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Q&A: Ali Hewson and Bono

WWD caught up with designer and her rock star husband to talk about Edun, their fashion label, African trade and those omnipresent sunglasses.

Ali Hewson and husband Bono celebrated Edun’s spring women’s show and the launch of the men’s “Pioneers Project” marketing campaign with a dinner at Harlem’s Red Rooster restaurant on Sunday. On hand for the crab cakes and mac ’n’ greens were Michael Stipe and Reeve Carney, along with personalities from the campaign like restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia, Make Something School founder Aaron Rose and Falling Whistles founder Sean Carasso. WWD caught up with Bono and Hewson for a talk about their fashion label, African trade and those omnipresent sunglasses.

WWD: What did you think of your wife’s show today?
Bono:
I’m not an expert on these things, and so I’m looking at it like a child. I’ve been to half-a-dozen fashion shows in my life. It’s a wonderful parade apart from everything else. What I did pick up, perhaps for the first time, was that the mission [of Edun] was in the shadow of the aesthetic, and that’s the way it should be. It’s strange to hear an activist like me say that. But Edun cannot be famous for its do-gooder sensibility. The vision has to be an aesthetic one. I thought the floral patterns with the African prints on top of them were incredible. But if I start talking about fashion, just thump me. Just come out and go bang. [Mimes punching himself.]

WWD: Why did you think the Edun model was a good way to accomplish some of your philanthropic goals?
Bono:
Aid, which I spend half of my life fighting for, is a stopgap. Trade is what takes people out of poverty. Africa faces a couple of big hurdles in the next few years. AGOA [the African Growth and Opportunity Act], which is a trade pact between the U.S. and the continent of Africa, runs out in September of next year. [AGOA expires in 2015, but the special apparel provision expires next September.] Unless Africa starts to produce its own high-level fabrics and improves quality of production, many, many factories will close. That’s the worry. Now the opportunity is open-ended. This is a continent that by 2050 will dwarf any other continent in population. Its richness is well known, under the ground. We just need to get it into the people’s hands. The tools to do that are creativity and commerce. We want to be a part of that.
Hewson: Really what we wanted to do was to work on the ground in Africa. Bono was working on a macro level with governments and debt cancellation. We wanted to see how the policies translate to factories and the ordinary worker and their daily lives. It’s such an incredible continent, so sexy and bright, and they want the jobs. Every one percent of world trade accounts for $155 billion in trade. That’s four times what sub-Saharan Africa gets in a year in aid.

WWD: It’s interesting that you always emphasize that Edun is a for-profit company.
Hewson:
This is not a charity. It’s a business. This is a for-profit company. A lot of people don’t get that about Edun. This is trade. We can do this, and everybody can do this in Africa.

WWD: Some people would say that fashion is superficial. How do you reconcile that with the very high-minded goals you work toward in Africa?
Hewson:
The fashion industry is often considered superficial, but it’s actually a huge employer as an industry. It’s the first industry in any country that is developing, so it’s very important. And it’s important that we do it right.

WWD: Obviously, you have so many things going on in your life, but in what specific ways are you involved in Edun as a company?
Bono:
I’m on the board. I look over the mission stuff. Ali told me that 37 percent of the collection you saw today is made in Africa. And that’s real fashion pieces, not jeans and T-shirts. That’s a massive achievement.

WWD: Is Bono involved at all in the creative process?
Hewson:
We don’t let him near the clothes. That’s the only stipulation. [Laughs.] But he’s an amazing sounding board. It’s always great to get his opinion.

WWD: How much of your time do you spend on Edun?
Hewson:
The energy and commitment in fashion is huge. The show today is wonderful, but it’s really about the nine months of work that everyone has put into it. It’s an amazing chain when you see it all come together for that 20 minutes. But what I try to tell my kids when they are hating playing guitar or piano is that when they see someone play onstage, and the crowd applaud them, they aren’t applauding just because they can play that piece. They are applauding for the hours of work they spent learning it. And I’ve learned the fashion industry demands that. I think it’s the toughest business there is.

WWD: What about your own personal style — how has that evolved over the years?
Bono:
I’m not sure I have any.

WWD: Well, your sunglasses have become a signature for you.
Bono:
You need something to hide behind when in your songs you’ve left yourself no place to go. Our songs are very operatic, very raw, very personal. There’s a couple of reasons why I wear my sunglasses. One of them is that it gives me a one-step remove from people I don’t know. [Looks at reporter and laughs.]

WWD: Where do you get your sunglasses from?
Bono:
Armani. We have a very deep relationship with Mr. Armani. He’s been very good to me.

WWD: Now that you’ve just finished three years of the “U2 360˚ Tour,” you’re going to have some more free time. What are you going to do with it?
Bono:
I don’t do free time very well. But Johnny Cash was once asked when he was happiest and he replied, “Walking barefoot in my backyard.” And I’m going to do that, a little bit of that.

WWD: Are you working on a new album?
Bono:
All of that.