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How a Trip to Uganda Transformed Fashion Designer Susie Crippen’s Career

The J Brand co-founder is empowering the women of Uganda via her latest venture.

Susie Crippen Photography by Rachel Ambrose

Susie Crippen is on a mission. Striding through a color-soaked textile market in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, she makes for a strange blip among the bundles of batik and kitenge (traditional batik-dyed fabric worn by African women) fabrics that stretch from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Her cropped brown hair and casual Western look—jeans and a loose cotton tee with a miniature cross-body bag slung across her torso—couldn’t be more out of place in this hyper-color scene, and yet the 55-year-old entrepreneur proceeds with laser focus, weaving through a crowd of young boys tying hefty bundles and women draped in the same vibrant patterns they stock in their stalls. She is on the hunt for the perfect pattern—1,900 yards of it.

“I woke up at 3:30 a.m. thinking about the fabric I bought yesterday and worrying about if it was the right one,” Crippen says as she holds up a stiff swatch bearing a Moroccan-style zellige pattern. In this sea of fabric, she’s searching for the one—and eventually finds it. The design looks straight out of Dries Van Noten’s sketchbook. She decides it’s the perfect look for an obi-belted wrap dress and wades back into the rainbow-bright stacks for more.

Crippen allocating fabrics.

Crippen allocating fabrics.  Photography by Rachel Ambrose

Crippen is no stranger to big ideas waking her in the night. The cofounder of the J Brand denim label has a well-honed talent for following her instincts to success. When she launched her business in 2005, her concept for the perfect jean was simple, if not particularly popular at the time. “Nobody was doing a clean, dark jean,” she says. “But I didn’t want rips and appliqué Buddhas on my butt.” Apparently, neither did most women: Five years later, J Brand was bringing in more than $80 million in gross sales with its minimalist, polished jeans.

In 2010, Crippen and her partner sold 52 percent of the company to Star Avenue Capital, which two years later sold the majority stake to Fast Retailing for close to $290 million. It was an indisputable win for the former stylist. But when Crippen returned as J Brand’s creative director seven years later, she found herself in a decidedly less favorable position. After six months in the job, she was fired over creative differences with management. So Crippen followed her instincts once again, this time to a self-imposed six-month sabbatical and, eventually, a safari in Uganda.

Washing and drying dresses.

Washing and drying dresses.  Photography by Rachel Ambrose

That trip turned out to be so much more. Crippen had come to Uganda to see the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, but she paid an impromptu visit to Ride 4 a Woman, a nonprofit organization in the nearby village of Buhoma that teaches women new skills such as weaving home goods and sewing textiles, that turned out to be the pilgrimage that would set her next chapter in motion. The designs the workshop was turning out were lively—the women even more so—and as she watched the technicolor fabrics being fashioned into traditional wraps, the creative spark that conceived J Brand began to light up once again.

But when she returned to Los Angeles, the idea persisted: “Every time I would think about it, my feet would get hot.” Inspired by the vivid fabrics she had seen in Bwindi, she began experimenting with the bit of kitenge she had taken home. Nine months later, she returned to Uganda with her first prototype—a wrap dress with rolled dolman sleeves—and a business plan for 4, a new fashion label of dresses, skirts and shirts bringing together modern cuts and traditional African fabrics. Moreover, she brought life-changing work to the employees of Ride 4 a Woman.

The Ride 4 a Woman workshop.

The Ride 4 a Woman workshop.  Photography by Rachel Ambrose

Back at the textile market, Crippen has been joined by Evelyn Habasa, Ride 4 a Woman’s founder. “Evelyn is one of the most charismatic human beings you’ll ever come in contact with,” Crippen says. “She’s like the Gandhi of Uganda.” Habasa established the NGO with her husband, Denis Rubalema, in 2009 and it has since grown to employ 50 women, all of whom have become breadwinners for their families after learning to sew and weave baskets. With the addition of 4’s first collection—two dresses, a skirt and a top—to the production line, that staff is poised to double.

Crippen plows through fabrics, climbing higher and higher among the unsteady stacks while Habasa negotiates with stall owners for the price of each swatch that’s unearthed. There’s an easy camaraderie among the women—one that the J Brand vet struggled to find in her previous roles. “I’ve never had that experience where I wasn’t in battle and constant explanation mode to men about what women want to wear,” says Crippen, draping a vibrant cobalt fabric with a triangle pattern over her shoulders. “Evelyn just lets me do my thing. She provides all the support of making the dresses and gives me the space to let my creative vision unfold.”

Crippen and Habasa scouring a textile market in Kampala.

Crippen and Habasa scouring a textile market in Kampala.  Photography by Rachel Ambrose

The benefit, of course, extends far beyond the two women. A few days later, at Ride 4 a Woman’s workshop, Habasa’s team assembles at 9 a.m., dressed in fluorescent green T-shirts over full kitenge skirts, to greet their new designer. Crippen has just arrived from Kampala, but she’s hardly travel-weary. Instead, she’s beaming, and the women are jubilant, too, as they welcome their visitor with a dance, jumping high to the beat of a drum, then landing barefoot on the packed dirt only to spring back up once again.

“It’s a sign of love and welcome,” says Habasa. “They do this every morning before they start working to say thank you for the gift of happiness, togetherness and Ride 4 a Woman.” Today, however, there’s a palpable energy surrounding Crippen’s curious new project.

Cutting dress patterns.

Cutting dress patterns. 

“I brought some things for you,” says Crippen, pulling out a mesh bag of flower-shaped pincushions and sliding one up her forearm like a corsage. Fabric shears, snips of material and slivers of tailor’s chalk emerge as the women ooh and aah at their new tools. “And I brought 4 labels. Our goal is to make 600 dresses, and we have 600 labels, so you can’t make any mistakes,” she jokes rather seriously, while Habasa translates.

There’s an interactive fashion show so the team understands what they’re making, and before long the pavilion is buzzing, with the women washing, measuring, sorting, cutting, pinning and stitching the new collection together. Crippen is right in the mix, encouraging and complimenting the cutting team, pinning fabric to patterns and triumphantly holding up the first completed sample. There are language barriers—she’s a talker and wonders whether they catch on to her humor—and hiccups to troubleshoot, but the collective confidence soars.

Fabrics.

Fabrics.  Photography by Rachel Ambrose

“I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist about fit,” admits Crippen as she twirls in the first completed skirt of the day—a long, fitted wrap of subtly flared panels that’s both sexy and effortless. Though these pieces, which are priced from $185 to $195, may not come with faultless seams, authenticity—and opportunity—is clearly sewn into them. Crippen plans to return to Bwindi every spring—the low season, when Ride’s women most need work—to produce another capsule collection. Like a favorite pair of jeans, each dress, skirt and top is a classic, no-fuss piece that gets better and softer over time.

Crippen herself has gotten bolder over time, having regained her voice since her second departure from J Brand. “It took me a long time to re-establish my self-esteem in terms of my ability to make creative choices and stand in my aesthetic vision,” she says. “Spending the time I have with these women has made me feel more connected to everyone in the world. That’s something I’ve been looking for ever since I went into business: a vocation I can thrive in and that people benefit from. That’s the ultimate dream job.”

Susie Crippen wearing one of 4's designs.

Susie Crippen wearing one of 4’s designs.  Photography by Rachel Ambrose

Join the Ride

To follow in Crippen’s footsteps—tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or visiting the ladies of the nonprofit Ride 4 a Woman—contact Abercrombie & Kent. Those seeking more immersion in Ride’s hub of female empowerment can also stay the night in one of the NGO’s 11 guest rooms, where the decor, including wax batik curtains and pillows, is provided by the women in Ride’s workshop, naturally. Proceeds go directly to Ride 4 a Woman and support other projects created to benefit the women of the village.

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