From Lagos to Nairobi to South Africa, fashion is hot in Africa. While the rest of the world is finally catching up, two of my old friends have been on the beat for awhile.
A few years ago, former Bottega Veneta global marketing executive Abrima Erwiah and film star Rosario Dawson launched Studio One Eighty Nine whose goals are to “promote and curate African and African-inspired content and brands.” Their private-label collection of batik, indigo, and hand-painted apparel, as well as woven baskets and jewelry, is produced by artisans principally in Ghana.
Studio One Eighty Nine supports other local designers as well. Per their mission statement, the founding partners use fashion as "an agent for social change,” while through their creative collective they foster "artists, musicians, dancers, architects, designers, photographers, foodies, travelers, innovators, thinkers, activists and dreamers.”
To that end, this past February the duo unveiled a new Studio One Eighty Nine shop on Elizabeth Street in NYC’s Nolita district, hosting a swank soirée to show off their designs and garner support for their social aims.
Sponsored by the new subscription cocktail app Hooch, the evening drew cohorts doing similar work in countries from Haiti to Thailand. "We’re honoring everybody’s talents and energies," Rosario announced as Dj Uproot Andy briefly paused his afro-electro mixes. "Thanks for widening our circle."
The genesis of Studio One Eighty Nine goes back to 2011 when Abrima and Rosario, who have been as tight as sisters since their teen days in NYC, traveled through Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda, and on to the eastern Congo. They journeyed to Bukavu for the opening of the City of Joy, an empowement center for women survivors of rape and violence, about which the documentary City of Joy came out last fall.
It’s been a busy few years of late for the pair. They teamed up with Lexus for Studio promotions in L.A., wrote the preface for photographer Daniele Tamagni's 2015 book Fashion Tribes, and recently presented at their first fashion show with the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience.
They also launched a panty line with the brand Empowered By You, with pieces designed in Ghana and produced by women artisans in Sri Lanka.
Abrima and Rosario have built Studio One Eighty Nine partnerships with groups that include the United Nations International Trade Centre, and the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative. In 2016, Rosario received a UN Together Award for her work.
Back in the Ghanaian capital Accra, they host workshops, and provide internships and scholarships for fashion students at Radford University College.
“As a New Yorker I’ve been exposed to so many new cultures,” Rosario told me at their February soirée. “When we’re out in the bush in Sierra Leone or wherever, and you say New York, it’s like 'ahhh, New York.' It’s a beautiful thing to be able to connect, and it’s meant a lot to us using New York as an amplifying story.”
“It doesn’t matter where you sit in the world,” says Abrima. “We see consumers changing in how they think and shop; they're interested in where things come from, and how they are made. The walls are gone and we are accessing an audience who cares about human issues. It’s been an incredibly dramatic ride."