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Fashion Spotlight: Designer Whitney Mero

The subject of our Fashion Spotlight is Harlem, NY based, Whitney Mero. Whitney is the owner of fashion label, Onion Cut & Sewn. Let’s find out what she has to say about her personal style and her creations.

SB: When and why did you start Onion Cut & Sewn?

WM: There’s a respectable and a messy version. I’ll go respectable. The messy version has to be told in person in the presence of adult beverages. I was a teenager with a body that my parents found confusing. This resulted in them dressing me in the ugliest, unflattering clothes.
So, I made my own, starting with deconstructing and recreating garments. This lead to making some very interesting prom dresses for the girls in my school. A boyfriend at the time encouraged me to turn it into a business, which I did even though I had no idea what that meant for me.
SB: ​What inspires your creations?
WM: Beauty and comfort. This clearly a question that I’ve not been able to articulate an answer for because there is
so much and so little inspiration, it make my brain numb.
SB: Creatives aren’t always good business owners. How do you balance the two roles?
WM: I don’t know that I am good at business. I’m in business because I am good at perseverance. If you want to remain in business, you’ll hire the people necessary for disparate roles.
For example, hire a good accountant to keep you out of jail. Hire a a decent personal assistant to keep you from having to talk to strangers and occasionally, your mother.
Hire a capable office manager that works out to keep track of your inventory and pick out stuff that you can’t because
you lack core strength.
Even if you think you cannot afford these hires, eventually, having a team frees you up to be creative, which is usually the main job.
SB: What piece have you made that you are most proud of and why?
WM: In college, I had a client that, due to Crohn’s disease, wore a colostomy bag. She was still very young and wanted to dress fast at the club so I designed for her a series of dresses that were both revealing and effective at hiding her bag. I don’t actually know if this makes me the most proud.
There are so many lovely and surprising things that have happened to a lot of beautiful people in my dresses that I count myself lucky enough to know have a most superlative piece.
SB: How would you describe your personal style?
WM: Fuck effort. My personal style goal is to look amazing with the least energy or strain possible.
 

-Tony O. Lawson


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Why Aren’t There More Black Fashion Designers?

Within a fashion industry that touts itself as celebratory of difference, diversity, and inclusion, Black design talent consistently remains, at best, marginalised and all too often plagued by systemic employment discrimination.

Let me be clear: the established, mainstream fashion design community does not have a diversity problem, it has a “Black people problem.”

Designer, KIBWE CHASE-MARSHALL

Within the majority of luxury, contemporary-level and mass-market design studios, talented Black designers are seldom equitably afforded opportunities to attain senior designer, design director, creative director or vice president of design titles.

More often than not, they are blacklisted by influential recruiters and hiring managers, resulting in little to no prospects for stable employment or market rate salaries.

Designer, Maxwell Osborne

Fed up with watching this most blatant form of discrimination thrive while the broader industry capitalises on Black celebrity associations and the recent uptick in Black casting, I decided to do something.

Over the holidays, I began conceiving what would become a social media campaign; the goal was to ask and answer my own questions, in hopes of developing a plan for how the fashion design community could move toward fairer hiring practices.

On Wednesday, January 3rd #BreakSilenceBreakCeilings went live.

Designers, Darlene and Lizzy Okpo:

A few days thereafter, H&M depicted a young Black boy in a hoodie reading “coolest monkey in the jungle”, confirming how recklessly fashion brands with little to no Black leadership utilise images of Black people. (The Swedish retailer has appointed a diversity leader since the incident.)

In fashion, timing is everything, and the time has come for the industry to remedy the systemic marginalisation of Black design talent.

Designer, Carly Cushnie

My path to working in fashion was non-traditional. Back in 1997, when I was struggling to find my footing and secure loans to attend New York University, I was offered a role as a designer at Michael Kors where I’d been interning for two seasons.

As my prospects for financing school waned, I enthusiastically accepted the role and threw myself into the challenge of mastering a new craft.

Designer, Tracy Reese

I was not formally trained in apparel design (save for a few courses I had taken at Pratt), but having grown up the son of two architects, I was very comfortable with technical drafting. My sketching ability became my value to the team, as I designed hardware details, show-specific accessories and communicated styling directives via illustration across categories.

Over the course of the next decade, as I landed roles within the studios of Isaac Mizrahi, Oscar de la RentaRalph Lauren, Gap Inc., J. Mendel and An Original Penguin, I grew strong in my abilities to lead fittings, appraise and select fabrics, and build colour stories as well as nurture talent, predict market trends and build valuable vendor relationships.

Designer, Samantha Black

But within the professional environments in which I worked, I rarely encountered another Black face. Wherever I worked, I was consistently the highest titled Black team member. I was also consistently making considerably less money than my non-Black counterparts.

By the early aughts, headhunters were still reaching out, but I noticed that they rarely seemed to passionately advocate for me in the manner that many of my non-Black peers enjoyed.

Read the full article at Business of Fashion

 

BY KIBWE CHASE-MARSHALL

 

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ZAAF CEO on Creating a Luxury Brand and Changing the Perception of Africa

ZAAF is a luxury leather goods brand that manufactures its products in Ethiopia. As an African, I love seeing us take our natural resources and create world class brands that can compete with the usual household names that we’ve been trained to desire.

I wanted to know more about this brand and the brain behind it, so I had a chat with ZAAF founder and CEO, Abai Schulze.

SB: What inspired you to start ZAAF?

AS: It all came down to a convergence of both opportunity and passion. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions of “physical creation” had always been a driver for me, even as I spent my university years focused on an economics major at George Washington University.

SB: We are all familiar with the stereotypes that exist about African countries. How important is it to you to change these perceptions with your work?

AS: We promote Ethiopia’s, as well as the entire continent’s rich heritage and cultures through exacting top quality products made with indigenous natural resources by our gifted artisans.

Each piece draws its inspiration from a particular region, and is crafted with the finest materials.

Color, texture, and ageless patterns made on a traditional loom, are merged with carefully selected leather to create a discrete statement of elegance and practicality.

I believe our effort at ZAAF accentuates an angle that speaks to the legitimacy of art, the taste of truthful luxury and the beauty of an earnest human endeavor all built around the hope of a nation.

Positioning a luxury brand synonymous with Ethiopia in the global marketplace is an effective way of displacing negative stereotypes about the country.

SB: Ethiopia has one of the leading manufacturing industries in Africa. What do you feel needs to be done in order for the country to capitalize on this?

AS: Yes – Ethiopia is on track to become Africa’s industrial powerhouse, but there are some challenges that need to be addressed in order for the country to really capitalize on its resources.

One issue in particular I want to highlight is that we must develop our labor force’s skills so individuals can become more productive and truly understand quality control.

It is equally vital that companies pay a sustainable wag as the high turnover indicates this has yet to be achieved.

SB: What is the most fulfilling and most challenging aspect of the work you do?

AS: My driving passion and vision for many years were centered around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth.

We are trying to be a part of the solution by making skills and capacity building integral to our operating model. I believe we are having an incremental but certainly positive impact on the job sector.

I also hope we are having a “knock on” effect and inspiring other young entrepreneurs and designers to enter the space and invest in people.

Of course there are difficulties around infrastructure, red tape and elements like logistics – those go without saying. These challenges should be “priced into” any decision to open and operate in any frontier market.

I think a particular challenge, which is also a wonderful opportunity, for my sector is the need to invest continually in human capital.

I’m highly reliant on qualified and specifically skilled labor who can build unique hard and soft skills. Filtering through, selecting and further investing into this human capital is probably my most unique challenge.

SB: How important is it to you to invest in your community and in what ways are you doing that or planning to do that in the future?

AS: I strongly believe that education and job creation play the critical role to provide economic opportunities in any emerging economies.

So at ZAAF, we support educational programs by inviting students to our workshop, inspiring them with our work, or sponsoring programs that support out vision in these issues.

We believe that financial success and mission impact go hand in hand. We must succeed as a business and achieve financial success in order to create a deeper development impact, build local capacity, and generate sustainable markets.

The success of our company rests upon our ability to create new linkages between emerging market producers and discerning developed market customers, and to generate profit, growth, and revenue in the markets for our artisans.

SB: Where you see yourself and your business in 5 years

AS: We will continue to expand our production in line with our growth goals, while also expanding the range of products we offer. We also aim to grow partnerships and distribution channels.

We will be a globally recognized high-end brand that gives discerning consumers new and exciting choices, and in many cases a whole new perception of Ethiopia and the African continent.

SB: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

AS: Quantify your risks. Build up an appropriate tolerance for risk and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you accountable for your actions and progress on your goals.

I would also advise entrepreneurs to double-down on execution. I’ve always said –  execution is the stuff of success – passion is just one of the ingredients.

 

-Tony O. Lawson


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Black Owned Clothing Brands You Should Know

After H&M thought it would be cool to create an ad showing a young Black boy wearing a sweatshirt saying “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle”, we decided that enough is enough.

It shouldn’t take something like this to remind us that there are MANY other Black owned clothing brands that make casual wear and that actually appreciate your money. Here are some:

Black Owned Clothing Brands

SHOPPE BLACK (shameless plug)

Undefined Clothing

Black Bourgeois

black owned clothing

AfricanRich

Salyel Paris

black owned clothing

This Is Cultured

Dif-Fer-Ent

black owned clothing

Backtrack Vintage

black owned clothing

black owned clothing
black owned clothing
black owned clothing

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Talley & Twine: A Black Owned Watch Brand Creating Timeless Timepieces

One Black owned watch brand I’ve had my eye on for a while now is Talley & Twine.  I’m impressed by their growth and dedication to offering a quality product. I wanted to find out more about the brand so I had a chat with the founder, Randy Williams.
Black Owned Watch Brand
Randy Williams: President of Talley & Twine

SB: What inspired you to start a watch company specifically?

RW: I was inspired to start Talley & Twine because I couldn’t find watch designs that I liked without paying $1000 or more.

SB: Describe the Talley & Twine customer.

RW: The Talley & Twine customer is sophisticated, ambitious and grounded.
Black Owned Watch Brand

SB: What does an average day look like for you?

RW: Each day is different but it usually involves some sort of tracking of our daily numbers along with discovering new ways to reach potential customers.

SB: What thought goes into the design of your watches?

RW: Overall, the design of our watches are meant to stand out but to do so very subtly. We focus on details that the average consumer may never notice but we believe that is the mark of true quality.

Black Owned Watch BrandSB: The holiday season is when most watch companies see the most sales. How do you keep sales high after that period?

RW: After the holiday season is over we maintain our sales numbers by releasing new products and also by encouraging referrals from our satisfied customers.

Talley &TwineSB: What is the most challenging and most rewarding thing about what you do?

RW: The most challenging AND rewarding thing about Talley & Twine is growth. It’s exciting to see the company grow every month but that growth creates new hurdles that we must overcome. Often, there is very little time to celebrate that growth because we have to be thinking about our next steps.

Black Owned Watch BrandSB: Where do you see the business in 5 years?

RW: Within the next 5 years, Talley & Twine will take on a larger manufacturing role, thereby providing more jobs to our community. Additionally, we’ll be known for our other products as well as our watches.

SB: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

RW: Aspiring entrepreneurs should know that we’re living in the greatest time in history to be an entrepreneur because the information is at our fingertips and new industries are emerging every day.

They should emulate those who are successful but also study market trends to see where the future business opportunities are.

 

-Tony O. Lawson

Related: Black owned Skincare businesses


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10 Lagos Fashion & Design Week Designers To Watch Out For

Lagos Fashion and Design Week (October 25th- 28th) is a leading fashion event on the African fashion calendar.

The multi-day fashion event aims to bring together buyers, consumers and the media to view the current collections of African designers in the fashion capital of Lagos, Nigeria.

We’ve listed a few of the designers you should get into.

Lagos Fashion and Design Week

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson / IG: @thebusyafrican

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Kahmune Offers Luxury Footwear For All Skin Tones

Kahmune is the brainchild of Jamela Acheampong. The London based entrepreneur has launched a brand that aims to address the lack of diversity in the luxury footwear industry.
We wanted to find out more about more about her and her business. This is what she had to say:
Jamela Acheampong
SB: What inspired the creation of Kahmune?
 
JA: Kahmune was inspired by my own personal struggle to see myself, more particularly my skin tone, represented in the fashion industry. I spent hours searching online last year for a nude shoe that would match my dark complexion.
When you search the term “nude” it returns garments and accessories that are the same beige and tan colours and or hues, that are far from nude on my complexion.
I found it ridiculous, and slightly infuriating, that in 2016 something like this was still an issue! Why shouldn’t myself, or anyone else for that matter, be able to have access to skin tone accessories?
It was in that moment that I decided to make sure it was an issue no longer. ALL skin tones are beautiful and we all deserve to have our beauty represented in the fashion industry.
 
JA: What has been the most gratifying part of your entrepreneurial journey so far? What has been the most challenging?
 
The most gratifying part of the journey so far has been the transition towards being my own boss and making my own decisions. It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing and always known I wanted to do. It just feels right.
Additionally, a large part of my daily motivation has come from the response to the brand. Reading the comments, emails, and various messages from women across the globe has been incredible.
Hearing about how excited they are about Kahmune or that it’s given them more pride in their skin tone has made this journey more than worth it!
The most challenging part has been doing everything on my own! I do it all- social media, emails, production, etc and it has proved to be quite demanding. It’s also been difficult dealing with the process of manufacturing shoes in themselves.
I’ve had to change manufacturers a few times and have experienced quite a few delays in production but it’s all part of the process!
SB: Can you explain the process of finding and selecting the right manufacturer?
JA: What I’ve learned now is it’s all about finding the right fit. It took me two tries to get it right but as they say third is the charm! Naturally, the most important part of the process is finding a manufacturer that you are confident will do your product justice.
I spent a lot of time researching European manufactures and was lucky to come across a group in Italy that specializes in matching new brands with Italian factories. I corresponded with a few before I traveled out to Italy to tour the one factory I felt most confident about.
Once I had seen the level of quality of the samples they made and was confident production was ethical and fair I knew I had found the right match.
 
SB: How did you decide what to name each shoe color?
 
JA: Having been fortunate enough to have a very international upbringing I wanted to pay tribute to that in some way with the brand. To a certain degree you can attribute various skin tones to different regions of the world so I thought having each shade reflect this was the way to go.
Kumasi was a shoe-in as that is the city my family is from on both my mother and father’s sides. Enugu is dedicated to my niece and nephew whose father’s family hails from that city in Nigeria. Juba was a must because I’ve always been so appreciative of the beautiful, dark skin tones of the people of that area in South Sudan.
Rio and Goa I chose to acknowledge two areas that have an incredible amount of diversity within them. I really wanted to celebrate that.
I chose Singapore because it also has an incredible amount of diversity in it’s population and I wanted to use an Asian city because through my research I found that many women of Asian descent feel left out of the beauty and fashion conversations.
Not with Kahmune! The last few names are quite sentimental. They’re dedicated to some amazing friends I have that are from those cities and regions.
 
SB: Where do you see the company in 5 years?
 
JA: Other than world domination? Though Kahmune is, and will always be at its core a luxury womens’ footwear line I’m definitely not ruling anything out in terms of product. In 5 years, we hope to have a few flagship stores around the globe as well as the moniker as the leading retailer of skin tone garments and accessories.
The goal is to be known for our sense of community and dedication to diversity, inclusion, and representation. In 5 years Kahmune will have set the bar in terms of what it means to run a truly inclusive luxury brand in this day and age.
 
SB: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
 
JA: Don’t give up!!! If you have your heart set on a goal take the steps to achieve it. Work a bit on that goal everyday and remember that your journey is YOUR journey- don’t compare yourself to others.
Your brand is only as good as the passion and dedication you put behind it. You need to be your own number one fan. When people see how excited you are about your dreams they will be too. Don’t underestimate the importance of the basics, and appreciate all your gains – no matter how small or big.
Do your research. Build a business plan. Network, Network, Network- you’ll learn very early on, that what they say is true – your network is your net worth. Build a team who understands and shares your vision; no one man or woman is an island.

Visit their website to learn more.

-Tony Oluawatoyin Lawson (IG@thebusyafrican)
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Deaf Fashion Blogger Sisters Use Style to Inspire The Disabled

Fashion bloggers Hermon and Heroda Berhane were seven years old when they both mysteriously went deaf at the same time. Now, at 34, twin sisters have blossoming careers in modeling and acting as well as a fashion blog.

Their mission is simple. “We want to tell people around the world that you should embrace disability, not hide from it, they told CNN.
The sisters grew up in Eritrea and had a happy childhood, and like many twins, they share a special bond.
Hermon once injured her cheek while riding her mountain bike. Heroda wasn’t even with her but said she knew something had happened. “When my left cheek started hurting, I knew she was in trouble. It was the only explanation for my pain,” Heroda said.
It took their parents a long time to realize the girls were deaf. “We were playing together in the backyard of our parents’ house; our mother was trying to call our names, and we did not hear at all,” the twins said. Their brother was also deaf, so the family decided to move to the UK to seek medical help.
Hermon’s acting journey began after she took a trip to South America, while Heroda’s confidence grew when she landed a role in a television commercial. As far as Hermon is concerned, “Deaf people can do it like everyone can.”
“We had quite (a lot) of barriers through our lives, especially (our) career, but we fight for it. … We will have to use our deafness and being black women to break these barriers.”
“People are hungry for real inspiration, and we want you to see that we’re wearing clothes that we can afford and most importantly that you can relate (to) with our personality.”
Find out more about them and follow their journey through their blog, Being Her.
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I Moved From the U.S. to Nigeria and Launched a Fashion Brand

Leilani Lawani was born in New York, lived in Cameroon for several years before returning to the U.S. for college.  She eventually moved to Lagos, Nigeria, and founded her fashion brand, Koélé.

Leilani Lawani

What inspired you to start your business?

I have a multicultural background in that I have lived in different countries throughout my childhood and adult life.

I have therefore been exposed to a number of ways of expressing ones self through fashion – personal style that combines different textures, patterns and colors.

These factors inspire us to design the bags and sandals that we create. I have always enjoyed fashion and felt that many of the designers were always being safe with their designs and color scheme.

There are times I would walk in a store and say to myself “If only we could change the strap, or use a different color combination, or make it a little larger.” One day I decided to try my hands at designing the bags and it took off from there.

How has living in multiple countries influenced you as a person and as a business owner?

Living in multiple countries has molded me into the person that I am today. I am very open minded and easily relate to people from different backgrounds and cultures.

I believe this helps me create styles that may cater to more than one group of people – i.e., people from different countries, interests, and across age groups.

Living in American for many years has helped me as a business owner because I learned about customer service being the one important tool to having a successful business.

I have a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The customer is always right and I will bend over backwards until the client is satisfied.

 When you moved to Nigeria, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make?

There are many. But the one that stands out the most is the traffic! I have no patience for it and have now learned to run most of my errands in the mornings before 2pm.

How do you balance being a wife, mother and entrepreneur?

There is never a balance. You just try and prioritize the best you can. I am never going to be the perfect wife, best mother or the most successful entrepreneur.

I wake up in the morning and just pray that I can get through the day without any major challenges. So far so good. I feel blessed to be the mother of my two gorgeous kids and a wife to a very supportive husband.

What are your thoughts on the importance of Nigerians supporting Nigerian brands?

I think it is extremely important to for us to support Nigerian brands. There are many talented people in Nigeria who have businesses that are of good quality but unfortunately we prefer to buy the big designer brands from abroad.

The economy is suffering and it can be improved if we keep the money within Nigeria and support each other. Its incomprehensible that such a country with so much wealth and talent is where it is today.

Slowly though it seems that more and more Africans are realizing that we need to invest in our countries and a major part of the problem is that we would rather take our money and spend it in the western world.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Never give up! If you have a dream, do not let anyone tell you that it will not be successful.

You never know until you try. Being an entrepreneur in Nigeria is probably more challenging than most other places in the world. You need patience, determination, perseverance and lots of faith.

If you have all those you are half way there. It’s very rewarding to own your business and see it grow, no matter how small it currently is. You get out what you put in.

 

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

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Black Owned Businesses in Paris You Should Know (Pt2)

Since Paris is a favorite and we are advocates of #ShoppeBlackGlobally, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve got another list of Black owned businesses you can support while abroad!

Black Owned Businesses in Paris

Maison Chateu Rouge uses wax clothes that divert the traditional African dress in a contemporary spirit.

Dada Wax Couture creates custom and personalized clothing in Wax African Wax. for women, men and children.

O Petit Club Africain offers authentic African dishes in a warm and artistic environment.

Afrikrea is your platform for discovering, buying and selling fashion, arts and crafts Made in Africa.

Waly-Fay offers West African cuisine in a hip and trendy space.

Babylone Bis is a restaurant that serves up original French Creole specialties.

Keur – or “house” in Wolof- offers a selection of decorative objects and home accessories authentic and colorful, entirely made in Senegal.

black owned paris

Le Caffé Créole is a Caribbean restaurant, which offers typical dishes of the Islands.

black owned paris

Biss and Love is a French start-up, will make you (re) discover the bissap, a red drink made from hibiscus flowers.

 

While working on this list, I had the pleasure of meeting Jacqueline Ngo Mpii, founder of Little Africa Paris and author of City Guide, Africa in Paris. Be sure to check out the website and the book!

Meeting Jacqueline Ngo Mpii at 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair, Brooklyn.

 


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