STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE is a social enterprise created by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah that consist of creatives that seeks to provide a platform to help promote and curate African and African-inspired content through an ecommerce shopping site, a supporting agency and an artisan produced fashion collection, called FASHION RISING COLLECTION, launched in support of V-Day’s One Billion Rising. They focus on creating opportunities for empowerment, education and employment of artisans and creatives. Together they represent countries all over Africa and its Diaspora. 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.
Myra: What is the mission of the brand?
Rosario: Our mission is symbolic. Within the brand itself, you’ll see an adinkra symbol that we use all the time. It says, “Help me and let me help you.” It is a symbol that is used throughout all of West Africa. It’s about cooperation, collaboration and interdependence. Working and helping each other is the whole basis of our line. We went to the Congo years ago with an organization that was opening up a space for women who were abused, and one of the ways that they were learning how to have agency over their lives and be able to help themselves was to be able to do artisanal things like the kind of crops that we support in our brand. So while we were meeting with these women and then started collaborating and talking about it, it took about a couple of years to get the full concept down. But our concept now is our Studio One Eighty Nine website where we can promote Africa and African inspired goods from all the brands and collaborations that we do as well as our own brand. One of the reasons why we started is so we can have a collection that we can deliver and support that would create the kind of jobs and have the kind of sustainability and ethics behind it that we wanted to have. We are based in Ghana and have done things all throughout the continents from South Africa to Sierra Leon, Kenya, and Uganda. This collection, which is our third, is the one we have done mostly in Ghana and that is preserving all types of techniques from batiking, glass making, ??? beads, recycling beads from glass, and indigo bogolanfini which is the natural dye that comes from plants. We’re just supporting the techniques that they do and collaborating them with the resources and techniques that we have.
Myra: Amazing! I want to know more about the process of Studio189’s creations.
Abrima: I think what’s really beautiful about the way that we create is that we essentially apply the same principles that brands like Armani, Bottega Veneta and Roberto Cavalli. We are surrounded by all these beautiful brands that follow a precise process that you don’t always find when you are working in developing countries like in Africa. We go through an entire research process. We think about the mood and the inspirations. It’s actually very beautiful what we see around us. It takes time. We listen, we travel, it’s what we eat, what we see. So for this particular collection, Rosario and I met many times throughout the process. We went to LA and all over the world to places where we work and travel. We were inspired a lot by the beach so there’s a lot of blues in the collection and that’s why you see a lot of indigo. There’s different blues; the blue of the ocean, the blue of the sky, the sound of the water. It’s very beautiful. Also hints of green. So it’s what you see in the bushes, it’s also what you see when you’re in California with the trees. And those beautiful pinks and fuscias that we were inspired by. There was a beautiful flower in front of Rosario’s house that she looks at. It’s very relaxing and smells wonderful. In Kenya, when the flamingos in migration flap their wings there’s a lot of gradations of pink and hints of black. There’s a lot of this and that gets translated then we see how we get that effect; and that’s with these various techniques. How do we take those and turn them into something else? So that’s where you see indigo come in, you see mudcloth with bogolanfini, it’s the color of the sand and the earth; but not in a synthetic way in a real way because it’s actually the earth that’s being replicated and comes off in your clothes. When you wear it, you’re touching and feeling that. From there, we create the drawings, patterns and the techpacks. When we work in Ghana, we have a workshop where we have developers, graphic designers, and seamstresses. We have a real team; and the reason of the team is for that transfer skillset. So it’s more than just hiring people, it’s also creating a place for growth. We have a team in Ghana with workshops and communities and we can tap into this network that Rosario and I have created through the course of our careers and have this conversation where they are working together and then working with us. So that becomes pattern. So we make all of that inside the country which is pretty difficult but it’s pretty amazing because everyone is very proud of the work they do even though it takes quite a bit of time. That then goes to the communities and we start the process of sampling. And then we eventually do back and forth. Then we do fits. Our fit model is local and to see her try on the clothes for the first time is beautiful. She works in the nearby village, then all of a sudden she’s wearing clothes that you find on Via Sant’Andrea and her whole demeanor changes. She stands taller, she speaks better, and she’s willing to take on this whole other element of herself.
Rosario: She goes from being super shy to modeling. Suddenly she’s in our courtyard going back and forth and doing every single look and she is so elegant and beautiful. It’s really cool.
Ambrilla: It’s a transformation and I think that’s the mission and that’s a lot of what we do. We believe the power of fashion and creativity as an agent of change. The fact that it can empower people to value the artist. That it can touch the student, that is can touch a customer and that it can make change and it makes you want to grow. We see the power here and this is why we do it. We see it in Italy, which is a multi-billion industry, and also in the UK. We believe we have that same value of craft in developing countries like Ghana, across Africa, in Brazil and all over the world. And that’s what we are trying to do and it seems like its working. We’ve gotten really good feedback. We’ve hired a lot more people. We’ve been able to scale and build a great foundation. We now collaborate with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative. Vogue invited us here to be a part of this. Its been a really rewarding process for everyone involved
Rosario: And again its everyone. So often you see Africa inspired collections; but being based there and doing all the work there, you can see how everyone get affected from the bloggers we work with, the photographers, the web designers, seamstresses, batikers, the models we choose, there’s so many people along the supply chain that gets the benefit that don’t normally get a benefit when you’re just being an African inspired line. And that’s a lot of the reason why we wanted to be there because this is a social enterprise.
Myra: Who’s your brand’s target?
Rosario: Well we make men’s clothes, we make women’s clothes, and we make home wares. Our target is the global citizen. Its people who travel, its people that just want a beautiful handmade piece of art. And people that value other people and say, “I want something beautiful but I don’t want it to cost me nothing because the other person on the other end is getting the cost by not getting paid properly and are suffering from making something that I’m just going to throw away because I don’t value it.” It’s for people that value these things and I think there’s a lot more of us out there. Its been really great while we’ve been here. Seeing the many students coming in to see the different collections and every single one of them is talking about sustainability, recycling and ethics. What we really love at the end of the day is for it not to be ethical fashion, just be fashion. That across the board whenever you are buying something, you know everyone was valued along the way and you can feel good about wearing it.
Abrima: One of the reasons we exist, and I think we both fall into this category and I believe there is a lot of people like this, is that the world has changed so much. Over the course of time, the story of Africa is a very long story and a bit complex but yet so simple. And it involves so many different societies across the world. I think we have had these experiences where we are a little bit of a lot of people. We are a little bit from here, a little bit from there. I, myself, Im Ghanian, I’m ??? and American; and even within that, I’m many other things. Rosario is many many beautiful things. And what that means as a collection is we try to tap into that the idea that, for example, batiking didn’t originate in Ghana, it might have originated in Indonesia.
Abrima: It’s beautiful to see the in Indian population in Africa and how East Africa affected the growth of industries in the United States such as in Massachusetts and the whole northeastern area. And that’s how we dress and one of our beautiful necklaces is something that has traveled the world. You see that across everything we do and I feel that’s our target also. It’s for someone that appreciates luxury in its true sense. Its handmade, it’s artisanal and you know the names of the people that made it. You can mix and match it. It can be worn with something from H&M, Gucci and it can be worn with something from Studio One Eighty Nine. It doesn’t have to be from head to toe. It’s about an individual sense of style, a personalization, someone who just likes something that someone took the time to hand make for them. Customized.
Rosario: And for me, what I really love, is that it’s a suitcase that him and her can use. We can have one suitcase that’s androgynous. Men look beautiful in pink, women look beautiful in blue; it’s not a question of that, it’s all interchangeable. Its sporty, it goes into night, it goes into light, it’s beautiful and it’s very well made. As long as something is well made and has beautiful heart behind it, it’s interchangeable. It’s a great idea to be able to say, “Hey we’re being efficient. We have one suitcase between the both of us and we look divine.”