Seven Questions with… Hiroko Samejima, atelier andu amet CEO and chief designer

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Hiroko Samejima: Born in Tokyo. Worked at domestic manufacturer as designer, went to Ethiopia as a member of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV). After returning  to Japan and working as a marketing executive, founded aterlier andu amet ltd. in Japan in 2012, as as plc. in Ethiopia in 2015. Received many awards including the “Women of the Year 2013 (career create category)” from Nikkei Woman and “Changemakers of the Year 2015” from Nikkei Business Online.

Hiroko Samejima founded atelier andu amet in 2012, a high-end brand which produces luxury bags made by local artisans in Ethiopia using quality Ethiopian sheepskin. The first time she went to Ethiopia was when she participated in JOCV as a volunteer:

“I got the basic idea of andu amet when I conducted a fashion show which was a huge success there. They loved the products I designed and local craftsmen made. That’s when it hit me. I thought it was the business model which makes everyone happy. It was totally different from the business of mass production and mass consumption in Japan.”

She explains that it was not easy to build a trust relationship with the local craftsmen at first as the culture in the workshop was so different from Japan, “It was really difficult to interact with them at first since they did not get the quality required in Japan or the way to do their jobs. There was no magical solution. We came to understand each other over time. I sometimes had to tell them off as well as I have praised them. I showed them the best products and how to make them. Indeed, greater the difficulties the deeper the feeling of joy when we could create beautiful things.”     

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I think my working style is sort of strange. I live in Ethiopia now and I usually wake up at 3am to check e-mails from Japan because of the time difference. Then I go back to bed and get up at 7am again. I start working at the workshop at 8am. I often have trouble contacting people in Japan or even just reading e-mails since the internet in Ethiopia is not  that good. So, I sometimes have to run to a nice hotel in town which has wi-fi. 

“In Africa there are so many beautiful unknown treasures that most people have never seen”

When did you take a flight recently and what was for?

Besides going back and forth between Japan and Ethiopia, I often go to other African countries to buy things, such as beautiful textiles from Uganda, antique beads from Ghana and so on. In Africa there are so many beautiful unknown treasures that most people have never seen. 

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How do you relax on a day off?

I got a dog, he’s called Omochi [rice cake in Japanese], and it’s fun to take him out for a walk. I enjoy horseback riding, too. I can feel really relaxed around animals.

Which book has influenced you most?

“Some Hold Out Your Poison” by Taro Okamoto has taught me not to be afraid to question things that most people take for granted. We are all different and I should hold on to what matters to me.

“I would rather focus on creating good products”

What has been the most challenging professional experience so far?

I have always been a designer, so I had no management experience when I started my own business. I still feel I may be lacking in a managerial mindset since I am not really interested in making the company bigger or increasing revenue. I would rather focus on creating good products.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I would like to establish the andu amet brand as one that fashionistas around the world  admire. I would be thrilled that they recognise Ethiopia as a beautiful country that can provide high-end leather goods instead of thinking of Ethiopia as a country of poverty and drought.   

What attracted you to kay me?

kay me dresses achieve beauty and comfort at the same time. They are easy to wear during a long trip. Recently I bought the Otsukimi Purple dress which is inspired by traditional Japanese prints, and I always get a lot of compliments at parties in this beautiful dress!

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Hiroko’s travel essentials:

Kitenge (or chitenge, an African fabric): I always carry a big kitenge to protect myself from bugs and everything. 

Watercolours and a sketchbook: Painting is a better way to capture the image than just taking photos.

MacBook Air and iPhone: These gadgets enable me to work everywhere in the world. 

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