Sewasew Design - Reimagining Traditional Ethiopian Apparels


Ethiopia is a country with more than 80 nations and nationalities with their own unique culture to be represented in many ways, one of which is clothing. Traditional clothing has been a distinction among different ethnicities in Ethiopia. We can find meaning in every design of their clothing; its color, patterns, or choice of material. On the other hand, modern attire has influenced most urban areas. The lack of fashionability and practicality in traditional clothes are the main reasons behind it. Designer Sewasew Hailu was inspired to jump in and promote our culture.

Named after its founder, Sewasew Design was founded nearly 18 years ago by Designer Sewasew Hailu, a passionate and artistic designer. Sewasew is a self-taught designer; she picked it up from her grandmother. She saw that the traditional clothing industry had not evolved much, so she set out to pursue her passion through Sewasew.

Her journey began with buying one sewing machine and quitting her day job. To get some inspiration she went to different fashion shows and saw what she could potentially provide to the public in the form of traditional clothing. After preparing her first few clothes, she advertised her product by having friends and family wear them in their neighborhoods as a show of her talent. That led to a shop opening around Bole with 15 employees at the workshop.  

In a short period, Sewasew's products were loved by many, and her business boomed. She toured the world to exhibit her product, weaving cultural stories with every cloth she made. There was a time when she tried to showcase the traditional coffee ceremony of Ethiopia, starting from the planting of the seed to the final product itself in a single dress. She kept working on promoting Ethiopian culture around the world's most renowned fashion stages. Displaying her work in countries such as the USA, France, and Germany.

In the winter of 2010, she made clothes inspired by the season. During this time in Ethiopia, people frequently wore a handmade blanket woven out of four layers of cotton called "Gabi." Sewasew fashioned coats and hoodies from this emblem of Ethiopian culture. The collection was soon released at Hilton Hotel and was quickly able to mesmerize the global audience. Soon after, Sewasew's products became the choice of gifts both locally and abroad.

Despite the artistic and creative endeavors of Sewasew, she was not one for business. The trading side of the company was not well-managed, and it led it to the brink of bankruptcy. All the bank loans, rent bills, and other expenses came knocking on the front door. The bank sold the family car as it as collateral for the loan the company had taken. The family lost almost everything related to the company and the rippling effect of the loss started affecting her personal life. The irony was that she was being named one of the top ten designers in Ethiopia by different media and websites when everything took a turn for the worst.

The Resurrection

In those dark times, everyone the company owed money was edging toward suing. Lucky for Sewasew Design, the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced. Shortly after the lockdown, the government prohibited the evacuation of tenants, ordered landlords to reduce rent by half, and banks to seize collecting the debt. This proclamation saved the company and gave Designer Sewasew room to breathe.

Watching his mom in distress and the company she’s passionate about go underwater, Ablenae Dawit, joined Sewasew Design to help resurrect the company. By looking back at those dreadful years, he tried to analyze what went wrong and how to fix it. He drawbacks in the business model and came up with ways to fix them. He mobilized the company's resources to make masks and helped correct their deficit. Ablenae quit his job and started to sell those masks in the neighborhood after his mom had made them. The cash from the mask sale helped them pay off urgent debts and bought them some time to pay the rest.

Around the end of the COVID-19 lockdown, Ablenae rebuilt the business by integrating the core values of the business with contemporary design. He thought of the 2010 Winter collection by his mother and found ways to standardize them in size and color. The company didn't have stores to sell their products and only worked from their workshops. After borrowing the necessary equipment, Ablenae went to Entoto to take some photo shoots to advertise the clothing online. 

Instead of renting a space and opening a store, he believed his Digital Marketing skills would come in handy, and he could directly deliver the products to customers. 

Ablenae started taking the clothes to different souvenir shops and malls to sell them. To maximize his customer base, he also sold the items to people on the street. This action grabbed a lot of attention and Sewasew was able to tell their story on social media. They had an e-commerce website and launched their products. To this day, 90% of their sales are online. 

Two years later, Sewasew Design has around 20 female employees and makes around 40 jackets per day. Looking back at the difficult times and how the company survived, we can see that it has come a long way. Being an outsider to the industry and having a different perspective on matters has helped Ablenae with the company's success.

Sewasew Design aims to export its products, and start a weaving center to make the fabrics from scratch. This will increase the quality and ensure additional business opportunities. The long-term goals include building an infrastructure for the craftsmanship industry by expanding the business. They believe many jobs will be created and lives improved.

The Employees

Sewasew Design employees are women, two of which are disabled and most of which are single moms. The company used to employ men, but they saw how the women outperformed them. Ablenae attributes it to their meticulousness. Even if not intentional, the female-oriented working environment stands with Sewasew's social impact.

The stories behind the employees catch the soul. One thing Ablenae learned from his mother is how empathy helps motivate employees. He told us that employees feel at home going to work and are passionate about what they do. Sincere care, support, and understanding are vital for the company to rise to greater heights.

The Mother-Son Duo

When joining the company, Ablenae needed to prove himself. He had to deliver on his promise of every new idea and decision he made. Keeping the spark in him and elevating his mom’s spirit was not easy, neither was running a company here in Ethiopia. There are countless obstacles one has to traverse. Staying motivated while things get tough takes a strong drive and discipline to continue in the business.

He always thought he would be a Digital Marketing Executive in a tech company and sit behind a desk working his magic. Instead, his life took a turn and pushed him to work with his mother, in the labor industry. Designer Sewasew, on the other hand, had first-hand experience in running a business and the hurdles to face. After watching her dream sink slowly, she took a leap of faith in her son’s ability to resurrect the company. They always thought of themselves as business partners from Monday to Saturday and as Mother and Son on Sundays.

Most people think going into business with family is difficult. However, if you believe everyone keeps the other's best interest at heart, disagreeing on perspectives could be what you need to succeed. Here, Designer Sewasew Hailu, Head of Design, and Ablenae Daiwt, CEO of Sewasew Design Company, are riding high in the fashion industry.

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