Judy Cogan speaks to the illegal African migrants who've gone from selling Chinese-made knockoffs on the streets of Barcelona to opening their own streetwear boutiques to secure Spanish residency.

Journalist Britt Collins shines the spotlight on a New York-Accra fashion brand, combining African designs, ethically sourced fabrics – and a touch of Hollywood glamour.

When Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson started their socially conscious clothing brand Studio 189, they set out with a simple mission – to make great clothes and generate opportunities for struggling artisans and women across Africa.

Fusing their passion for nature and fashion, Erwiah, a former executive for luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta, and Dawson, a successful Hollywood actress, create beautiful, sustainable pieces that don’t harm animals or the earth.

‘It’s a social enterprise, which is much more powerful than aid,’ said Erwiah at Studio 189’s showroom in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

‘It’s unfair that natural resources are often extracted with value added elsewhere, leaving communities in a position to beg for charity support.’

Studio 189’s collection of bright, bold prints and sleek, figure-sculpting tailoring is crafted from natural materials, such as raw cotton and silk, and sewn and hand-dyed by local artisans in Ghana using traditional methods.

‘We’re inspired by the wonders of nature and the idea of going to the source to understand where things come from and what they will become in the future.’

Operating between Accra and New York, the fashion brand has grown immensely since its launch in 2013, and is now sold through online global retailers, such as Net-a-Porter and Yoox, as well as in its own Manhattan boutique.

Studio 189 has won multiple awards and counts luxury Italian brand Fendi and international sportwear label Nike among its collaborators.

It has also partnered with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, a UN alliance for sustainable fashion that works with the likes of Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood to support local talent in Africa.

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Luckily for Studio 189, ethical brands seem to have weathered the Covid-19 pandemic much better than many global fashion houses.

‘In the beginning I was afraid I’d have to let people go and worried for the health and safety of my team,’ said Erwiah.

‘And then soon something magical happened. Customers started looking for more sustainable, more human brands. In addition, our community rallied behind us and supported us a lot.’

‘I also pivoted and started making face masks,’ added the designer.

‘We received many orders, which helps us stay afloat.’

The cloth masks – made from off-cuts – even feature the brand’s signature hand painted designs.

Erwiah’s African heritage remains central to Studio 189’s ethos – pandemic or otherwise.

Her father’s family immigrated from Ghana and Ivory Coast, while her mother’s came from Mississippi.

‘My family moved to Pittsburgh during the great migration to find work as cleaners and factory workers. My mother later moved to New York. Her younger sister Naomi followed and tried to become a model.’

Erwiah’s aunt Naomi Sims, widely known as the first black supermodel before the word existed, broke the colour barrier after appearing on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968, pioneering the Black is Beautiful movement.

Growing up in a close-knit community, Erwiah was always socially conscious and interested in people’s stories.

‘I remember when we were kids and didn’t have money, my mom would see someone who was in need and always gave to them whenever she could. And I’d say, “Why are you doing that? That’s your last dollar.” And she’d say, “It’s okay. We don’t need it. We are rich with love.” She would look them in the eyes and treat them with dignity.

‘It’s just about taking a moment to see each other’s humanity. I don’t know what my life would be like if my family and people in my community didn’t do their best to support and encourage me. If I can do my small part and pay that forward for someone else, I will.’

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Wanting to carve herself a meaningful space in the world, she volunteered at with the Kering Foundation in 2010 in Uganda, where she discovered the work of the Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel-Prize-winning entrepreneur, and the concept of social enterprise.

‘I liked the idea of creating a business that had impact at the heart.’

Erwiah met her future business partner, Rosario Dawson – who has starred in several US blockbusters, including Men in Black II – when the pair were teenagers in New York in 1994.

Dawson lived in an abandoned building with her parents in the East Village and was plucked off the street and cast for her debut film role in Larry King’s Kids.

Erwiah was attending a French school and planning to study business at New York University.

'Rosario and I both come from hardworking families who sacrificed and created a path for us. It’s not about ethics for me, but doing the right thing, consciousness, humanity.’

For years, the two long-time friends talked about doing projects together.

‘Rosario invited me on a life-changing trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the opening of the City of Joy, a community centre offering support and trade-based education for female survivors of sexual violence,’ said Erwiah.

‘We were awed by these women, who had faced so much atrocity but were resilient and wanting to see their villages and country thrive. What struck me most was that the women would make crafts and sell them, and take the proceeds and invest in agriculture. They would farm things like cassava to feed their families and sell it to send their kids to school. I realised that there are micro-economies existing on the outskirts of many societies that keep the world going.’

Inspired by these spirited, hopeful women, the pair decided to use their star power and business acumen to create Studio 189.

‘Rosario and I thought we could add value by working with marginalised communities to build a platform. And instead of focusing on the usual narrative of poverty, war and charity in Africa, what if we also highlighted the beauty. What if we worked with people that had been through various hardships, but we all come together through the power of our creativity.’

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Soon after Erwiah relocated to Accra and started establishing a network of craftspeople and tailors.

Two years later, on Valentine’s Day 2013, they launched their first capsule collection in support of the One Billion Rising campaign that grew out of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.

Erwiah admits starting a fair-trade business in West Africa had been a steep learning curve that came with a mountain of challenges.

‘I’ve had to deal with serious issues that no education and professional experience could have prepared me for – poverty, death, sexual violence, disease, illness. I had to deal with how to work during the Ebola epidemic, along with infrastructure issues, such as electricity outages, poor roads. Even now I don’t have running water and my electricity comes on and off.

‘When I have to do a call with a retailer, I hope to God nothing goes wrong because people don’t understand what it takes to create and build here, to create infrastructure that can uplift, innovate and also try to compete in a crowded marketplace.’

Each of Studio 189’s production is carefully considered, from working with local talent to using manufacturing techniques that produce zero waste.

All the materials and fabrics are recycled or bought in the Ghanaian markets, and the organic cotton is grown in Burkina Faso and transported to Accra for patchworking and creation of the garments.

The fashion industry at large is hugely wasteful and exploitive, and is the second biggest polluter after animal agriculture. But Erwiah sees no reason why fashion should be such a problem.

‘We need to change what we value,’ she said, reflecting that consumers need to look at clothes in the same way many make ethical, cruelty-free food choices.

In the past, Erwiah thought she was powerless to make an impact.

‘I used to think I was too small, too insignificant and kept waiting for someone else to take the lead, but at what point do you take accountability?

‘Ultimately, it’s not about success and accolades, but trying your best with whatever means you have.’

See, studiooneeightynine.com

Ethiopian designer Feiruza Mudessir talks to Judy Cogan about her streetwear stylings, and how she’s creating an Ethiopian-inspired oasis amid the bling and skyscrapers of the UAE.

Feiruza Mudessir opened her first stand-alone store at The Westin Mina Seyahi hotel in Dubai last October.

It was a big step for the Ethiopian, whose edgy men and women’s fashion label, Finchitua, fuses hip streetwear designs with traditional Habesha fabrics.

Her range of vibrant sarongs, tulle skirts and bleached embroidered denim jackets are infused with references to her East African heritage.

‘I’m a proud Ethiopian,’ said the designer. ‘My label stays true to my roots.’

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Indeed, everything in Mudessir’s boutique, which is situated on Dubai’s iconic Jumeirah Beach, tells a story of the designer’s history.

There’s a silk scarf inspired by Ethiopia’s Aksum Empire and a bag printed with its ancient Ge’ez script.

While other items, such as her colourful Mirchi Masala skirt – named after a mix of ground spices in Hindi — are a nod to her teenage years modelling in India.

But it’s Mudessir’s African heritage that really inspires the designer, who founded her fashion label a few years after moving to Dubai in 2003.

She is currently in the process of collecting Ethiopian literature to create a reading area within her store to teach her customers about the heritage and culture of her birthplace.

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‘I want my customers to relax and feel like they’re walking into an Ethiopian home,’ said the businesswomen.

‘I love telling my customers facts about Ethiopia, its diversity and rich history. They are buying into that story, after all.’

Before setting up her label, it was important to Mudessir that she took the time to properly research Ethiopian history and its culture, starting from the Aksum Empire.

‘I knew the basic history, but if I want to inject that into my designs, the only way to do that was to go back to the beginning. Digging deeper has been fun and feels like a real privilege.’

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The traditional Habesha fabric Mudessir uses in her collections originates from the Dorzee tribe in southern Ethiopia and is now her trademark.

However, sourcing the material proved a big problem for the designer.

‘I noticed the shemanes [traditional Habesha weavers] would only supply their hand-woven fabrics to big retailers,’ explained Mudessir.

Luckily, her sister and her family still live in Addis Ababa, and, with their help, she was able to cut out the middlemen and set up her own team of local weavers.

‘By going directly to the source, I could put more money into the women’s pockets,’ said Mudessir.

‘I also pay them in advance, which helps them immensely because the retailers pay them in arrears. It’s hugely fulfilling seeing the positive impact we have on these families.’

She added: ‘We’ve been working with the women for four years now and we’ve even redesigned the Habesha pattern to make it unique to Finchitua.

‘My number one goal is to tell my story through my designs and always remain true to my roots, while at the same time giving these women a sustainable income and a higher quality of life.’

Finchitua’s popularity is growing year on year with orders coming in from all over the world.

A T-shirt will set you back $65 and a custom-made denim jacket around $190.

‘Using traditional Ethiopian fabrics with modern material, like denim, gave my designs a really distinctive look, and my one-off jackets, dresses and tutu skirts have gained notoriety, particularly with European customers.’

Mudessir has also introduced Arabic calligraphy into her designs as well as modest streetwear and denim abayas (the traditional cloak worn by Arab women).

‘My collections have grown with the diversity of my customer base,’ said Mudessir.

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Her journey into the fashion designer she is today hasn’t been smooth sailing.

She signed up to a ‘crash course’ in design in Dubai and ignored advice from her tutors to accept a role in a well-known fashion house upon graduating.

‘I was determined that the first clothes I made would have my own name on the label, which looking back was pretty naïve,’ she admitted.

Instead, Mudessir created one-off made-to-order pieces while working full-time as a visual merchandiser at global retail giant Mango.

Then came an idea to upscale an old denim jacket.

‘I had a vision of creating this denim jacket by incorporating all three of my worlds: Ethiopia, India and the UAE. That’s how my first AfroRetro collection was born.’

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Mudessir also dabbled in the difficult world of pop-up stores, local fashion shows and market stalls.

‘I had very little knowledge of the business side of fashion back then and zero industry contacts,’ she explained.

‘I chose the hard way, but I have learned a lot through my experiences and I’ve loved this whole process of self-discovery.’

Fashion, though, is a notoriously difficult industry to crack, as Mudessir found out while working with a ‘huge’ global denim brand.

‘I was approached to create fresh designs with the brand that would culminate in a professional photoshoot and a behind-the-scenes documentary,’ said Mudessir.

‘It was a dream come true! I put my heart and soul into the project and worked day and night for two months straight.’

Unfortunately, two days before the launch, Mudessir received some bad news – she’d been dropped.

‘They decided to collaborate with a bigger named artist on the project instead.

‘It crushed me. I felt so let down. The pain of disappointment was real. But I did find my own silver lining.’

Determined not to be kept down, she added the designs to her collection and made a killing.

‘Those pieces have since become my best sellers. I wouldn’t have come up with the concepts if it wasn’t for that particular opportunity, so surprisingly enough, all the pain was all worth it.’

Mudessir’s happy-go-lucky attitude is very much part of the brand’s DNA. It’s even in the name: Finchitua means ‘the girl with a gap between her teeth’, a reference to her gappy smile.

Like the rest of the world, 2020 has brought little to smile about for the Dubai-based designer.

When the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world earlier this year, the five-star hotel where her store is based was forced to close. It only reopened again in October.

‘I’ve had a lot of time to be creative,’ mused Mudessir on the lockdown.

‘I used the time to finish working on a new capsule collection that focuses on the African fabric Kente. I’ve never worked with this fabric before so it’s a new look for Finchitua.

‘When it is safe to do so I plan to do a big brand campaign in Ethiopia,’ added the patriotic businesswoman.

‘Ethiopians are proud to see their culture spread to other parts of the world, but I get a lot of encouragement to take the Finchitua brand back to Addis Ababa – to celebrate our diversity, warmth and heritage.

‘I feel it’s my duty to share the beautiful stories of Ethiopia past and present.’

See, finchitua.com

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