In the late 80’s and early 90’s, designer Tereneh Mosely, founder and CEO of the  brand Idia’Dega, had a philosophy and vision:

“We need to connect the civil rights movement with the environmental movement and start working together now to be on the agenda as we start shaping environmental policy … we can be at the forefront of it instead of trying to play catch-up.”  

Believe it or not, environmental justice belongs at the heart of many discussions surrounding civil rights and equality… just as much as sustainability belongs in pertinent conversations throughout the fashion industry. In an exclusive interview for MelaninASS, Tereneh Mosely ignited a fashion conversation with facts about environmental racism; how black people’s neighborhoods are being polluted with poisonous food and water (Sounds a lot like Flint, Michigan … but we’ll save that for another article). And although communities of color are playing “catch up” with regards to environmental stability, there are creative nomads such as Tereneh who are pillars for the environmental and cultural conservation. 



Let us start with sustainability… How do you define sustainability?

Sustainability is two-fold: 1) sustaining nature and 2) sustaining human beings, humanity and human creativity.

We have to make sure that we sustain each other and ourselves so that we are looking out for how things are made, why things are made where they’re made and who makes them … and what’s the point. It’s a continuum! Whoever you are & wherever you are, you can push yourself to be more sustainable.

Looking at indigenous cultures and people of color … looking at communities who are ignored – there’s so much value, knowledge and information within those communities. We have to sustain that knowledge and each other or else there’s no point in moving forward. I’m concerned about, even within the world of sustainability that in the 21st Century, people aren’t concerned about a real diverse mix of people (income, race, culture, religion). In order for us to really be sustainable, we have to sustain our own biodiversity of humanity and not just plants and animals.


Do you consider yourself a “sustainable” designer?

I like using the term “sustainable” because of the way I define sustainability.  I’m trying to expand the definition of sustainable so I want to make that a primary part of the conversation.  It needs to be discussed and up front especially because with the collaborations with the Maasia, there’s so many trigger words (Africa, sustainable, etc.) that people automatically start to imagine what it is they are about to see.  So to be able to use those terms and then change the way that they view all those things is a great part of my process.   When people think of Africa, they think big, bright African prints but instead with my work, they see a red or black gown. It becomes part of the presentation as well as expanding what sustainable fashion really can be.



How do you see the future of sustainable fashion?

Unfortunately right now, I feel like it’s a bit stagnant.  People have become so addicted to fast fashion and expecting really cheap clothing. When it comes to sustainability, people are thinking about every other aspect of their lives: transportation, food, etc.  Here, it’s hard to resist that really cool $20 shirt that looks like something you just saw in street style guide.  You see bits and pieces in the mainstream but it seems like an “ACCESSORY” still – I’ll do this thing on the side, but it’s not fundamentally changing the fashion industry and I’m not sure when/if it’s actually going to change. 

The future innovation is going to be more about textiles that can do things – heat up and cool us down and it’s going to be technology & textiles.  The biggest potential sustainable thing might be textiles that you don’t wash- that don’t need water to wash with.  Plant-based textiles that I’m using, probably won’t be the thing that changes the industry to be more sustainable. Water is going to be the biggest luxury in the world. To shift for the mass consumer to really see a difference and to see sustainable fashion become as a big chunk of the market as it needs to be, I think that’s going to be more technology based.


What does FAIRTRADE mean for you and the women you work with:

There are 36 women in our Collective and fairtrade is a creative business partnership where all the women benefit. The Collaboration process creates benefits for the women in 3 ways:

  1. Design consultancy fee- so that they have money as we’re coming up with the design ides

  2. Sample creation – everyone works on a sample & they get paid for that. All of the costs are decided about collectively// women decide how much they get paid

  3. Sales


How do you feel about CULTURAL APPROPRIATION?

My goal is to have or create an Indigenous Quality Label that says something like, “The creation of this design by a Maasi Collective … This has not been appropriated” LOLI want a stamp of approval or Intellectual innovative seal! There needs to be some way to give creative credit and economic development to the indigenous people.

It’s impossible not to be inspired by a lot of different things. Indigenous design is timeless and there’s a reason why designers all over the world keep reaching to indigenous populations for inspiration. The problem is when people don’t give creative credit and economic benefit to cultures who created it … especially when you’re a brand that has the financial resources to reach back and support – often these are impoverish peoples.  That does a disservice to you as a designer! Acknowledge where it’s from and give some economic benefit to the people who created it.  Respect the people, the sacred materials and only create work that they feel is worth showing.  If I have a really great idea for a design and the Maasi women say “no”, then it’s not going to be done.  That’s a partnership!

Part of the issue too, is that not too many designers are going to be willing to sit in a hut for a month or two and learn about a culture.


How has the creative process been for you?

Before we design we have to understand: What’s the overall story? Who’s going to where it? Where are they going to wear it? Is it easy to pack? Etc.

When I’m designing the collection myself, I source from Pickering International, aSan Francisco based sustainable textile company with great fabrics. But the collaborations are a much more elaborate process!  In the beginning, I discovered that the women couldn’t write – most didn’t go to school.  They never have even held a pencil in their hand.  Along with the language barrier that was my greatest challenge.  I eventually adapted to their “draping” method … I don’t mean draping in terms of fabric but draping in the sense that you just start making things.  The way that they make the bracelets – they drape with beads …. Freestyle.

There was a lot of back and forth between design, sketching & their “draping” method …And lot of times, things don’t work out..  It’s the beauty of the creative process and sometimes you’re going to fail.


So tell me about your next collection, what awesome surprises do you have in store?

My latest collection Fall 2016 “Autumal”, was a solo collection but the previous collections, Tomon and Eni,  were collaborative in every aspect: the jewelry, the shoes, accessories, clothing. What I’ve done based on my experience with the Maasi community – I had to spend a fair amount of time in the community without knowing if they would work with me and I had to build up that level of trust and knowledge.

My next collection is a Native American collaboration. Before asking anyone to work with me – I spent as much time as I could, learning.  From the Summer – December I went to every major Native American Cultural Center I could find and every nation within the Haundenosaunee Confederacy, and spent time there.  (NY, Connecticut & Pennsylvania) 

It was such an emotionally wonderful trip and I still can’t really wrap my head around it.  When I started reading Native American stories and learned more about their culture, specifically the Iroquois Confederation and Haundenosaunee people.

I started having dreams every night. I would have vivid dreams every night and it still continues to this day.  I don’t know if there’s a connection but I think there is.  I just don’t know what it means. Looking at things, reading stories, talking to people, I was just constantly moved and affected. I can’t really describe it or explain it … it was just so great.  It changed me… I want to be worthy of working with them so I’m still working on it!

I’m not sure what the collection is going to look like but the goal is to have a Maasi and Haundenosaunee collaboration show in September (Spring 2017 Collection).


What are you final thoughts, what message do you want to tell the world?

As a BLACK WOMAN, particularly, there’s this assumption of who we are and what we do and what we can do, where our beauty lies and where our intellect is and all these different things and it’s generally lower expectations based on fear. People actually know that we represent that origins of humanity and it intimidates people.  I want people who keep getting ignored to be really powerful in this next century.

I want US to be really powerful and get our due respect.




TERENEH MOSELY is a Pittsburg-based designer who has been collaborating with the Olorgesailie Maasai Women Artisans of Kenya since 2008.  Plant-based textiles and indigenous adornment is the aesthetic foundation and inspiration. Her originality stems from obtaining inspiration abstractly - thinking about the emotional feeling and not staying stuck on the literal. 


Learn more about Tereneh Mosely and Idia’Dega