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Fish skin leather on the catwalks of Nairobi. Could Milan and New York be next?

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Blue Fashion on the runway in Nairobi.
Photo: ©FAO/Tato
In Kitale, fashion designer Jamil Waliji and Victorian Foods CEO James Ambani discuss the fish leather being used in the Blue Fashion show.
Photo: ©FAO/Tato
The mature Nile perch bought form the fishermen in Lake Turkana can reach lengths of up to 6 feet (1.85 meters). This makes it interesting for producing fish leather.
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The runway at the Blue Fashion show in Nairobi.
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The fileters – referred to as the “skinners” – at the Kitalae plant are extremely skilled at their jobs. Ths skins must be fileted perfectly in order to continue the processing into fish skin leather.

Necks crane as the lithe Kenyan models display their stylish dresses, purses and shoes at the Blue Fashion show taking place at Kenya’s Blue Economy Conference.

While unveiling new fashion designs always elicits curious attention from fashion show attendees, when that couture is designed from fish skin leather, fish scales and seaweed fabric, audience engagement reaches new levels.

Even seasoned fashion designers needed time to get their head around it. Kenyan fashion designer Jamil Waliji, Head designer at JW Couture, whose Blue Fashion designs were unveiled on the catwalk of Nairobi, was a complete newcomer to ocean- and lake-sourced fashion.

“I knew nothing about Blue Fashion until I was approached to take part in this fashion challenge,” according to Waliji. “I was told that the Commonwealth Fashion Council and FAO were involved, and that it would focus on sustainable fashion and saving the oceans, so I wanted to learn more … The more I learned, the more it surprised me that so few of my colleagues knew anything about it either, and they were intrigued when I began sharing my experiences working with fish skin.”

Prior to the Blue Fashion event, Waliji travelled to Kitale, in western Kenya to visit Victorian Foods – the site where the fish skin leather he was using for his designs was created. Victorian Foods CEO James Ambani first began buying Nile perch from Lake Turkana back in 2007. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest desert lake, on the border with Kenya and Ethiopia. Its remoteness makes it hard for the fishermen to get their fish to market. Kitale, the nearest large market town, is about 36 hours of driving over rough, dirt roads.

When Ambani started working with the fishing communities, he paid them for their catch and arranged to transport the perch via cold-storage trucks to Kitale, where it could be processed and shipped out to be sold as filets both in Kenya and abroad.

Since the fish is sold in filets, the skin was largely wasted. With fish of these sizes – mature Nile perch can reach up to 6 feet (1.85 meters) in length  –  that’s a lot of fish skin.  Ambani and his wife came up with a plan to make better use of that wasted fish skin, which was mostly buried as a fertilizer, a decision that could also add value to the Turkana fisherfolk communities who could earn more for their product.

“The idea started off with my wife exploring the possibilities of making fish leather out of it. Honestly, it sounded like a crazy idea to me at first. But we started out in phases. We received some training from a friend who knew a little bit about it. From there, we tried to process the leather with our slight knowledge. At first, it really didn’t turn out very well. But later on, we managed to get it right and to understand the formulas. My wife undertook some training in Singapore, learning how to perfect the fish leather production. And here we are.”

Today, Ambani’s factory produces fish leather that is shipped all over the world to be used in the design of shoes, purses, clothes – there’s even interest from the automobile industry to begin producing luxury interiors in fish leather. Fish leather can appear like snake or crocodile skin. But unlike those species, there are no restrictions in trading fish leather, which is generally a byproduct of food products, and therefore not endangered.

Importantly, fish leather and Blue Fashion can offer additional opportunities to add value and provide employment and bolster livelihoods for fisheries communities. This is one of the tenets of FAO’s Blue Growth Initiative, which seeks to balance the sustainable management of aquatic resources with economic and social benefits for local communities.

“Our Blue Growth Initiative has begun to look at Blue Fashion as an alternative income-generating activity for fisheries communities, especially for women and youth,” according to FAO’s Jackie Alder, FAO FishCode Manager. “This is something we consider carefully when we have communities that do a lot of fish processing, and we have fish skins and other parts of the fish left over. By having the opportunity to produce fashion products, such as fish skin leather, we have a real opportunity to generate new employment opportunities for those communities, and also to provide the fashion industry with alternatives for more sustainable material.”

Speaking at the Blue Fashion event, Sheena Frida Chiteri, Founder of the Strategic Fashion Development Consortium stressed this point. “We believe that the fashion industry must look at responsibility within the industry, and to build responsible value chains ... In the fashion sector, when we work with fish skin leather and Blue Fashion, we see tremendous gains for fisheries communities. There are significant opportunities for adding value to their fisheries harvest through expanding Blue Fashion activities.”

And how can designers not be inspired by this new, sustainable material? According to Kenyan designer Jamil Walji, “I was inspired to create garments with [the fish skin leather], to infuse the local fabric, the leso, with the fish skin and European materials. I wanted to bring out a combination that has never been done before … Just by sitting and feeling, it inspires you, the idea of joining them together to form a huge surface area to work on gives you ideas and motivates you to make something that’s totally different, because you would be looking at the edges and grain lines of the fish in order to make your design, and at the end of the day, these lines create your design lines, and enhance your look.”

Designer Deepa Dosaja, another Kenyan fashion designer whose works were unveiled at the Blue Fashion show, spoke about the creativity the material inspired. Her stunning. elegant dresses alternated fish skin leather with playful, eye-catching ruffles created with fish scales. “With the dresses we’re showing today, we dried and dyed fish scales and made use of those to embellish the dresses. I learned that sequins actually have detrimental effects on the environment, so I was interested to experiment with this sustainable, decorative option of fish scales and worked to make them look like decorative petals. Working with the fish leather was also a creative process. For these dresses, we mixed different colours and textures of fish leather, to provide a unique look to these creations.”

The event was a big hit in Nairobi. The fashion industry is the second most polluting sector in the world. Is there room for improvement? Could a sustainable Blue Fashion industry, one that prioritizes fish skin leather – much lighter and more resilient than cow leather – serve as a viable alternative to high-end fashion?

Another advantage of the fish skin pattern is that the look is governed by the grain of the fish skin, meaning that no two purses or dresses will ever be entirely the same – a uniqueness that is fully appreciated by fashion designers, and their clients.

The success of the Nairobi fashion show illustrated that there’s a very real interest in sustainable, lake and ocean-sourced fashion. Can Milan, Paris and New York be far behind on the Blue Fashion bandwagon?

Photo: © FAO/Tato
Kenyan fashion designer Deepa Dosaja unveiled her creations at the Blue Fashion show. Her stunning, elegant dresses alternated fish skin leather with playful, eye-catching ruffles created with fish scales.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
Women at the Kitale factory start the process of transforming the fish skin into leather.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
A Kenyan Fish Tale: Leather from fish harvested at Lake Turkana, processed into fish leather in Kitale, is shown on the catwalk in Nairobi.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
The Kitale factory has as its goal employing 60 percent women and young people as fish leather workers. They undertake training to learn to process fish leather.
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Kenyan designer Jamil Walji alongside models wearing his creations at the Nairobi Blue Fashion show.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
James Ambani of Victorian Foods displays the early stage of fish leather production, a stage known as “Wet Blue”. Many designers choose to purchase the skin at this phase so that they can dye and finish it themselves.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
These fish skin purses from Brazil are manufactured by designer Barbara della Rovere from sole leather, and produced by the wives of fishermen.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
At the Kitale factory, Nile perch at the “Wet Blue” phase of fish skin leather processing.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
These Scandinavian-designed fish skin leather and seaweed fabric gowns were winners of a Nordic Council Fashion Challenge that took place last year.
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Various Nile perch fish leather colours and finishing, at the Victorian Foods factory in Kitale, Kenya.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
Models preparing for the catwalk in Nairobi.
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Playful marine-inspired touches at the Blue Fashion show.
Photo: © FAO/Tato
It’s clear that Blue Fashion is a hit at the Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi.

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