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Studio 189 is Betting on African Artisans as the Future of Manufacturing

Whatever you do, don’t call Studio 189 a celebrity brand.

“We’re a tiny company with a big idea,” said Abrima Erwiah, the luxury veteran who founded the Ghana-based, artisan-produced label with actress Rosario Dawson in 2013.

Well not too little. In June, Studio 189 snagged first place, along with $80,000 in prize money, in the coveted CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, a nine-month sustainability program that previously has rewarded boldface designers like Maria Cornejo and Prabal Gurung.

Judges were charmed by Dawson and Erwiah’s consistent enthusiasm, passion and vision to clean up the supply chain and connect African artisans to consumers in the West, but Studio 189’s “big idea” crackles with even greater ambitions: to reshape the continent’s existing narrative.

“For so long there’s been so many stereotypes about what Africa looks like, who they look like and what they do,” said Erwiah, who grew up in New York City as the child of a Ghanaian-Ivorian father and an African-American mother. “People think it’s dangerous or they think about charity or they think it’s a Dark Continent.’”

Erwiah knows it can be a struggle to change people’s preconceived notions. Her maternal aunt, Naomi Sims, had to overcome tremendous prejudice against the color of her skin before her triumph as the first black woman to appear on the cover of Ladies Home Journal in 1968 and then Life magazine in 1969, both vanguard moments in the Black is Beautiful movement. Today, Sims is widely considered to be the first African-American supermodel.

“People make perceptions based on the story they hear or the way somebody looks and they make a choice,” Erwiah said. “It can affect an entire generation of people and the opportunities they’re going to have or their chances at survival.”

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As a self-described “agent of change,” Studio 189 seeks to create a new storyline for Africa, one that empowers disenfranchised communities through skills training and job creation while preserving traditional techniques like indigo dyeing, weaving and batiking.

Too long have Western companies plundered the continent for sartorial cues without crediting or enriching the source, Erwiah said. Which raises the question: Surely allowing these countries to play an active role in the global economy is better than “throwing back charity” after the fact?

Indeed, Studio 189, most emphatically, isn’t a charity. With manufacturing in Africa firing up, its investment in the continent might even be seen as the pragmatic, forward-thinking thing to. Of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world this year, six are in Africa, according to the World Bank. Riding high on a projected oil boom and a thriving cocoa industry, Ghana’s projected growth of between 8.3 and 8.9 percent might even outstrip India’s.

Africa is also the fastest-growing continent in terms of population, resulting in a younger, more able-bodied workforce. The median age in Africa is 19.4, compared with 37.4 in the United States, 37 in China and 26.7 in both India and Bangladesh. Plus, as Africa looks to shake off clothing castoffs from the West and revitalize its once-booming garment industry, countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda are equipping their youth with skills in apparel design and manufacturing.

Manufacturing in Africa is “not a question of if, but when—and how,” according to Erwiah. “The production capabilities are there, the raw materials are there, you have access to textile technology, the gross domestic products are growing.”

As China gradually loses its luster because of mounting labor, raw material and tax costs, companies might find Africa a more enticing alternative. Already, brands such as H&M and Gap, lured by tax breaks, subsidies and African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) privileges, are testing the waters by sourcing small volumes of clothing in Ethiopia, which recently opened a new industrial park dedicated to production. 

There’s a danger, however, that in embracing Africa’s riches, companies end up exploiting them, which is why sustainability is such a cornerstone for Studio 189. Its use of Fair Trade-certified organic cotton, for instance, is a strategic decision that comes with ripple effects baked in. 

Organic cotton garments that were grown in Burkina Faso, then cut and sewn in Ghana, are like miracle products to me,” Erwiah said.

The farmers get paid a fair price for their labor, and they’re encouraged not to use pesticides, which is better for their health and that of the environment, she noted. Local women who weave the cloth from looms are able to earn a source of income so they can feed their families and send their children to school.

Dyers who use low-impact, AZO-free dyes made from plant-based sources such as indigo or annatto are, again, choosing the safer, more environmentally sound option, Erwiah said. And artisans who fashion beads out of recycled glass, hand-carve brass or resist-print mud cloth have the financial impetus to keep time-honored traditions going. 

“Basically everybody is winning,” she added. “If the consumer is asking for sustainable products, then when people make the choice to manufacture in Africa, they’re going to manufacture in a way that’s sustainable and beneficial to the communities there.”

This is not to say there aren’t challenges to sourcing in Africa. Outside of major cities, internet and phone access are luxuries, which means producers can’t simply snap and send photos to buyers overseas. In West Africa, electrical outages are so commonplace there’s a term to describe it: “dumsor,” which translates to “off and on” in Ghanaian. Meanwhile, infrastructure needs, economic needs, social needs and healthcare needs exist as well.  

“I remember when there was an Ebola outbreak and everybody told me to stop and come back,” said Erwiah, who also has an office in New York. “This would not be an issue if my company was based only in America. I ordered fabric last year that I’m just receiving now. It’s a very different reality.”

But Erwiah and Dawson are continuing to bet on Africa, even as similar social enterprises like Edun, Maiyet and Suno either have pulled out or shuttered altogether. Simply stated, Africa “is magic,” Erwiah enthused, and she wants to capture and share the continent’s unique alchemy before it slips away forever. 

Unlike businesses that are under pressure from investors to turn an immediate profit, Studio 189 says it’s comfortable playing the long game by growing organically.

Besides storefronts in New York and Accra in Ghana, Studio 189 is sold only in a handful of retailers: Opening Ceremony, Maison de Mode, Atrium, the Surf Lodge, Donna Karan’s Urban Zen in the Hamptons and Biffi in Italy.

“I didn’t want to be in 100 doors out the gate and then feel the pressure of meeting certain targets,” Erwiah said. At the very least, she added, customers will be in a better position to appreciate these small-batch works of art for what they are. 

“When you buy our clothes, when you see the fabrics, the textures and the colors, you can feel the energy of the people, you can feel their history,” Erwiah said. “It’s special. And I think that makes a difference.”