Designer Spotlight Studio 189
Jessie Ajluni | Tuesday May 29th 2018
Photo credit Victor Raison
I first had the privilege of meeting force of nature Abrima Erwiah and her business partner, activist and actor Rosario Dawson, one bitterly cold January day several years ago at a breakfast celebrating their brand’s, Studio One Eighty Nine, partnership with the socially-conscientious line EBY. Amongst carafes of coffee and pastries, I listened to Abrima speak about improving the consumeristic “fast fashion mindset” of the industry and the ways that we can better buy ethically and improve society, all while viewing the most stunning collection of batik prints, gorgeous silhouettes, and luxurious fabrics I had seen in a long time.
Now, three years on, this sustainable powerhouse is a finalist in the 2018 CFDA Lexus Fashion Initiative, has had partnerships with luxury brands (including Edun and Yoox Net-a-Porter), and continues to support local African and U.S. communities through various charitable organizations. So, when the opportunity arose to chat with Abrima again about all things travel, fashion, and changing the industry, you’d better believe I leapt at the chance.
Photo credit Joshua Jordan
You’ve worked for some major fashion labels, including Bottega Veneta. Where did the idea to create a sustainable clothing brand originate?
My mother’s family is American and from Mississippi, while my father’s family is West African from Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana. I grew up in New York City and received a French education. Not to mention that I’ve lived in Italy and other places. I am fascinated by the fact that my mother, who was born years before the civil rights movement gained steam in America, and my father, who was born during the African colonial times, managed to leave their circumstances, meet in New York, and through education and environment, put me in a situation where I could learn to thrive and rise above our circumstances.
Fast forward, years later, I had the pleasure of working with various amazing brands, but, in particular, of working with a brand that I consider a gold standard – Bottega Veneta. The brand was committed to the artisans that they work with and put people first. The brand really puts thought into the materials they use. I could see firsthand the power of creating something beautiful and working with the communities that do the work generation after generation, and how empowering that is for them and for their country. I believe this sparked my interest in slow fashion, and fashion with humanity at the center.
During my career working for luxury brands, I would visit and do volunteer work in developing economies such as Ghana, the Congo etc… and I would see boys and girls that looked just like me. I would imagine what my life would look like if I had not been given all the opportunities that I was afforded, and I felt that I could do more to give back. However, I could not figure out what I could do and how I could support more.
I was interested in understanding how fashion could be used to solve social-economic issues and to uplift communities. Rosario Dawson supported my interest in this topic and encouraged me to pursue volunteer work, as well as helped connect me with various organizations. In 2011, she invited me to a very powerful trip to the Congo for the opening of the City of Joy, a leadership center opened by Vday in partnership with a local hospital and UNICEF for women who had been the victim of rape and sexual violence.
It was there that I saw firsthand the existence of self-sustainable micro-economies. The women would make craft items and sell them and take the proceeds and invest in agriculture. They would farm things like cassava and use the harvest to feed their kids and the sale of the excess was used to take care of their families and send their kids to school. It was really amazing to see what a woman could do when you give her a dollar. A small action generated a tremendous impact. It also became clear to me that it was not our role to “tell” people what they should do, but it was our role to “listen” and to “amplify” and to support the development of local communities.
I eventually was appointed a marketing mentor by the Kering Foundation for Women’s Dignity & Rights an organization in Uganda, called Afripads, that makes washable sanitary napkins to help curb school girl absenteeism. This experience further showed me the importance of creating a local solution to a local problem with the support of international resources and experience. Thanks to Afripads, girls could afford to buy sanitary napkins. The girls felt empowered as the pads were affordable and they were created locally. The production of pads in the local market also created jobs for the women, so it was self-sustaining.
Later, I moved to Ghana and started Studio One Eighty Nine. I worked closely with the United Nations International Trade Center’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, and I really loved their commitment to supporting marginalized communities.
All these experiences led me to where I am today, where it is clear to me the role fashion and the creative industries can play in being an agent for social change. Our decisions as brands and as designers, trigger a domino effect as they touch all parts of the supply chain directly and indirectly and I can see that a small gesture can make a big impact on the environment and on humanity.
I have also really been interested in understanding what the future of fashion looks like. The CFDA Lexus Fashion Initiative has been instrumental in helping shape the brand’s sustainable development goals. I have been able to zero in on key stats and really see where we can position ourselves to become a more sustainable brand, especially in terms of our environmental footprint. I knew fashion had a huge impact on the environment, but it was not until recently that I realized it was the #2 polluter in the world. I feel a responsibility to try to do something with whatever means I have, and I’m looking forward to implementing more solutions and further refining and defining our approach to sustainability.
Photo credit Victor Raison
What first drew you to work with artisans out of Ghana, as opposed to other parts of Africa?
In the beginning, we had this dream that we would work all over Africa. But we quickly understood how complex the structure is. Ghana made sense for many reasons. First of all, I am Ghanaian. I have roots in Ghana, family there and it was easier to build a system where we could be surer of the work that we are doing and more transparent in our supply chain. Ghana is very safe and therefore it’s easier to accept volunteers and create cross-cultural initiatives, and easier to move around.
With its tremendous cultural history and being rich in natural resources, we are able to build a supply chain working with expert artisans and having access to the raw materials that we need to do our work. We also found that there is a renaissance happening full of creative talent locally and diaspora returning home.
Also at the time that we started, Ghana was one of the fastest growing countries in the world in terms of GDP as well as maintaining a stable and modern intellectual government that champions change, has the presence of a lot of development agencies such as the UN on the ground, has growing global connectivity through a developing communications infrastructure, and the country is located by the water surrounded by other beautiful countries that we work with and is really a perfect place for us to have our hub in Africa.
Can you share some of the challenges you’ve faced with starting up a fair trade business, and any tips you can give someone wishing to start their own sustainable label?
There are so many challenges with starting a project like ours in particular, if you would like it to be based in a developing economy.
I have had to learn to deal with serious issues that no education and professional experience could have prepared me for—poverty, death, sexual violence, disease, illness, I even had to deal with how to work when there was an Ebola crisis. I have to deal with infrastructure issues such as electricity outages, poor roads, etc… It has been quite a ride.
Yet, there are also so many achievements and successes that I would say it’s totally worth going for it, if you are someone wishing to try.
My recommendation would be to have a simple and clear idea. I would suggest doing your research before beginning. Also look into gaining academic and professional experience and doing volunteer work, wherever possible. If you can, join a project and/or work with an existing project, and apply your skill-set. Collaboration is key, and that is, frankly, the best way to achieving real impact and results. I think you should trust your instinct and your gut, and you should not be afraid. There are so many amazing individuals in the sustainable development space that want to see a better world and that honestly care and are giving, kind, and approachable.
Photo credit Victor Raison
Can you take us through your design process?
The process is similar to other brands. We start with an idea—mood, colors, patterns, silhouettes, etc.— and also a vision of something we want to say. We try to take a holistic approach to design, so it’s important for us to be able to go from the farm all the way through to the customer and back around so we think also about the second life of our garments… like years from now when you won’t want it anymore.
For example, we are currently working on spring/summer 2019, and are thinking about gender fluidity, size inclusivity, as well as about natural fibers, natural dyes, etc., we are working with farmers to grow plants that we will use in dyeing our clothes. We are researching new technologies to see if we can improve wastewater reduction. We are trying to be better at making clothes that are more sustainable with the help of the CFDA Lexus Sustainable Fashion Initiative.
Typically, we make a mood board, we review it with our design team. Then we review our patterns, work with pattern makers, create samples, work with local models to do fittings, then make adjustments. Then we work in our factory in Accra to make samples.
We always ask our artisans what they are working on and also what they have access to and so on. We can’t force them to make items that they are not able to make well, nor use raw materials that may be in short supply due to a poor harvest season or market access, etc. It’s really a collaboration, we see what they can do and we see what we need and we make adjustments accordingly.
Photo credit Victor Raison
If you could describe the aesthetic of the brand in three words what would they be?
Versatile, well-fitting, colorful, authentic … ahh, that’s 4!
The fashion community has been criticized for its lack of diversity across all platforms including models, designers, photographers, etc… What steps do think the industry can take to combat this problem and foster new and emerging talent across all economic and racial backgrounds?
Wow! What a question. The issue is that the problem is inter-woven in the historical context and DNA of many of these brands. It’s an issue that’s tied to social-economic-political realities that date back over decades and, sometimes, centuries. I think there needs to be real change at the government level, at the education level, and at the corporate level. For example, companies could sponsor and support the development of diverse groups of people at the education level… they could take a long approach and invest in many students over a significant period of time… or invest in schools and help the schools train and encourage and recruit diverse talent. You want to get more voices, more opinions, more backgrounds in the room and at the table. The earlier people interact and learn and have opportunities to try (and fail… failing is the best way to learn), the better. Then, when it’s time to hire and recruit, hopefully, there will be an even wider pool of people to choose from and to continue training professionally.
In the more immediate term, I think companies could have more diversity for sure, as well as create a space where different kinds of employees are able to thrive in their work. They should have outlets for communication and systems in place so diverse employees can continue to work in a company that supports their needs and not feel they need to have to quit in order to be able to work.
I think sustainability in many companies is still considered a separate area. As if to say, if you care about people, the environment, etc., then you must belong in a different department. CSR or HR.
To me, the future is a world that is totally integrated. It’s a world where you can live in a virtual and physical space. Where you can be business focused and creative. Where you can do business and consider people and the planet at the same time that you are making decisions. Where technology is integrated, but not at the sacrifice of humanity but rather as a tool to help us all become better. I don’t think that what I am saying is hyper-idealistic, I have been to many conferences and have listened to neuroscientists and other scientists, students, business professionals, government, and NGO leaders say the same thing. I believe that future generations are looking for this. I think we can be a lot of things at once, and I don’t see why we are always forced to choose.
I am saying all this to say that I believe that if we take a good look at diversity within a corporate organization and make it more balanced, you will in turn witness a more balanced and fair opinion on decision making and operations, and in turn, I should hope that you would see this reflected in the diversity of the talent being chosen that you mentioned in the question. We need champions of change.
This is where young and emerging companies can collaborate with larger organizations. Small companies are still flexible and can easily change and many of the new companies have a lot of these principles woven in their DNA… the only issue is that they do not have the size and the scale and the financial backing that larger organizations have. I believe larger organizations could join forces with smaller ones and together they could make a real impact as it relates to reaching sustainable development goals.
Photo credit Victor Raison
What tips would you share with someone wanting to educate themselves on consuming in a more sustainable way, such as looking for brands that are fair trade and ethically-sourced?
This is an excellent question. I think that a consumer could look at clothes in the same way that many people make food decisions. Ask yourself where your clothes are coming from, what happens to the clothes that are not purchased, ask yourself what chemicals were used or not used? What are you putting on your skin, what is being released into the air? The water supply? What about plastic? What about packaging?
I just think it’s worth asking brands where their clothes are made and learning what their supply chain looks like and not only to make the clothes but after the clothes are made, as well. You could start by going to fashionrevolution.org, or you could probably just ask the brands directly. It also doesn’t have to be a blame game. Not everyone is going to do everything perfectly. Everyone is learning, and a lot of information is even new to many. It’s about being more conscious on all sides, and learning our footprint and figuring out what we, as individuals, think is right for us. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The planet belongs to all of us, and we have to figure out how to share it and what role we can each play to help preserve it.
Photo credit Victor Raison
What are some of your favorite pieces from your current collection?
Love the robes! They are unisex and a great summer piece. Easy to go from day to evening, and to fold in your bag and take on vacation.
Really love the handwoven fabric that we sourced with a co-op in Burkina Faso. It’s organic cotton grown locally in Burkina Faso, it’s hand-dyed and woven on a loom, this process creates a very soft and vibrant fabric. We made, for example, a men’s baseball style jersey that has been very popular and a women’s slim fit caftan which has also been quite successful.
I always love the batiks! we have a gorgeous navy/green leaf tropical print silk kimono as well as a pink triangle suit that we adore.
Natural Indigo from the Indigofera plant is always a favorite. We made a beautiful shirt that we call the Andy button-down shirt. It’s a perfect shirt for men or women and has a great fit!
Photo credit Victor Raison
Can you share with us some of your best travel tips?
It’s always fun to travel in a place where you can travel like a local. I would say find someone to be your guide in the place where you are traveling and do something out of the ordinary. You will have an amazing experience, probably.
Travel light if you can (I am not the best at it, to be honest) and bring clothes for different occasions, so you can be able to do fun unexpected activities on your journey.
If traveling in a developing economy like Ghana, make sure you find out what vaccines to get before you travel (you can visit the CDC’s website for example), and that you give yourself enough time to get vaccines and take medication (such as pills to prevent malaria). Make sure your passport is up to date and you have enough travel pages to travel with. Bring cash with you, in particular dollars and euros in larger denominations (but not too large).
Cash is good in larger denominations because you can exchange it for local currency and in the event that ATMs etc do not work or run out of money or if there is a power outage, with cash you have a backup. Be careful traveling with electronics, travel only with what you really need and do not flaunt it. If you are going to a developing economy, bring bug spray and protective clothing and strong sturdy closed-toe shoes… also check and see if it’s rainy season before booking your flight or before traveling to your destination so that you are prepared.
I always bring toilet paper, water and hand sanitizer with me if I am going by car or bus somewhere where there is poor infrastructure.
Leave a copy of your itinerary, and your passport and emergency contact details with someone in your home country… just in case.
Know where your embassy is.
Photo credit Victor Raison
If you had one tip on how to live a more stylish life what would it be?
Hmmm, I imagine everyone would have a different answer to this. Well, I tend to like things that sparkle. Sparkling wine, rose, metallics etc., I also love prints and patterns and well-designed everything.
Go for quality over quantity. A well-designed table, chair, shoes, dress, etc…
I think plants and greenery always help! They make everything instantaneously more stylish.
I think the choice is so different for everyone. I think it’s all about being yourself and leading your best life that’s right for you, everything else will come in to play naturally.