African Fashion Guide: Rosario Dawson & Abrima Erwiah Explain How They Use Fashion For Social Change
Having met with Abrima Erwiah (A) over dinner in a restaurant in Accra, Ghana during the launch of Ghana Fashion Week 2012 where AFG were media support and ethical fashion support, it was quite encouraging to hear this year about the work she has been doing with her business partner actress and activist Rosario Dawson (R), and the project they launched this year – Fashion Rising and Studio 189.
Social enterprise STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE is a platform to help promote and curate African and African-inspired content and creatives through various projects such as media and cultural events. The collective includes artists, musicians, dancers, architects, designers, photographers, foodies, travellers, innovators, thinkers, activists, dreamers. Together it represents countries all over Africa and its Diaspora.
Fashion Rising is an artisan-produced fashion collection launched in support of V-Day’s One Billion Rising. Created by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah, the mission of Studio One Eighty Nine and the idea for Fashion Rising, took shape following a trip with V-Day in February, 2011, through Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda to Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the opening of the City of Joy.
Statistics indicate that one in three women globally—that is, one billion women—will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. On February 14th, Fashion Rising joined One Billion Rising, together with individuals from 13,000 organizations in over 207 countries, in a global action to “walk out, dance, rise up and demand” an end to violence against women.
Inspired by the spirit of OBR and dedicated to its support, Fashion Rising represents a unique collaboration of artists, designers, artisans, and organizations working to create awareness of One Billion Rising, to stop violence against women and empower women by building sustainable fashion and artisanal businesses. It’s basically Fashion standing up to stop violence against women. The Fashion Rising collection was recently part of Design Indaba’s “Africa is Now” exhibition in Cape Town, South Africa. And they were also selected to take part in the UN’s ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative.
A – You go in and see so much changes so much energy … we are really moved by it…music and food and culture and ideas! All you hear is “and now I’m gonna do this…and now I’m investing in that”. There is this belief that all these different things are possible and also in a way that is no Us and Them, or some kind of way of separating things but in a way that people see the world and then they see how AFRICA fits into it and it’s part of this bigger story.
R – I know, as I get excited just from going back and forth to Sierra Leone. It’s amazing, each time there is really huge improvement and development and it feels like when we went into Burundi and we drove to Rwanda and the total difference, even in energy, for these different countries.
AFG – Do tell me about both of your backgrounds and how you met.
A – We’ve been friends for a really long time we both grew up in New York and had mutual friends who introduced us.
But my background is in fashion and luxury. I am a New Yorker West African by way of Ivory Coast and Ghana…I grew up in NYC, went to a French school. I went to NYU, spent a lot of time with Italians, studied in Florence and fell in love with Italy …the food, the wine, the people just everything about what is Italian. I went on to work for various Italian brands that were building up their brands in the American and international market.
My most recent experience was with Bottega Veneta. It was really great as I started at a time when there was not a lot of money and had a lot of work to do. But we all worked together and saw that it was possible if you were focused and had clear objectives and really good founding principles to grow a brand. That took 10years and now it’s in this whole other place.
AFG – It is very interesting to hear about your Italy connection because there are a lot of Italian companies that want to do something in Africa. Seems to be even more since the IHT conference in Rome in 2012 – and for Italians maybe it appeals to their idea of African craftsmanship and workmanship being the new zone for luxury.
A – Because they share a common DNA. The word luxury…I use it because we use it, but…its really about understanding that luxury doesn’t have to be expensive. If you really are a believer in luxury, and I definitely am one of those, you think about the principles that make a brand a brand.
There is a huge opportunity for us – Ghanaians … Liberians … South Africans, Ugandans for everyone as global African citizens to join in this conversation and to build up this industry because we really want to see it happening…When you look at the commodity chain and you see that fashion is worth billions in the UK and how it affects GDP then you think about what we can do and are already doing and how we are not seeing results yet.
So being West African and doing all the travelling and social work I was doing I was really lucky to become friends with Rosario because she has a very huge history of doing activism and philanthropy in social stuff. I am in awe of her…really like it’s stuff that no-one will ever know that she does because she does it from her heart…she is always very humble and makes the time.
AFG – And so what about you Rosario?
R – We have known each other since we were teenagers. But I grew up in lower side of Manhattan in a building that had been abandoned … this was really key I think to my life because we wouldn’t have afforded to stay in Manhattan and so it was such an amazing experience to be a New York City girl. It prepares you for that world citizen experience and just that tenacity of people doing things is such a big part of why I get so involved in so much myself.
In this building was where I was discovered in acting. I was 15 and just hanging out. Larry Clark, who did the movie “KIDS” said I would be perfect in this film. I auditioned for it, it was awesome…I finished up high school and that point I bumped into my friend Hannah who I went to elementary school with and who she (Abrima) went to high school with and that’s how we first met. Over the years she started working for Bottega I started acting and she would hook me up. We did fashion nights out and had fun! I got to visit her in Italy and we went to Congo, so it has always been this awesome sort of chemistry that we have always had…and we started a social enterprise together.
My first campaign was to save trees when I was ten. I grew up going to marches…so the social aspect has always been a huge part of my life. Even just moving into a squat when you’re 6 years old, you can’t help but have certain ideas. My perspective was changed very early on around people, power and specifically poor people helping poor people. My Mum was separated from my Dad working in a women’s shelter helping women who are abused leave their situation because…he had been hitting her for years but that day he hit her kids and finally she said enough and walked out. I know my mum didn’t have much to work with…but that’s what we were so struck by when going to the Congo was people helping each other and people been empowered.
We went for City of Joy, V-Day came in and the UN and we were able do all this stuff and raise all this money but on the ground it was the people…the women themselves designing what the City of Joy should look like and the programming. That kind of stuff is really inspiring to me, when it’s really coming from the ground up like that. That’s what inspired us. We said we really want to be a bridge between what we have and know, our resources and connections, and what you are already doing, and help to bring it across. It is still in keeping pretty much with what we have always been doing, but now we are channelling and focusing it in a really specific way.
A – The City of Joy event for us was the moment we really realised that we had to do this. For me I was really blown away because I could see the cycle of life of these powerful women that kept growing and growing and growing and this vision that listens to these women and hears what they say and lets them do it themselves which I think is so amazing because often you hear people talk about the things somebody else would be doing as opposed to letting them do the things they want to do themselves. Sometimes its just little simple stuff like sometimes they just need a bicycle…doesn’t always have to be a massive thing but small gestures. And that’s what I was impressed by the whole concept of turning your pain to power, leadership skills, creating future leaders.
R – It is that wind behind your sails, the reality of growing up…you don’t know you’re poor really if you have support or love behind you and I always knew I was loved, and I always knew I was supported.
My mum became a teenage mum and already it was like you are written off you will never achieve anything because you became a statistic. I was raised by that teenage mum and I was told, since I was little, that I could become anything I wanted to be, that I could do anything I wanted. When I travel around the world and people who look like me or just women whether brown, black, white or purple just being female, how much we are told that we don’t ever aspire to anything, that you cannot achieve that, you cant even have access to education … or to vote – are you serious! That’s why I really liked the curriculum for Congo when we were there for V-Day it was just teaching the women that they are no less Congolese because they are women. That they have all the same rights that they assume men have. That they also have access to it was a revelation for some of these women. Once they knew that they were so on fire and it was incredible to see that transformation with just that little bit of knowledge and support.
AFG – So you guys have always been doing different social things, you have always had his connection, this community mindset and wanting to give the kind of experience and knowledge you have acquired to encourage others. But in regards to the projects you have had with Studio 189 and Fashion Rising did these both only come from the V-Day experience or was it always there in the back of your mind to do something in fashion, something in Africa or something with creatives?
A – Years prior for me I always wanted to do something in fashion, fashion means a lot to me and through my background in it I have seen the power of it. So it was a natural thing to want to do but the trip to the Congo was just a powerful trip because it showed our ability to want to do things together, to do it now and to do it when situations appear to be a little bit challenging because the whole trip to go to the Congo was not easy.
R – Even just leaving the States, to getting our visas, to the airport being shut down because of the snow, we kept getting NO’s. NO it’s not possible… NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. Every step of the way was NO…but there was NO way we were not going to be there. It was not even a question so we found our yes’s and kept finding solutions. It was just interesting for me to think just how often do I let a no stop me; And how important is it to recognise that something being challenging was not an excuse enough to not do it.
A – When we got there and saw the work that was going on there on the ground…this was so possible. We thought this can be done we can do this. When we got back on the plane we were thinking how can we do this?
Prior to that when we were talking we were speaking about creating our own collection and making our own stuff, but after that trip it evolved to realising that there Is so much already happening, so much talent already doing stuff. A lot of times it’s not about everybody doing their own thing but figuring out what does that commodity chain look like, how can we collaborate and how can we form these clusters and support each other, create platforms that allows people to basically excel in what they need to do and we can all grow together
AFG – So is that then your USP? The foundation of what you do, is that about collaboration and bringing people together and creating product? Describe Studio 189 and Fashion Rising in your own words.
R – Talking first about the collaboration thing, for example I co-founded an organisation called Voto Latino specifically reaching out to Latino demographics in the United States and getting them to engage. Latinos became the largest minority in the country as of March 2003 and by sheer numbers alone they are going to inherit this country. So it’s one organisation that I co-founded but all the other organisations I work with, I just work with, and I Iove that. I think it is important that you don’t always create your own thing because they already exist. It’s not about reinventing the wheel…that’s what impressed us and we looked at how to build that into our company.
So Studio 189 is an ecommerce site, it’s all our collaborations and is about being able to create a supply chain and a bridge between people who are great artisans doing incredible work and having a marketplace where they can sell it. It’s not a hand out, its not charity, actually it’s business. It’s a social enterprise and it’s got a social aspect but it is just business. If it gives that person a job and they are doing well and then they can provide for their own childrens’ schooling and their housing, then that’s a huge part of what that is.
The other components that came out of One Billion Rising and V-Days campaigns is the United Nations statistic that 1 in 3 women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime so that accounts for over a 1billion women. I am on the board of V-Day and I remember getting that call and saying did you say billion with a B or a million? Because a million sounds hard but a billion! So from Fashion Rising proportions go to V-Day for One Billion Rising and that’s where the name comes from.
Fashion Rising is our collection that we get to actually work with women collectives, being more in control in those collaborations, in the entire process and making sure that all of that is being done. As much of it as possible is sourced in Africa and really making sure that that’s part of the story.
But our collaborations come from other places as well, that’s also part of our story that Africa is everywhere. All came from there and spread around the planet, we keep gong back in and back out alike.
A – Fashion Rising is specifically a collection. We go through the exact process that one would go through in creating collections and we can really challenge ourselves. We challenge the women to really push the barriers, like batiking. We are not just batiking on calico we are batiking on cotton twill or crepe de sheen, or terry cloth and it is really cool thinking I would never have thought of that and they are seeing the same colours and patterns show up differently on five different materials.
In the beginning they never even want to make a sample they are like “I’ve got this, I’ve been doing it for 50 years” But we need to go through the process. First we have an idea, a concept of what we are trying to achieve, a merchandising perspective and a creative perspective and then we have to really work it out. But they are not really used to doing, it’s usually cut and sew, or batik and go but we have to have an idea and then we have to test it out. It is really fun and a mental challenge, but we have to go through that process.
Then we have to go through challenges that we never thought of like emails. No-one looks at their emails and also when we had one production order and when I went there everything was different! That’s why we are there all the time you can’t do that from afar.
Also like the lights go off, rainy season and the roads…its always something…but it’s really amazing to go through this process with Fashion Rising and going through every single step that one would have to in any country and we treat it exactly the same.
Studio 189 is a basically the umbrella to Fashion Rising. It’s a platform like Opening Ceremony showcasing the work of ourselves and also other people, collaborations and people doing great stuff.
AFG – What would you say are the 3 main factors, the 3 main elements that must be involved in what you are doing?
A – When we say we use fashion as an agent for social change we talk of empowering people even ourselves, really giving credit where credit is due we have no problems in saying who did what. We like the idea of being a studio, we do a lot of work but we don’t do it alone we do it as a team effort as a collective and then the educating part is just as important as it’s not just about creating pieces. Let’s focus on education to make sure the talent is ready to make sure people achieve and develop their talent. Creating future leaders, passing on this knowledge that we have and opening up other networks of knowledge and creating jobs. That’s our very specific goals.
R – It definitely came from wanting to support women, creating opportunities, bringing and creating leadership and developing that. For me I have first hand experience of that, I didn’t think about acting someone just came to me and said we are doing this movie would you like to audition…I was 15 and thought “alright…ill try it” and it completely changed the entire course of my life. I am very attached to that story and understanding that that potential is there for anybody.
A – We really believe in the artisan, I think that comes from our backgrounds. Also we really believe in Africa and really believe in the idea of the global African.
AFG – I can see and hear and relate to your passion and your desire to make a difference. It’s very inspiring. I know the Congo trip was part of the V-Day event you went to, but have you been to Africa prior to this? If so what was your first African experience (country) and did you have any misconceptions prior to going?
R – My first African experience was Morocco and I spent several months there. Which was great but very different, such a different part of Africa and was such a different experience. It was mostly Middle Eastern and European and since then I’ve been spending a lot more time in Sierra Leone. I haven’t been yet to East Africa or South Africa so I definitely need to expand my horizons on the continent.
AFG – Morocco is very different I guess Sub-Sahara Africa is where people usually consider Africa. So when you went to Sierra Leone did you have an idea of what it would be like and think “Oh wow! Its not like this at all” when you got there?
R – Well just that they were so different – like landing in Bujumbura going through Rwanda to get into Congo was the startling differences between all of them and then being raised in America with the ‘Africa is a country’ sort of thinking – no its not!
The thing I was really struck by with Sierra Leone was that it used to be the education capital of West Africa before what the war has done to it there. And then how different it was to the Congo which has had a much more difficult history over the centuries, it was much more of a traumatised space. Congo is still in a civil war right now so it’s a really different space to be in. In Sierra Leone and its infrastructure is destroyed but it had a history that was really quite “normal” from where I come from, there was not such a big difference so it was how familiar actually that everything felt was more of the surprise.
I think the surprise has also been how it has been trying to tell other people, sharing that story and being part of that educational tool…as a storyteller I get to help tell that story. People have heard about these places but they’ve only heard certain stories. And I think – Yes, that’s true that those stories did happen, and that’s a challenge and that’s a problem but there is SO much more and I am so sorry that you stopped reading that book at that chapter because that was just the forward. So come on and let me show you more. But you can miss that if you just let one moment in history let you. If that was the case then how would America ever be able to move forward? We have had that horrible history but somehow we have been able to transition that story.
A – On my side I’ve been going since I was a kid being West African so I don’t think I had any misconceptions, but what I have always been impressed by is how remarkably different and the same so many different countries are. I’ve been all over and it’s a beautiful place with so many differences and so many similarities and I think the best part, when I started gong back more often, you get there and the first thing someone says is welcome home, ‘akwaaba’. It is the most beautiful thing.
AFG – So when it came to working in fashion particularly in Africa, Abrima, when you worked with Italian brands previously on production and manufacturing and then going somewhere like Ghana and producing, what kind of challenges did you come up against and what were some of the positives from working in fashion and producing in Africa/Ghana particularly?
A – We focused on working in the same way as we did in Italy or anywhere. But then in that process we do have challenges that we don’t face in other countries for example lights going off or gas shortages or water running out or infrastructure issues. Or just a series of challenges that don’t happen in other countries like having to burn your own trash. Then the day to day things that can affect you throughout the day, but I think that what we have learned is how to use that as a way to differentiate the work.
We basically organise our time different so we don’t go away with the expectation of doing something exactly the same, we go away with the expectation of having a similar process because there is a process that exists for a reason but 1) we have to be a lot more patient and 2) we have to allow for beautiful mistakes for example, kids. In Africa kids are everywhere kids are there all day all the time and then we get beautiful mistakes so its 1) recognising how to turn those challenges into new creations that we would have never expected, and 2) being really creative finding solutions.
One thing we don’t do anymore is trying to do a lot of things in a day. We know that if we need to do some computer work or web work or some emails or whatever that that’s like a day and we will dedicate to doing it, and if we need to do meetings I don’t schedule meetings in different parts of town because I know we will never make it.
You become very aware of how you schedule your time. You try to be aware of how you work with the women we work with because they need time to do the things that they do like church like you have to be aware of religion and not trying to force people to do things that they don’t do but basically asking what can you do and what do you do and creating schedules around that.
Like, the internet. There is only so many times I can say to a customer that the lights went out or it’s not my fault…they don’t really care. So where we have our workshop and where we host people I have a stick that has the internet on it and then I go to a hotel so no-one will know If the internet is off. We just want to make sure we are not stressing people out locally and that abroad we are delivering to the same standards so at the end it is almost like a win/win.
Sourcing is really cool, there is a lot of really interesting fabrics and techniques that exist locally but those things take time for example we worked in Uganda with the ladies who weaved palm leaves, dyeing all the stuff and then weaving these amazing bucket bags. We have mud-cloth from Mali, tees from Uganda. But it’s like an education process inside the country because it takes time for people to understand what you want and what people expect and you have to constantly be thinking of creative solutions.
It’s also really important to not sacrifice and to maintain excellence and figure out what you need to do to achieve it and not think oh no they just can’t do it so lets move our manufacturing somewhere else. Someone could say that’s great but I know someone who could do it better but we are like ‘cool but its about sending your person to our person and showing them how they can make it better’. It’s amazing how quickly people are willing to replace people.
AFG – So with your sourcing is everything coming from local sources or are you bringing a lot in with you? How are you making it happen?
A – In everything, even for example fixtures on bags, we literally try to work with someone locally. So even, for example, someone might bring in a fixture that is more on the lines of something more high quality and than I’ll go to the goldsmith (obviously he is not using gold but) he can work with materials that are not gold like brass, and we make fixtures.
We have three printers and I think it’s amazing as people say you can’t get the quality and we got it both in Uganda and in Ghana. We have the tee shirts coming from Liberia, and from Uganda we have jewellery from recycled glass and all his amazing hand craftwork.
Sometimes it is difficult working internationally. We had a situation where we were making these really great tee shirts and we were trying to work within various African countries but with custom duties. It’s such a shame so you want to ship tee shirts from one country to Ghana and the custom duties are more expensive than the tee shirts! So if I want to do something completely in Africa then I am completely non- competitive so you really have to think about how you can turn that into something that is competitive. Also what was really interesting for us is that you have to really educate the person who is placing the order a lot of times.
AFG – Then where would you see things going with Studio 189 and Fashion Rising, where do you see it progressing or moving to? What is the next stage?
R – Well you guys have done a piece on us for Ghana Fashion Week but this the first real conversation. All the groundwork and the foundation has been built, now it is time to present it. Thank you for bringing us more customers so we can create more work. It is now about having that foundation and growing it to the next stage and actually getting the production going, sales and customers.
A – It is really important that we are able to scale and have the foundation right … we are just interested in being around for the long term even if it’s a slow build that’s completely fine but we are not coming out with bells and whistles. It’s an organic growth, it could take a long time or it could take off really fast, but we need to be able to scale and be set up so that when we grow, or as we grow, we are not scrambling and then we have to stop or go out of money.
AFG – So you had a soft launch at the end of February, but what collaborations have you got coming up? Any brands or colabs you will be featuring that you are excited about or any amazing product you would like to talk about?
A – We have a lot of interesting curations and collaboration projects coming up but are not ready to talk about all yet. But we can mention Brother Vellies…we love them!
For our 2nd collection Aurora from Brother Vellies sponsored the shoes for the shoot. She is half Ghanaian, half Canadian and so she also wanted to do stuff in Ghana so for her its super stuff like trying to figure out how to create something together and do something in Ghana.
AFG – To sum up we believe what you both are proving with what you are doing is that it is really about having a deep understanding about working with those in the African industry and really understanding artisans and producers in developing countries and looking at new business models. It is about understanding your workers, some people may call them your partners who you are working with, those artisans doing the bead work those artisans using the glass to make beautiful jewellery or the brass workers, batikers…whomever it may be but understanding their whole life.
There is a huge importance of having an inclusive business model. This is not so much about profit, but also about the people, as well as the planet and looking at how can you do things locally. About how can you work with the people and help their situation become better which will actually help you and your business. It all works together all part of the same package. But I think that education is key and how you are working is amazing.
A – But hold on we love your projects! If people are interested in this topic there is a lot of stuff here and there but not many good quality resources that you can go which is relevant and about what is happening now – like your website. We are all excited about it because I think we share something common.
AFG – We are excited too, we just love new projects in Africa like what you are doing and above all your passion – its not just a nice thing to do in the so called “poor Africa” but no you are celebrating and that’s one of the things we like to do is celebrate what Africa has to offer. Seeing people working with their hands putting this together with that creating something amazing it is like wow! And that is the Africa story we would all like to tell. Thank you Abrima and Rosario for telling your part.
Fashion Rising’s Spring 2014 collection is a celebration of brilliant color, artisanal craftsmanship, and the effortlessness of warm, sunny days. The collection comprises 15 looks in a palette of crayon-bright blue, yellow, and green, with touches of bougainvillea and lilac. Silhouettes are clean, easy, and versatile: kimono tops, button-front shirts, high-waisted shorts, and A-line skirts are designed to be mixed and matched; classic sundresses, caftans and a flowing slip dress are sensuous and simple. Fabrics include crisp cotton calico (locally sourced), stretch cotton twill, plush cotton terry, and feather-light crepe de chine, all batiked by hand. In fact, each garment is entirely handmade by artisans in Ghana.
A carefully thought-out group of accessories finishes the collection. There are cotton and cotton-and-canvas tote bags in a range of sizes, a yoga-mat bag, and most ingenious—a cotton garment bag, designed to make dry-cleaner plastic obsolete.
The Fashion Rising collection is available for sale, and Studio One Eighty Nine will donate 10% of the purchase price of every Fashion Rising purchase to V-Day.
Every piece of the Fashion Rising collection represents the talents and efforts of an extraordinary accumulation of creative talent. There is Nigerian designer Emeka Alams, the founder of Gold Coast Trading, who designed t-shirts produced by the artisan Fair Trade collective One Mango Tree, based in Uganda, and the Liberian-based Fair Trade apparel brand Liberty & Justice. Kimonos and pants were designed and produced in Uganda by Anna-Clare Lukoma, known for her Lulu fashion line, using materials out of East and West Africa. Ugandan social business AFRIpads (recipient of a PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity & Rights Social Entrepreneur Award) worked with Studio One Eighty Nine and designer Menzer Hajiyeva to create a stylish cosmetics clutch for carrying the cloth sanitary pads that can enable a girl in Africa to finish her education.
The photo shoot to promote the collection and build awareness for the mission of One Billion Rising is similarly talent-packed. Local African creative notables include include Ghanaian music artists Lady Jay and Yaa Pono, Ghanaian actress Afua Rida, of the former hit Ghanaian TV show “Home Sweet Home,” and Ghanaianphotographer Allen Coleman of the street-style blog FreshWallStreet.com. The photo shoot took place in Accra, Ghana. You can check out the results at onebillionrisingfashion.tumblr.com .
STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE
Website: Studio One Eighty Nine website is in beta now but will launch soon under studiooneeightynine.com
FASHION RISING COLLECTION