A promising fashion future is on the horizon for Africa’s largest country, Sudan — a culturally rich and diverse nation with a budding contemporary fashion scene. The Northeast African country’s modern history with fashion, particularly textiles, dates back to 1945 when the first modern textile factory was established using the country’s abundant, locally produced cotton. Today, young Sudanese designers are emerging and are reclaiming their narrative through their craft and Eilaf Osman, FTA Prize 2022 Accessories winner is here to prove just that.

Who is Eilaf Osman?

Hi! I am Eilaf Osman, the founder and creative director of my eponymous brand EILAF. I consider myself a researcher and connector as I try to connect my Sudanese heritage with the rest of the world by showcasing artisanal Sudanese craftsmanship.

It’s Eilaf Osman’s world and we’re just living in it. What would this world look like?

It would be a world full of color, where people would come together and enjoy traditional meals and coffee ceremonies full of song and dance as we celebrate different cultures and identities. I find so much beauty in learning about marginalized and fringe cultures that are often not celebrated enough publicly and I hope my research and design center can contribute to this vision in a small part of the world someday. 
Eilaf Osman
Eilaf Osman

How and why did you start your brand?

I started my brand after always coming back to university with leather bags from Souk Omdurman in Sudan. My friends would love the bags and we would often shoot the looks for my university arts and fashion magazine which I was the Editor-inChief of at Stanford. I realized that our generation was so excited about seeing artisanal craftsmanship that is not easy to access in the Western market and would try to bring back as many pieces to give out to friends that really valued the art coming out of Sudan.

I started my brand after two subsequent events happened in my life: an internship at the Emilio Pucci Heritage House and the Sudanese people’s revolution in 2019. After the revolution, there was this burst of art expression happening all around the country and that momentum was infectious as I started being inspired to go around the country to learn about different tribal art motifs. Around the same time, I had just completed an internship in Florence at the Emilio Pucci Heritage House and I was consistently thinking about how to use Sudanese and East African heritage in luxury fashion to bring something new to the market. And so, with the closure of public life in 2020, I went back to my family’s home in the countryside in the US and used this time to start designing and reaching out to manufacturers to really experiment with what a contemporary Sudanese handbag prototype would look like.

Walk us through your creative process.

My creative process always starts by being in Sudan or Uganda and exploring different tribal art motifs. Usually that means visiting different art galleries to discover young and emerging artists coming from the regional states of Sudan or traveling to the different areas myself and working directly with the local artisans. I allow the different tribal art stories to guide my designs instead of forcing them into a design that does not highlight the motif.

Has your upbringing impacted the way you design and view design?

My parents always focused on developing critical thinking and a strong voice of opinion since I was in my young toddler years. This had me questioning everything around me as I lived back and forth between the US and Sudan. I constantly thought about the contrasts in cultures and voiced my opinions on what I felt was wrong and right. This young conviction has helped me design with more confidence and not be a perfectionists when developing samples.

Who would you say is the brand’s muse?

My brand’s muse is Amy Sall. She is the founder and editor of SUNU African journal that focuses on concepts of critical thought, aesthetics, and the African Gaze when examining African diaspora behavior. She also has an urbane and sophisticated sense of style that gives a nod to her place of living in the contemporary West and admiring African aesthetics.

What are the challenges you’ve come across thus far?

My main challenges have been gaining access to the fashion industry and getting my bags stocked in key retailers globally that would help increase my brand exposure.

The world is ending and you have one Eilaf bag to save. Which one would it be and why? 

My heart is always with the black Medani because it was my first prototype. I feel like it fits the brand’s style perfectly of capturing contemporary city vibes but also showing the intricate coil stitch weaving so prominent in East Africa.

Eilaf Osman
Eilaf Osman

What expectations did you have before launching Eilaf? & how have they manifested into the real world?

I truly believed that the world would fall in love with East African art if showcased in a new modern way. I feel like the reception to my capsule collection has been great so far by customers, the Sudanese diaspora, and of course the FTA family!

The fashion industry is currently very saturated. What would you say is key to standing out?

People always say staying true to yourself is key to standing out. I think now more than ever it is difficult to have original thoughts and feelings with how much the social media algorithm controls what we see and how we feel. So for me it is important to feel my creative energy engaged by going to museums, studying art and fashion history, and connecting with young designers.

How do you feel after winning the FTA 2022 Prize?

I am still in complete disbelief that I won the FTA 2022 Prize! I felt like I was the underdog going into the competition since I have the youngest brand and what I do is so different from what is being made in the accessories category today. I am so excited to build the brand now with a proper strategy and develop strategic retail partners to build the brand’s exposure globally.

What are your plans for the future? 

My current plans are to refine the brand’s visual direction to really capture this delicate balance between contemporary and modern style but keeping the African nostalgic aesthetic as the DNA of the brand. I also want to continue developing more designs that show even more intricate East African craftsmanship as a challenge to me as a designer and to my weavers as artisans.