DolMel: Weaving Ethiopia’s Rich History into Modern Fashion

DolMel is an Ethiopian fashion brand bringing a unique approach that pushes the millennia-old tradition of hand-weaving into the 21st century. They do this by using high-tech digital reactive printing to produce rolls of various kinds of seamless patterns on a cotton hand-woven fabric. This later turns into bohemian inspired clothes that celebrates and express ones unique identity and that reflects their personality best. These innovative products are the first of their kind in the textile and fashion industry in Ethiopia.

DolMel focuses on the cultural heritage aspect it takes from the historic ‘Shemena’ or hand-weaving industry. ‘Shemena’ in Ethiopia has been a way of life for centuries that represents the country’s rich and diverse cultural heritage and remains one of the most important non-agricultural forms of income for Ethiopians with livelihoods dependent on the hand-weaving subsector. Their vision is built around having a bigger impact as a collective community in the textile and fashion industry that empowers it to use innovative methods in making a greater impact both locally and globally.

We sat down with DolMel’s Founder and Creative Director, Melat Terefe ahead of the upcoming Runway Kenya 2024 fashion show taking place within the East Africa Textile and Leather Week in Nairobi, where DolMel shall be showcasing an exciting collection.

Can you walk us through your design process, from inspiration to the final garment?

When you go through the creative design process it varies from designer to designer, for me, it starts with textiles – specifically patterns. I love patterns. They can express certain cultural or social perspectives and have a playful touch. With DolMel we have a variety of patterns that carry culturally rooted elements that were intentionally incorporated into our patterns. So, initially starts with research and inspiration gathering which in DolMel case  is a ‘Niksat’ or ‘Traditional Tatoo’ that was inspired by my late grandmother’s tatoo which she gracefully wore wore on her neck, shoulders, and chest. She wore her “Niksat” from the age of 13 throughout the rest of her life which I am honoured to share on printing the pattern design on our hand-woven cotton fabric.

The 2nd step is to do the sketching and concept development of the actual garment pieces that has a bohemian aesthetic. Next step would be working on the prototype creation of constructing the garment that fits the comfortable and relaxed clothing of ensuring that the design is functional and durable. As it’s a new type of product being introduced into the market, sample production and testing of the market is a vital step in improving the product based of the feedback we gather. The final step would be refinement of the final product where it helps it to remain relevant in the market that meets the standard of the customer’s expectations.

Tell us a little bit more about Melat Terefe…

As long as I can remember, I had a passion for fashion and design that was built around making a bigger impact on our textile and fashion industry in the country and that has been by my creative force behind DolMel. I believe now is the time to push the work to get to where I envision it to be while enjoying the process as it will show in the work I put in to see a change in the industry I am involved in.

What are the signature elements or recurring themes that define your design aesthetic?

Bohemian aesthetic – i.e. abundance of long, loose layers, natural fabrics, bold prints, statement accessories but, most importantly no rules. That free-spirited aesthetic that mixes different artistic expressions of who you are.

Who or what are your biggest design inspirations?  How do you translate these influences into your unique aesthetic?

Back when I was a 5th grader where I started developing passion for fashion by making clothes for my two dolls with leftover fabric scraps. I also got to learn about designer Amsale, an Ethiopian American fashion designer and entrepreneur who was doing couture wedding gowns – a major fashion label and the longest-operating, black-owned fashion company that achieved international recognition. What inspired me then and what keeps inspiring me now is and why I relate so much with her journey in fashion was she was looking for something that is timeless and quality as it was a missing factor that made her design and create her own wedding dress. Which made her realize that she couldn’t be the only one who is looking for something that is lasting and classic. Amsale’s story is probably my biggest inspiration in translating that into my bohemian styled clothing that is allowing me to express my unique identity which is to by myself. I thrive incorporating those inspirations into my design pieces.

Sustainability is a growing concern. Do you incorporate eco-friendly practices or ethical considerations into your design process?

The fashion and textile industry has a significant impact on the environment, yet previous improvements have only been incremental. For me, incorporating eco-fashion brand practices into our creation process begins with a guiding principle that ties together sustainable sourcing, waste reduction, and the usage of renewable materials to create a broad approach toward building a better industry. One of DolMel’s aesthetics is long-lasting/longevity-based designs and construction of garments. To minimize waste, at DolMel we try our best to make the most of the resources we have. We aim to design and build a product that will last long. One of our favourite styles – is our Unisex Puffer jacket, made out of scrap/leftover fabrics that we intentionally and carefully put together. In addition, we use these scraps to make fabric buttons as finishing materials for our products and necklaces made out of fabric buttons.

What has been your biggest challenge as a designer so far? Conversely, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

Out of the many challenges, right out of the bat, business development, financial knowledge and figuring out the right method of promoting your brand. As sense of accomplishment, I feel towards my journey so far is the constant flexibility and openness to find other ways to do certain things, especially in the Ethiopia business eco system. The challenges had certainly allowed me to be creative in overcoming issues that I face as a designer and entrepreneur.

What are your predictions for the future of fashion? Are there emerging trends or technologies that excite you?

With DolMel we aim to make dramatic change to the textile and fashion industry in Ethiopia by preserving our handicraft heritage so it may thrive long into the future by integrating it with technology. As for the future of fashion it is both Africa and circular and I am honoured to be part of the cultural and the eco-fashion renaissance.

What should we expect from the collection you shall showcase at Runway Kenya 2024?

Boho-Chic collection that is purely inspired by celebrating individuality and freedom of expressing your individuality and most importantly imbodying the lifestyle that is unconventional, creative and musical.

Any last words…

I am psyched about this journey of entrepreneurial life and what it has in store for me – an evolving and joyful experience.

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