STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE (headquartered in Ghana, West Africa) is a social enterprise that consists of creatives that seeks to provide a platform to help promote and curate African and African-inspired content through an E-commerce site and an artisan-produced collection called Fashion Rising Collection launched in support of V-Day’s One Billion Rising campaign. We focus on empowerment, creating jobs and supporting education and skills training. The first collection launched on February 14th 2013 in honor of 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.
Our editor and writer, Myra Postolache, met with Abrima and Rosario for an interview during the Milan
Fashion Week. Let’s take a “behind the scenes” look into this amazing brand.
The Celeb Story (Myra Postolache): What is the mission of the brand?
Rosario: Hi, I’m Rosario Dawson and this is Abrima. We are Studio One Eighty Nine. 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 control 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 Leone, 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 bògòlanfini, 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.
The Celeb Story (Myra Postolache): Amazing! What is the process of the creation?
Abrima: I think what’s really beautiful about the way that we create, is that we essentially apply the
same principles that brands like Gucci, Armani, Botega Veneta and Roberto Cavalli do. 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 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 are
different shades of blue: the blue shades of the ocean, or the different shades of the sky. 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 fuchsias that we were inspired by. There is 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 try to 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 mud-cloth with bògòlanfini, 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 skill set. 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 go 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.
Abrima: 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 to be 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 a change; it is something that 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 it`s 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. It`s been a really rewarding process for everyone involved.
Rosario: And again, it`s everyone. So often you see Africa-inspired collections; but being based there and doing all the work there, you can see how everyone gets affected (from the bloggers we work with, the photographers, the web designers, seamstresses, batikers, the models we choose), there are so many people along the supply chain that get 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.
The Celeb Story (Myra Postolache): Who’s your brand’s target?
Rosario: Well, we make men’s clothes, we make women’s clothes, and we make homewares. Our target is the global citizen. It`s people who travel, it`s people that just want a beautiful hand-made 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 person on the other end is getting the cost by not getting paid properly, and is 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 are a lot more of us out there. It`s 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, and 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; I think we both fall into this category and I believe there are 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, I`m Ghanian 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 the idea that, for example, batiking didn’t originate in Ghana, and it might have originated in Indonesia.
Rosario: And for me, what I really love, is that it’s a suitcase that he 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. It`s sporty, it goes into night, it goes into light, it’s beautiful and is very well made. As long as something is well made and has a 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.