Ali's other Eden
Her glamour is the only thing that singles her out as a rock star's wife. Otherwise, Mrs Bono is understated and modest, a full-time mother of four determined to do her bit to alleviate the suffering in the third world. On the launch of her new clothing label, Edun, Ali Hewson talked to John Masterson.
Her glamour is the only thing that singles her out as a rock star's wife. Otherwise, Mrs Bono is understated and modest, a full-time mother of four determined to do her bit to alleviate the suffering in the third world. On the launch of her new clothing label, Edun, Ali Hewson talked to John Masterson
JUST as we are saying our hellos, Ali Hewson's mobile beeps. It is a text message from her teenage daughter Jordan with the results of the school hockey game. Jordan, she informs me, beaming with pride, has just been involved in organising a school fair that raised ?11,000 for a school for Aids orphans in Uganda. She didn't lick that off the ground.
In 1985, Ali and her husband Bono went to Ethiopia for six weeks and neither of them has really left it ever since. "I think I was hooked on Africa when I was a kid," she tells me. "I was eight or nine when we got a television, and the images were of African famine. At that age it makes a huge impression on you. Then when Live Aid happened it was hard to believe that Africa hadn't moved on."
She remembers Live Aid fondly, particularly U2 stealing the show when Bono went wandering in the crowd.
"It was a big moment for U2. I had seen Bono do that before but he had never done it on such a grand scale with the rest of the band going, 'jeepers, where has he gone now?' That was always what was alluring about U2 as a live band. Bono was always trying to get down into the crowd and make that communication. The others used to give outto him!"
Twenty years and four children later, she rattles out the figures that tell the story of things getting worse in Africa, not better. The whole of Africa had 6 per cent of the world's trade in 1980. By 2002 that had dropped to 2 per cent, despite the fact that Africa has 12 per cent of the world's population. If they could get one per cent of the world trade back, that would be $70bn annually. At the moment they get $22bn in aid a year, so it would be worth three times as much. And if East Asia, South Asia and Latin America also increased by one per cent, that would lift 128 million people out of poverty.
Ali is one of those women whom people would look at across a crowded room even if she were not a well-known face. A comfortably sexy, modern, confident woman with a ready laugh, she is the sort of person you look forward to meeting - today, immaculately turned out in red-rimmed glasses, a grey Balenciaga cardigan ("Spanish, I think") and Edun jeans. She hands me the Edun 'look' book and I am sure I am not the only male who had no idea such a thing as a look book existed. But you need it to get an idea of this new range of clothes, which will be in Brown Thomas this month with prices from ?50 to ?300. Edun is a complete collection for men and women, including a range of chiffon dresses, elegant knit jersey tops, and the denim she is sporting. She is excited about this new venture, which has been two years in the planning.
"The clothes are about people who have a confidence. They are elegant, but in an easy way, an easy, confident sexuality. Not bling." She sums up the ethos of the Edun brand as having respect for the people who make the product, the place where they make it, the materials used, and the consumer.
Ali and Bono have teamed up with American Rogan Gregory, who designed the Edun range.
"Rogan is a great guy who makes 'distressed' jeans ripped with a high price point. Sharon Blankson [U2's stylist] wanted to see him for the band, and I went with her, and when we got there he had lots of organic cotton lying around. One of the things Bono and I felt about this business was that it was all very well to try and create a socially responsible clothing company but it wasn't going to work unless the designs were great. Then our job would be to try and make the story of the clothes known. We went back with Bono, and Rogan was totally into it. He wanted to go in that direction but he needed what we could bring to the table to expand."
Ninety per cent of the clothes are made in the developing world to his designs, in places like Peru and Tunisia, and they are just setting up in Lesotho, where Ali had been last week.
"Butha-Buthe is a little town with 50 per cent unemployment and 30 per cent Aids, 50,000 people and only one factory. We have taken over an old brewery andwill be employing a few hundred. It's run by two fabulous African women who had worked in the textile industry in Maseru. Those women were travelling four hours plus a day and this has enabled them to spend more time with their kids.
"One of the most pressing things they need is a well at the school, and that is one of the first things we are going to get Edun to do. At the moment they are using the rain- water off the roof."
While Edun is a company run for profit, they intend to stay closely linked to the communities they work in. This is in sharp contrast to the empty factories which Ali has seen in the third world with machinery and people idle because "the clothing industry will switch country to save 20 cents on a T-shirt".
"Edun really came out of Bono's trips to Africa andhis very strong impression that the country needed trade more than aid. They don't want to be reliant oncharity for their basic needs.They want to be able to provide their own healthcareand education."
"We are trying to develop a business model that other people can copy, and show that you can produce clothes with a healthy profit and treat people properly. That is what they want. We say we are setting up a company and they ask is it for profit, and they say, 'thank God'. They want to be seen as viable."
The name Edun is a bit of a play on words. It is 'nude' backwards, and sounds like the garden of Eden and suggests a return to nature and the outdoors. I wonderedwas it always one of her passions to found her ownfashion label.
"No, I was kind of anti-fashion as a kid. Apart from not being able to afford what was fashionable, I didn't like the idea of being told what to wear. And I was a tomboy anyway," she laughs.
"The reason I like clothes now is that I am more comfortable with myself and I am happy to wear what I want to wear. I still wouldn't rush out to buy something because it was fashionable. It would probably put me off. I preferto wear something thatsays something about me." When did she really begin to feel at ease with herself?
"I think funnily enough after I became a mother. I became more confident. It gave me a sense of being more complete as a person. It was always something I wanted and I did have a strong desire. It goes with hormones. I remember that in my early 20s, and then I got involved in other things. I had Jordan when I was 28."
Talk of motherhood leads to her own parents. Last timeI bumped into her, she and Bono were celebrating her mother's birthday, and she clearly adores her mother.Ali is the younger of twochildren, her brother Ian living in Australia.
"He has two boys. My mum and dad miss him a lot, but it means I get more of them! My mum and dad are an incredible couple together. They will be 50 years married next year.
"I grew up wanting to be half as good a mother as my mum. If I could do that I would be pleased with myself. And it is my most important role. Whatever about the clothing business or whatever else, it is the one area I don't want to fail in. It is very important if you can, not to fail as a parent. Obviously you are not perfect, but if I thought that my kids were suffering because of the other stuff that I do, then I would change it. And I have learned far more from them than I could ever teach them, which has been a huge lesson. They are an incredible grounding element in both of our lives. Especially the teenagers."
FROM the time they were in primary school the older ones realised their family was a bit different, and she gives credit to the school for how grounded they are now.
"They have really good friends since they were little, before anybody cared whose daddy was who, or what size your house was. They just take it all in their stride and would still rather stay in their friends' houses. They are aware of it but it is not an issue on their radar.
"We were all down in South Africa last year, which was the children's first time there. We took them to a township where they met this woman who is looking after about30 kids with Aids; tiny babies in the kitchen and older ones sleeping in a lean-to. Andwe took them to a clinic where there is this doctor who talked about how difficult it is to 'play God' and decide whogets what drugs they have, and who will be most diligent about taking them, and whois the one who will be most likely to survive. So theyare very aware of the scale ofthe problem.
"It is important to us that we don't raise kids that don't have our values. We were fortunate enough to come from very loving backgrounds. It is important to us that they have all the back-up they need from us as parents. And that they understand the value of money at the same time."
Some of those values, she thinks, come just from being Irish, and she remembers from 1985 in Ethiopia being shocked by the number of Irish people there. "Concern were all over the place, and Goal. It seems to be that everywhere there is a disaster, Irish people come out of the woodwork and they are there trying to fix things."
And what is it abouther own mother thatshe admires?
"My mum is very in touch with reality, very loving, very grounded, very responsible - everything you would want a parent to be. Oh, and a great cook. They were both very dedicated and committed to the two of us. You know what my dad bought my mum for her 65th birthday? A cement mixer. That is what they do. They cement. I think they are cementing the whole of Wexford. They are making patios and I don't know what. They have more energy than I do. My dad always knows what is going on in the world. Always on top of everything. And in the meantime, my mum is out there mixing cement! And she used to make all of my clothes when I was a kid."
Talk of family, parents, motherhood and children brings up the pain she has seen Bono go through since his father died.
"I realise now what an upheaval that is and it goes on for quite a few years. It is hard to watch someone you love in that kind of pain. And it is painful. There is no way around it. You can hear it in the songs - and I think Bono finally laid his father torest when the new albumcame out.
"In the early days there was an incredible bond with Larry, who lost his mum tragically when he was 16, and Bono had just lost his mother a couple of years before. They were really close, almost like brothers for a long time."
And U2, one of the family businesses, still turns her on as she reels off tour dates from memory and looks forward to the younger children, Eli, 5, and John, 3, having their first outing at Croke Park.
"The first date is March 28 in San Diego and it is a nervous time because it is a big thing to do, and I think that every time they do it they are as nervous as the first time they went on stage. There is more expectation, and I will be just as nervous."
One suspects she will be attired in the new family range, and if she has her way, there will be Edun sprinkled though the many ages that make up a U2 gig these days. She thinks they have got the right concept, the right feel, and at the right time.
"People are actually creating the demand for the clothes we are making. We want to wear something that not only makes us look good but makes us feel good. It is important for us to make the story of our clothes as great as the design.
"Times have changed and people realise that they are not going to be able to change the world they live in byburning an effigy at thepalace gates. The revolution is happening in your house, in your purse, in your wallet,in how you spend your money. This is another way of getting your point across. Shoppingis politics."