Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwaih are tackling many of Ghana’s challenges head on via Studio One Eighty Nine.
The company and it’s foundation “Fashion Rising” were founded by Abrima Erwaih and actress and activist Rosario Dawson to provide a platform to help promote and curate Africa and African-inspired content through an ecommerce site and an artisan-produced fashion collection. They focus on empowerment, creating jobs and supporting education and skills training. The first collection launched on February 14th 2013 in honor of One Billion Rising which is mobilizing people worldwide to end violence against women. They are also in partnership with the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative which according to their website: “manufactures coveted responsible fashion goods & improves the lives of artisans. Partners embark on a creative journey, producing with artisans and re-discovering the stories and humanity in fashion. In this process, brands contribute to changing the face of an industry: producing responsible fashion goods is a positive step to bringing honesty to a business too often associated with poor labor conditions and unfair wages.”
Abrima and I had lunch the day after the workshop at a hip spot, Accra and talked for hours about Ghana, fashion, her label and the inequalities that she is trying to tackle through creativity and fashion. The vision is to build not only a luxury brand in and from Ghana but also to build a sustainable fashion industry in Africa. As such, they try to keep as much of the operation as local as possible. For example, they source most of their fabrics from local cotton farms, indigo farms and work with local batik artisans. Abrima took me to their workshop where I met a few of the other key staff. An impressive bunch, Abrima had a decade long career in fashion marketing with Bottega Veneta before embarking on Studio One Eighty Nine. Her cousin, Kofi, is a Ghanaian IT master who also works at the label developing their online presence. Their production manager, Anna-Clare Lukoma is from Uganda (she was born in Kenya) but has lived and worked in fashion in Japan, Kenya, Botswana, Uganda and the US. There are about 10 employees based in Accra (including interns and volunteers), 10-15 international consultants providing training and other advice, 25 in the countryside of Ghana making the artisanal products such as batiks, goldsmithing, basket weaving, beadwork, tailoring, and more. Further, the factory is in Ghana and is a part of the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative, which manufactures responsible fashion goods to improve the lives of artisans, where there are about 20 people employed.
By the time this article goes to print, they will have moved from their lovely bungalow complete with flowers, kittens and a few sewing machines to a full compound which will double their light and space. The vision for this compound is a Center of Excellence. This Center will provide an ecosystem for success, which will provide training for anyone who would like to learn the fashion trade and give them internationally competitive skills for the fashion industry. This provides jobs in an area where jobs for youth are scarce and skills don't match the market.
Abrima believes that what matters are that “people have a place” to go to create something they can be proud of and thinks this is a key ingredient for sustainable development. She would like to see well-trained and internationally competitive fashion artisans using local techniques and fabrics. She sees this as key in creating ensuring the credibility of African luxury artists. However, there are a few barriers to success at this point. The first is that some of Abrima’s students or interns can’t afford school fees. Studio One Eighty Nine covers the fees. The second is that there is a perception by the more well to do in Ghana that New York, Paris and Milan fashion is “better”. From what I saw and tried on, if Abrima gets her way, Accra will be added to that list! It should be mentioned that she also places great emphasis on the well being of her staff. For the new Center of Excellence, she has plans for healthy lunches, fresh juices and third floor open air library for reading and chilling out while contemplating the African sky. What could be better?!
All of this is not without its risks. When I asked Abrima what keeps her up at night she said that she is worried about letting people down. The risks are high and the vision is very ambitious and important. Abrima’s immediate next steps are to help to mitigate these risks. She will be moving into the new production facility, creating the Center of Excellence, networking more with the government, UN and multinationals, and utilizing IT tech and her cousin Kofi’s skills to build an online community around the luxury brand.
As a fashion lover, what you wear really does matter. If citizens are living responsibly, there is nothing more powerful than that. In linking fashion and Studio One Eighty Nine to the massive SDG global agenda, it is about using fashion (and creativity) as an agent of social change. Abrima and Rosario created the company because they have seen so many people in developing countries able to lift themselves out of adverse situations and build sustainable livings for themselves and their families/communities through craft, artisanry, fashion, beauty, art and music.
One way to support sustainable development is to support organizations and non-profits which are working to empower local communities in a sustainable way. Studio One Eighty Nine is available at Open Ceremony in New York City and Los Angeles as well as on their website. I tried on just about everything in the shop (fun!), left with some very beautiful things and felt good about it too.
Since this article was first written Studio One Eighty Nine has unveiled 6 new uniforms for girls and boys that they designed and produced in Ghana exclusively for 14PLUSFoundation, an organization that builds schools in Zambia. They are opening a concept store in Ghana as well as a short term pop up along side VOZ in Noho. They showed at Lagos Fashion Week (Oct. 26th) for the first time - their new SS17 collection. And they added a new Ghanian designer to their collective - Papa Oppong, he will launch his collection in a few weeks.