Why real star of Rosario Dawson’s ethical fashion start-up Studio 189 is an African community

Studio 189, founded by actress Dawson and fashion executive Abrima Erwiah, is helping poor Ghanaian communities take advantage of the global fashion market by combining traditional handicrafting with contemporary chic

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 2:54pm

It is hard enough to build a fashion brand, let alone a fashion empire. Rarer is the person who makes a mission of using fashion to build communities. Such is the case with Studio 189, a label founded by long-time friends Abrima Erwiah, a former marketing executive at Bottega Veneta, and Rosario Dawson, an actress most recently seen in Netflix’s Marvel franchise.

“The idea is to produce everything in local markets,” Erwiah says. “Particularly in Africa, particularly in Ghana.”

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The founders set up the company in partnership with the United Nations’ Ethical Fashion Initiative, which also works with such socially conscious brands as Edun, Marni and Vivienne Westwood. The mission of Studio 189 dovetails with the slogan of the initiative: “Not charity, just work.”

“It’s a social enterprise,” Erwiah says. “We think that’s much more powerful than aid.”

The company, founded in 2011, put out its first collection in 2013. It has since thrived in its effort to allow impoverished communities to take advantage of the global economy – rather than the other way around, as is usual – by fostering an industry grounded in traditional craft.

Jointly headquartered in Manhattan and Ghana capital Accra, Studio 189 makes clothes and accessories that offer an attractive compromise between age-old traditions of handicrafting and contemporary chic. The line sells at online retailers such as Yoox Net-a-Porter Group and in its own bricks-and-mortar boutique in Manhattan’s Nolita neighbourhood.

Studio 189 excels at boldly patterned, brightly coloured, loosely structured garments, including kimonos (generally priced between US$250 and US$750) and mandarin-collared shirts (US$195). Though the latter tend to be worn by men and the former by women, Erwiah believes many of the brand’s wares are fluid in gender appeal and many other aspects.

“They’re easy to travel in and to go from day to evening and share with your partner,” she says. “We like the idea that less is more.”

The brand was inspired by a 2011 trip that Dawson and Erwiah took to the City of Joy, a community for female survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The visit motivated the long-time friends to invest their respective star power and fashion savvy in creating an infrastructure for clothing manufacture in Ghana, where Erwiah was born and raised. (Erwiah can claim tribal kinship with Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minster and president of Ghana who spearheaded the colony’s achievement of independence from Britain in 1957.)

Socially, the pair measure their success on the micro level – for instance, providing training programmes to people who have begun to embark on entrepreneurial careers, and providing good wages so factory workers might then afford engineering school.

“I just love the idea of people being able to do that of their own accord,” Erwiah says. As a rule, she adds, each person receiving an income from Studio 189 lifts the standard of living for 10 others.

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Sartorially, triumphs include a wide range of garments made with natural indigo from Mali and a selection of fabulous patterns inspired by local tradition and abstract expressionism. There is also the US$695 voluminous cotton skirt in a pattern called the Black and White Jazzy Jeff which is informally known, in house, as the Alicia skirt, because it is a favourite of singer Alicia Keys. “It looks like toned-down couture,” Erwiah says.