Bernos Tees blend hip and culture

(Photo Courtesy of Bernos)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: March 28, 2008

New York (TADIAS) – It all started with a boring job that left graphic designer Nolawi Petros itching to do something artistic.

Designing test booklets for No Child Left Behind at his day job did little to satisfy Petros’ appetite for artistic creation.

“The truth is, I was at a job where I didn’t have a lot of creative things to do,” Nolawi says.

So he decided it was time to launch Bernos, an online t-shirt vending company that now doubles as a sort of virtual Ethiopian community center through an active blog.

He had been kicking around the idea of starting a t-shirt designing and making venture for some time.

“If it works, it works; if doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Petros said at the time, but he thought it was at least worth a try.

It did work.

In May 2005, launched Bernos with three designs: Addis Ababa Classic, a red shirt with the words “Addis Ababa” written in a font resembling Coca-Cola’s, an Abebe Bekila shirt, and a shirt featuring Desta Keremela, the staple candy brand found in pretty much every souk in Ethiopia.

Above: Bernos shirt with the words “Addis Ababa” written in a font resembling
Coca-Cola’s. (Photo:

Above: A shirt featuring Desta Keremela, the staple candy brand found in pretty
much every neighborhood shop in Ethiopia. (Photo:

The business is named after the heavy wool cloak that became a status symbol after being introduced to Ethiopia by the Arabs.

“Wearing the Bernos in Ethiopia was a lot like wearing a sheriff’s badge in the American West,” Bernos says on its website.

“Today, anyone can capture and celebrate some of Ethiopia’s history and the status of the Bernos by wearing one of our unique t-shirts.”

And if the fact that they’ve sold out of many of their designs is any indication, the Bernos t-shirt is a status symbol that more than a few people have bought into.

Petros says that for the 13 designs that the website has now, he’s probably designed another 30 that he’s decided to toss out or hold on to for later.

While Petros handles much of the design work, he has business partners handle the other elements of running a business: Dawit Kahsai handles finances, Meron Samuel is the head of marketing and sales, and Beshou Gedamu is Bernos’ t-shirt model and photographer.

So far, the venture has been built on volunteer labor—the partners view their time as their primary investment in the business, Petros says.

The Bernos site gets about 500 hits a day, mostly Abeshas on the East Coast, Petros says, but although the Bernos team are Ethiopians (Dawit Kahsai is Eritrean), they don’t see their venture as an “Abesha” or even an “African” brand.

Most orders do come from major U.S. cities with big Abesha populations: Oakland, Seattle, Washington, DC, and New York City, some order have popped up from more far flung locations—everywhere from Fargo, North Dakota to Mississipi.

Even though they’ve cornered the internet-savvy Abesha market that likes hip T-shirts, Petros says a little number-crunching reveals that market is still pretty small.

“Let’s say there are 500,000 Ethiopians in the U.S.—out of those, 20 percent use the internet, (and of those, some) are into fashion or T-shirts. So, when you think about it, we don’t have a big market,” says Petros.

About 30 percent of the T-shirts go to non-Ethiopians, and Petros says they’re trying to expand that number. That trend has been reflected in the shift in designs from the “Addis Ababa Classic” that launched the site to more recent designs named “Roots,” and “d’Afrique,” which have more pan-African appeal.

Above: “d’Afrique”, a more recent Bernos design. (Photo:

Above: Another recent design named “Roots,” which has a more pan-African
appeal. (Photo:

But Petros says he wants to branch out of that niche too.

“These t-shirts have mass appeal for all black people but also for white people,” Petros said.

With t-shirts that garner a broader following, Bernos hopes their line will eventually be carried by a national clothing chain like Urban Outfitters.

Learn More about Bernos Tees at

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16 Responses to “Bernos Tees blend hip and culture”

  1. 1 Tsedey Mar 28th, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Good job Bernos!

  2. 2 Henok Assefa Mar 29th, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Dear Bernosites,

    My congratulations on your efforts so far. I have been an admirer from day 1.

    Have you had any thoughts about selling your products in Ethiopia? It has become a sizable market which is in fact growing quite fast. The extra added benefit is that you can produce the shirts here as well which could save you some money.


    Henok Assefa
    Addis-aba Via NYC

  3. 3 Arefe Mar 30th, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Nice article!
    The Deste keremela T-shirt brought to mind memories of those good, innocent days. As a non-candy eating grown old (young) man, I have long forgotten the candy is still could be found in Addis kiosks.
    I should go out and grab one.

  4. 4 Nolawi Apr 2nd, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Hey thanks guys for this nice article about bernos…


  5. 5 DoroWet Apr 6th, 2008 at 1:44 am

    Keep it up! You are doing good work…I like Henok Asefa’s aSteYayet (suggestion), I think you should produce it in Ethiopia if it’s possible for you.


  6. 6 Almaz Mequanint Apr 6th, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    I just want to congratulate designer Nolawi Petros and his business partners on their new business of T Shirts : But one T shirt in particularly catches my eyes and brings me good and bad memories, the Desta keremela T-shirt !

    Does the Bernos team realize that behind the Desta keremela , there is a sad story also that has been brought to light to the world? If we view this web site and then ask ourselves if this T Shirt tell all the story? Below you can see the pictures which talks loud about the employees who work in the factory.

    It is nice to hear many people have the concern, responsibility, respect, and understanding of these victims and the other side as well. I am just under the assumption that they don’t know the story behind the T Shirt ! Thanks.



  7. 7 Tina Fisseha Apr 7th, 2008 at 3:25 am

    Almaz, what website?

  8. 8 cece Apr 10th, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Great Job Nolawi !

  9. 9 Meski Apr 11th, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Hey great article about Nolawi, he is very creative.

  10. 10 Almaz Mequanint Apr 21st, 2008 at 10:09 am

    To Tina Fesseha:
    This is the website: mequanint&btnG=Search


  11. 11 david May 9th, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Very nice tees. I got one! It says Made in Africa!

  12. 12 TEDDY b May 12th, 2008 at 4:57 am

    The idea of copying the Coca Cola Font on the Addis Ababa T shirt shows a lack of originality and only shows what we know all too well, Ethiopian will copy anything to make a buck,and the silly praises only encoragegs this Blatant trademark infringment
    Imagine the same thing for

    what next?

    So there are 500,000 Ethiopians in the US many are illegal or working 2 jobs from dusk till dawn just to survive, will they go out an buy $30 T shirts withthe word “Ethiopia” or Addis Ababa on it i don’t think so, maybe the middle class will dont crunch wrong numbers, most would prefer to buy a $45 Armani or D&G T Shirt

  13. 13 Achew May 19th, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I sense some jealousy from Teddy b, there is definitely a lot of originality on the bernos tees in my opinion. You picked one and tried to slam it.

    On the other hand why would suggest they buy armani instead of bernos.

  14. 14 wg Aug 25th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    The Addis Abeba classic is my favorite T-shirt; original or not I will wear it proudly. TEDDY b, you have too much time on your hand; if you do not like it why do not go and create your original and compete with Bernos.

  15. 15 Guys Cut It Already Sep 11th, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    You’ve got to be out of your mind to say that this is some sort of “whatever you wanna call it”. It is everything but original or unique.

  16. 16 AddisTunes Oct 15th, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Very nice! My favorite is the Berbere t-shirt. I’m anxiously waiting for more designs!!!!

    ~ Addis Tunes

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