Eco-sustainable fashion designer José Hendo specialises in barkcloth, an ancient non-woven Ugandan fabric. Barkcloth is made from the bark of the Mutuba Tree (Ficus Natalensis), is biodegradable, organic and manufactured without the use of chemicals. In 2005 it was proclaimed by UNESCO part of the world’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
We visited José’s studio to have a chat, where we were joined by one of her clients Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma. When Winnie first visited José she found her first barkcloth collection at the back of a garment rail. ‘What is it doing here? Get it out!’ She told her, ‘This is what you need to focus on.’
José explained ‘I love creating and working with a cloth that’s ancient to man. As an artist I’m able to express myself through this cloth. This is my therapy.’
Before starting her own sustainable clothing label, José was an established bridalwear designer. She has designed wedding garments for clients including the Princess of Tooro. ‘That was a high moment. I even named a dress after her.’
Despite her accomplishments, José realised she couldn’t carry on in the fashion world without finding deeper meaning. ‘With bridalwear, everything is prim and proper and perfect, but for just that one day.’
‘I was not happy to go on with what I was doing unless it meant something. It had to leave a positive impact on society… I realised through my research how wasteful we are. The throwaway culture. Fast fashion.’
She decided to go back to university to try to find out how she could make a difference through her work. ‘That’s how I came up with the idea of sustainable by design.’
José’s mantra is ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle (R^3).’
‘“Reduce” underpins everything. You reduce the impact, the wastefulness, the labour, energy and spend. Everything is affected by the choices we make, so when you start designing that’s when you make that decision to design something that makes a difference.’
She explained the five important factors when it comes to thinking sustainably.
1. Reduce, reuse, recycle
2. Ethical (supply chain recognition)
3. Timelessness (multi-purpose pieces)
4. Natural fibres (organic, eco-textiles, recycled)
5. Produced locally (price point)
José explains that one of the best things about barkcloth is that it can be harvested annually for up to sixty years without killing the tree. The bark is stripped from the tree, and the tree is wrapped to protect it and enable it to generate another bark ready for harvest the following year. The stripped bark then goes through a process of softening with heat and steam, beating, stretching and pulling and is then dried in the sun.
José explained that she set up her NGO, Bark To The Roots (B2TR), three years ago to increase usage of barkcloth internationally, connect the growers and processors with other people who work with barkcloth and encourage more Mutuba Tree planting. She told us ‘The ecosystem where these trees are is in great balance. Where they cut them down it’s destroyed.’
‘We’re connected to the community that has kept this tradition alive and they can also see where we’re taking it and that their efforts are not wasted. They get the full benefit. There’s no middle man. The man who makes the barkcloth is the one who gets the money.’
The cloth is very significant in Uganda. One of its main uses was as a burial cloth due to properties that enable it to mummify the body. Prior to this it was used in the home, worn as clothing by everyone, and later by healers and members of the Ugandan royal family. It was once used as a barter system instead of money.
José showed her line at the first Kampala Fashion Week in Uganda which was followed by her own show, Bark To The Roots, in the Uganda Museum.
Winnie explained that José’s designs were so avant-garde and contemporary that people didn’t realise that it was barkcloth. ‘No one had ever done anything like that before, making it accessible outside of Uganda – she has taken it to another level which is phenomenal.’
José’s latest collection, Signs of the Now, takes inspiration from her previous seasons. ‘Signs of the Now is a way of saying that we have to stop being wasteful now. I will have things on that runway that will make people stop and think: “that’s definitely too much plastic,” or “landfill space is running out.”’
‘The oceans are crying out, the forests have been chopped down and this has created an ecosystem that’s no longer balanced,’ she continues. ‘No matter where you are in the world you get effected by this… We’re not safe wherever we are. Signs of the Now is saying we have to see the signs for what they are, take them on board, react to them and realise that we can’t carry on the way we are. I knew this 18 years ago, and I know it now more than ever.’
‘Think about a cotton T shirt that’s less than the price of a cup of coffee. Who made that T shirt? Who planted that cotton? Did they get paid the right money for that cotton? Communities are dying because of the pesticides used in growing the cotton. It affects their whole ecosystem because it’s around the food that they eat. It’s in the air. Then you use the T shirt one summer and you throw it in the bin because it was so cheap. Who is making the money? Something is wrong here. I’m not saying things should be very expensive, but we need to be mindful that behind every object that we see, there is a life that matters.’
José told us that barkcloth allows her to create crazy shapes. ‘It can be quite rigid but then it can be quite soft. Sculpture is my thing. It’s really good structure wise. It’s the way you cut it, the way you put it together. You can mould it into shape.’
Her barkcloth pieces are also displayed across the world, including in Uganda Museum, World Culture Museum in Sweden, FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in LA, Charles H Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit and World Culture Museum, Frankfurt. Her work is soon to be on display in the British Musuem and in the Cultures of the World exhibition at Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne.
As well as the barkcloth, José says that her heritage is one of her influences. ‘I grew up in a family of nine where we never wasted anything, so that’s intrinsically part of who I am.’
All of José’s clothes are manufactured in her studio in Tottenham so that she can ‘make sure that nothing goes to waste.’ José says: ‘I have to be part of the whole process and I think it’s important to bring back this tradition of “Made in England” because I think we’ve lost that. The price is going to be more but you know the person who made it is contributing to your society. Why are we taking our work abroad when we could have all these jobs here?’
José started a garment construction workshop in Coombes Croft Library, near the stadium, which is now continued by someone else. She also provides two to three month internships to young people who want to get into the industry. ‘By the time they leave they’ve taken on our ethos and our way of thinking.’
José believes that young people are the most important when it comes to educating people about sustainability. ‘If it’s introduced in schools as part of their learning, in textiles and art. They can take it on board and work with it.’
This article first appeared in the Fashion & Beauty issue of Discovering Tottenham which was released in September 2018.