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.
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.’
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.’
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.’