditional methods were pushed aside and ostracised, and the trees were cut down in huge numbers - to the point that it almost destroyed the whole industry. I call it an industry because to the locals, it was - this was how they paid for and purchased things, and it could be used for anything from bridal wear to bedding down. If you had bark, you were considered to be wealthy. If you had a plantation with ten or more bark trees, you were considered very wealthy. They did have livestock, but they predominantly used their cows for milk and were never dependent on the leather from their cows. Bark was what they used instead.

M: What properties does barkcloth have that makes it such a sustainable material?

J: The Mutuba tree that the barkcloth is made from is hugely beneficial to its environment. It's so valuable because it creates a brilliant ecosystem wherever it is, and all the plants that grow around it flourish. So, you can find it planted in plantations - not just in a forest of Mutuba trees - such as a banana or a coffee plantation, and some of the coffee that comes from these places where the barkcloth is made is the best coffee! There are so many positives to barkcloth; the tree is brilliant; it's good for the ecosystem and has a huge impact on the community. For example, when it's the dry season, the places where the Mutuba trees are growing is green. They are able to balance the water, so when it's the dry season, they release the water into the soil, and all the plants around it thrive. So that's why people always had these trees and looked after them; they recognised that the tree was valuable and helped the environment, creating the right conditions for their communities to thrive and grow. The barkcloth itself is also mosquito-repellant, so that really helped having it around the house. Also, in the barkcloth making process, they don't use any chemicals, so there is nothing that will harm the environment. Whatever water they use goes straight back into the ecosystem, and none is wasted.


Part 2 will be posted this Sunday !!

Figure 5: A José Hendo design from her ‘Signs of The Now’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.<br />
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Figure 5: A José Hendo design from her ‘Signs of The Now’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

Figure 6:A José Hendo design from her ‘Spontaneous’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

Figure 6:A José Hendo design from her ‘Spontaneous’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo.

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