What does it mean to bring a truly global lens to design? To find out, we asked Abrima Erwiah and her business partner, actress and activist Rosario Dawson. They're the co-founders of Studio 189, a fashion and media brand based in Accra, Ghana, which produces African and African-inspired clothing and lifestyle content for international audiences.
We had the honor of attending One Young World 2018, where Abrima and Rosario both served as counselors. One Young World is the largest gathering of leaders between the ages of 18 and 30, and both of us presented on product inclusion – the practice of applying an inclusive lens to the entire product design and development process to create better products and achieve business growth. Abrima and Rosario’s approach to fashion, we believe, embodies the spirit and effectiveness of product inclusion. After the One Young World conference, they shared with us how they practice it, writing answers to our questions in a singular voice representing the truly collaborative style of Studio 189.
Annie: Can you tell us about why you’ve joined the One Young World (OYW) family as counselors this year?
We joined One Young World (OYW) because we believe in their mission and what they stand for. It’s been an incredible experience getting to meet so many people who are changing the world – young people who have developed projects in communities from all over the world, our peers. And also to get to interact with people who have inspired us to do our work. There is this undeniable sense of finding your tribe and community that we feel and that we felt at OYW in the Hague. We also feel energized and empowered to continue to pay it forward and to help create the world that we would love to see. An event like this, which highlights the positive social impact achievements of so many people, as well as inspires new leaders to act, gives us hope for the future.
Tomas: At Google, we have teams that build for our Next Billion Users who will be coming online in the next several years. Your line, Studio 189 was launched in Ghana. Can you tell us more about that decision?
Our brand was launched as a way of creating a platform to support the value chain and to help connect the dots and build linkages between producers and consumers. It is very important for us to trace how products are made and to understand the process and the people behind it. Once you start connecting the dots between how a product is made, many times this leads you back to Africa.
We have been very fortunate to witness and experience the beauty and creativity that comes from Africa and also to understand the impact on marginalized communities when an item is purchased. This is why we say that we believe fashion can be an agent of social change. Our project started following a trip we took to Uganda for the opening of the City of Joy, a leadership center for women whom had been the victim of sexual violence, in partnership with Eve Ensler’s Vday and Dr. Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital.
Following a life changing trip to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Abrima travelled throughout Africa and eventually relocated to Uganda to mentor and work with an organization called Afripads. Afripads is a social enterprise makes washable sanitary napkins for girls who skip school when they have their periods.
We ultimately decided to launch the Studio 189 brand in Ghana for many reasons. Abrima’s father is from Ghana and Ghana proved to be a stable environment to launch the brand, where we had a strong support system. We were impressed by the culture of creativity, craft, and innovation and the rich history present in Ghana. At the time (2012), 7 out of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world were in Africa, and Ghana was one of them. We felt that it was a wonderful place to develop social infrastructure, to add value to natural resources, to create opportunities for work and support capacity building. At the same time, we wanted to support the growth of a local market of consumers as well and help create a space for more people to enter conversations and be included in the growth of the global fashion industry.
When we work with various communities with different backgrounds, in particular those that tend to be the most marginalized, we have an opportunity to add more voices to the conversation and build a better product.
Tomas: Why is it important to build with diversity and inclusion in mind?
It’s important to build with diversity in mind because the old business model is not sustainable. The old business model does not reflect what the world looks like today and it does not reflect where the world is going. We live in a world with billions of people with so many different backgrounds, experiences, abilities, histories, cultures, and so on, who are constantly connected through technology. It’s important to recognize that today’s consumer is multi-dimensional and looks like many different people.
We need to recognize the multi-cultural nature of consumers and build products that reflect the diversity of the market. Particularly if we look at where the world is going we can see that the socio-geographic, demographic nature of the world is quickly changing and that the products we provide need to meet their wants and needs. We need to make an effort to consider multiple backgrounds throughout the entire chain – from where the raw materials are sourced from, to how they are designed, to how they are produced, to who the customer is, to how they are marketed and to what the organizational structure looks like all the way to the top and so on. It’s so important to have multiple voices, opinions, experiences, backgrounds represented.
Annie: You recently won the CFDA+ Lexus Fashion* Initiative prize for sustainability. Can you tell us more about Studio 189’s practices around sustainability and how working with local artisans creates a better product for everyone?
We believe fashion should be more human. We take a very human approach to the work that we are doing. It’s very small and organic. It’s about trying to understand and trace where products come from and identifying areas that can be improved and finding ways to solve social problems.
It’s important for people to have control of their own destinies and to provide the tools and technology for communities to be able to work long after Studio 189. We say we go from farm to consumer and back. We focus on working with natural elements like natural fibers such as organic cotton, and natural dyes such as indigo from the indigofera plant. We honor local traditions and try to highlight those stories not only through our storytelling, but also through how the product is produced. We try to form linkages between communities and consumers even if the process is more lengthy at times. Artisans are the backbone of the work. If an artisan is empowered then they create better work.
We also believe in the idea of applying new technologies to traditional practices to solve issues, such as incorporating new fabrics like pineapple leather in our materials mix. We also believe in education. Many members of our local team in Africa are back currently doing part time coursework and earning degrees and certificates, others have gone back to school for higher learning. And we also invest in sending students to school as well, as in capacity-building programs. In addition, we have many projects that we do, such as one with NYU Stern School of Business, with whom we have invested in creating and developing a locally owned village social enterprise to create work for the women and men living in a small fishing village.
Annie: The fashion industry has made progress as it relates to inclusion, yet there is still opportunity to improve. In 10 years, what changes would you like to see in inclusive design and fashion?
In 10 years, it would be great if we didn’t have to make it a point to discuss inclusion, diversity, and sustainability. The ideal would be that inclusion, diversity, and sustainability would be the norm. This would imply that the internal structure of organizations is reorganized to include a range of different backgrounds and experiences and that represent the diversity of the cultures they serve and in turn that we see products designed to address the needs of these said communities. We would love it to be the rule and not the exception.
Photo Credit: Joshua Jordan