Conquering the fashion world with barkcloth

For a moment, it is not easy to recognise what type of cloth Josephine Kyomuhendo is wearing on top of her shirt but it attracts curiosity. The cloth is a black neck detail won around her neck, like a collar, with an extended lobe. It is a piece of fine barkcloth.

José Hendo, as the fashion designer calls herself, chose barkcloth as her main fabric. Based in Tottenham, London, she runs a fashion house by the same names, which began operations in 2011.
From materials, to clever cutting and simplified production processes, the designer prides herself in quality, while aiming to stay relevant.

Environmentally conscious
Hendo’s designs are contemporary, edgy, tailored, timeless pieces. “Eco-sustainable fashion has moved from the fringe into mainstream fashion,” she says, adding that as a result, “It is important for eco-clothing companies to produce fashionable garments.

My dream is to make barkcloth work alongside mainstream fabrics.” The designer’s idea is to use eco-friendly fabrics, from organic barkcloth, cotton, and hemp, to create unique one-off pieces to make garments such as suits, denim and wedding dresses.

Hendo promotes the use of organic, eco-textiles and recycled material.

Using barkcloth
Hendo’s relationship with the local product, taken from trees in Masaka District, in central Uganda, began 15 years ago. A friend, Fred Kato Mutebi helps her collect the cloth and either exports it or takes it to London.

The designer chose to work with barkcloth because it is organic and she can harvest from the same tree for more than 60 years. Barkcloth is harvested from the inner bark of the Mutuba tree (ficus natalensis).

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognises barkcloth making as a century-old technique, one that is a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

Hendo did her research in recycling, at London School of Fashion. She wanted to find out what happened to garments when they are thrown away. In UK, she found that clothes are thrown in a ditch.

“I decided to do away with the throw-away culture. We design with a sustainable approach to everything. That is why I started looking to organic fabrics and found out about barkcloth,” she recounts.

Her lecturers were not happy about the dull colour of barkcloth but she was able to dye it and work with it. She has never looked back.

London Fashion Week
It is the dream of every designer to showcase at the London Fashion Week and through a strange twist events, Hendo got a chance to launch her label on the big stage.

“It is hard getting to showcase in the London Fashion Week. I am black and a woman. However, I work differently and that helps. I have my own way of thinking. I am not influenced by anything in fashion. I start concepts from scratch, from nature, sculpture, art, so my work is very individual. It is not a copy of anybody else’s work.”

Some of the organisers had heard about her work with barkcloth and imagery and they were looking for a designer to fill a gap because a South African designer could not make it.

“The organisers made inquiries with some people who knew me, and I was invited. When they saw my Resonance collection, they were happy to have me on the show.”

From then on, she has showcased in Vancouver, Berlin, Frankfurt, Madrid, and New York.

Kampala Fashion Week
Hendo’s show at the Kampala Fashion Week was telling because her designs were outstanding for the way she creatively fuses normal cloth with barkcloth.

She was happy to be returning home to share her experimentation, innovation and work. Everywhere she has showcased, whenever she was asked if people in Uganda know what she was doing with barkcloth and she said no. These queries encouraged her to bring her designs home.

“Last year I started the journey of coming back to the roots. That is when I met Fred (Mutebi) and we put together some people who work with barkcloth. It was exciting to see what they do with it. What was more exciting was Fred’s link to these communities, so being able to go back to them and learn from them became my mission.”

On her return trip, she has been able to plant trees, even adopting a tree. Whatever cloth is harvested from the tree will be hers.

The barkcloth she used in her collection at the Kampala Fashion Week, dubbed Identity My Way, was sourced from the same community – Bukomansimbi Organic Tree Farmers Association (BOTFA).

“At the show, I invited one of the barkcloth makers to show the audience what I do with the cloth and he was amazed. Many of them are paid very little money and are losing interest in the work. It is important to show them the worth of their hard work.”

She plans to tour with the same collection in Vancouver, Berlin and New York.

Her brands
Currently there are nine collections produced under the José Hendo label, inspired by the designer’s African background.
“Resonance is predominantly made from barkcloth,” she explains, adding that, “Eco-Bride is a mixture of barkcloth, up cycling and end-of-roll. Memories is primarily up-cycled and Contact S/S is made from organic cotton and hemp.”

Contact Deep is made from barkcloth and end-of-line fabrics (EOL). Infinity is made from bark and EOL denim. Spontaneous is made from bark, EOL silk, linen and cotton drill.
Identity is a collaboration with Eki Orleans made from bark, silk, EOL wool. Identity My Way is made from organic cotton and bamboo jersey, barkcloth, EOL cottons and up-cycling.”
Hendo’s keen eye and attention to detail, together with her character as a perfectionist, can be seen in the quality of the work produced. Little wonder, all garments are finished to an exacting standard.

This earned her the prestige of designing Princess Ruth Komuntale’s wedding gown.

Who she is
Josephine Kyomuhendo, was born in Uganda to Mr and Mrs Bahemuka, the third born in a family of nine children. She graduated from London College of Fashion, a constituent college of the University of the Arts, London.
She also attended the Paris American Academy, which offers courses in fashion, among others.