Photo: Joshua Jordan/Courtesy of Abrima Erwiah
In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
In 2012, Eve Ensler’s V-Day launched a campaign to bring attention to sexual violence against women, called One Billion Rising. Having worked with the organization before, Abrima Erwiah and longtime friend, actor Rosario Dawson, thought the fashion industry could — and should — step up, too. So, the following year, they launched Studio 189, a social enterprise and lifestyle brand that sells African and African-inspired clothing and supports the artisans and communities that make them, based out of New York and Accra.
Since then, Studio 189 has grown to have a presence at New York Fashion Week, partner with other labels ranging from Fendi to Opening Ceremony and, more broadly, help shift how the fashion industry thinks about luxury and Africa.
“So often, the narratives that were coming out of Africa were negative. It’s changed now — it’s still changing — but people have a single view about certain countries and certain continents,” Erwiah tells Fashionista. So, she asked: “Could we do something about that? And can we do something about that in fashion, specifically?”
Erwiah understands the world of luxury better than most: Before Studio 189, she spent almost a decade working at Bottega Veneta — a job she says taught her about the “pursuit of excellence” and how that can translate into every aspect of a company. Ahead, she talks about how “the dots connected” for her when she went on a trip to the Congo with her now-business partner, what parallels she draws between her time at an Italian heritage brand and what she does now and why, for her, everything comes down to equity.
How did you become interested in fashion as a career?
I ended up [studying and working in] business, but even then, there was always something. Part of it was that I had studied in Italy and really liked the culture. Also, I grew up going to a French school, and when I came back from Italy, I wanted to remember the language, so I found a luxury Italian company where the head was French, to use all the different skill sets. Then, there was this general interest in fashion. Hindsight is 2020 — part of it was, too, my interest in creativity and trying to figure out how to fuse that with business.
But to be honest with you, I think the other half — again, this is hindsight — was that in business, people didn’t get why they would hire a young Black woman. I went to Stern at NYU and studied finance and international business. I would walk into class and people wouldn’t understand that I was in that class. When I graduated, I did try to go a little bit more traditional — I thought I wanted to work at a bank — and would sit in these interviews where everybody looked basically exactly the same. I slick my hair back in a ponytail, no braids; I got my little outfit on. I feel like I’m doing all the right things, and they look at you like, ‘Why are you here?’ It’s not like, ‘I speak four languages. I went to private school. I did all the right things.’ I still got this vibe.
What happened over time is that I started to find my own voice. I started to realize that my power wasn’t necessarily in conforming to what somebody else thought that I should be, but rather the amalgamation of all these various experiences that made me who I was. This is maybe 10 years post-graduation, working for corporations and realizing that there were not too many people ahead of me that I could look up to. It’s not even about being of color — it’s also about women that were of the frame of mind where I was. Because [at the time], women in places of power had to shoulder [this weight] to compete with men, and that didn’t leave room for family, for balance or for social justice. It was almost like a rat race to the top, and when you’re going up, you look up and down and to your right and left and think, ‘What am I doing here by myself?’
I saw that fashion impacts so many people. I looked at Rosario’s family, I looked at my family — people were seamstresses, did hand-work. I got to go to college, but most of us don’t get to. We’re here because of others. How do we honor that? And why is it that other people don’t get a chance to rise at the same level and pace as somebody else, if they want to? If they don’t want to, it’s all good, but if they do, who gets to decide that? I don’t want to be the outlier. You think you’re the exception for a while — you say, ‘I must be bad-ass, I must be really intelligent,’ but it’s actually not that. It’s that somebody lets you through. But what about all these other people?
The more you wear clothes and see how clothes are made, the more you start to understand how it impacts people’s value in their life and how you have the power to impact change. For me, sitting at a corporation — which, I don’t have an issue sitting in a corporation — I just reached a point where I was like, ‘What am I doing? How am I contributing? If things are not okay, why am I not doing something to change it? And who else am I blaming?’ I’m not saying I wasn’t doing anything, but [I thought,] ‘What did I really do? And how can I impact change?’
It was also because in my family, I saw, with the small gesture of my aunt Naomi being on the cover of Life, how it inspired other women and other people to see that there could be somebody that looks like them, that representation matters. Fashion can make a difference.
What made you want to delve into luxury fashion in Africa, specifically?
At Stern, [I studied] the impact of globalization economics in Argentina. I was interested in the impact of locally-sourced and -produced things, because the bigger story is that so often, there are [places] where people open factories and decimate communities because they leave. International trade can be beautiful, but it can also be really sad. It’s not helpful if you’re going to come and go, if you’re going to take somebody’s know-how and change the way they do things.
Ultimately, through my luxury work, I was seeing the pride and joy in promoting European fashion, what it means to honor an artisan and to honor the handmade, to set the price accordingly and to attribute value, in that sense. You create this perceived value that people see and are automatically willing to drop a certain amount of money on. They wear it with pride and honor it. And if you honor it and love it, it’s going to last longer and be more sustainable. But then, I would go visit where I’m from and I would see not that. I would see people over-negotiating, driving prices down. In other places, too: I was doing volunteer work in the Congo and seeing people beg for money, doing things that are completely uncalled for — meanwhile, they’re sitting on assets. Because of this economic system we’ve built, you have this thing where oftentimes, resources are extracted and value is added elsewhere; instead of letting people build value in the places where they’re from and everybody having a little bit, it’s fine if somebody has a lot more… [And it’s tied to] unfair competition, colonialism, to all of this other stuff [that] isn’t right.
I came back to Ghana to volunteer in 2010, and I went to the Congo with Rosario [for the opening of City of Joy] in 2011. I was talking a lot about Africa and its growth, about it being the future — just thinking about where we’re going as a society and the importance of preserving the earth… I was really fascinated by what the future of Africa looked like and the role of luxury [in it.] I was thinking about how we define luxury, because typically, it was always artisanal, handmade, quality innovation — and that exists in so many incredible places, but it seemed like a lot of places that were no longer doing that were keeping the title, were making money from it but not really practicing the principles… I developed this master’s at NYU Gallatin and I’m probably going to write a book about this one day, but I’m really interested in the social economic impact of luxury goods and how it applies to developing economies. This concept of: Could you build an ecosystem that has infrastructure and all the resources that you need? How? And who are the players to make that happen? That’s kind of, in my small way, my wider mission.
Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah at Studio 189’s Spring 2016 presentation during New York Fashion Week.
Photo: Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images
Before you started working on that, you spent many years at Bottega Veneta. Tell me a little bit about what made you want to go down the marketing route, how that shaped your understanding of fashion and the way you operate your own business today.
I started my career working in SoHo at a boutique called Living Doll, because I was broke and one of my friends said, ‘Get a job.’ I was like, ‘You’re a genius.’ I started doing sales, then promoting and doing all kinds of little marketing things. That led me to eventually go to Paciotti, where I was doing luxury PR, which led me to Hermès and Bureau Betak. Then I got this dream job, at Bottega Veneta.
The reason that was a dream job was because it was everything that was right for me at that particular moment in time. It was strategy, so I could apply my Stern degree. It was also creative, because I was sitting in between the creative director, who was Tomas Maier, and the CEO, who was Patrizio Di Marco and then Marco Bizzarri. It was such a great time because it was smaller at the beginning, but part of a larger group — Gucci Group, then Kering. I felt supported. And luxury was changing. People were buying up and selling brands, coming and going. And I got to do all the things under the umbrella of marketing at that level, from strategy to PR. We grew countries and departments. We expanded the team and the advertising. Then, obviously, we grew digital, because it didn’t exist. It was a time when luxury did not believe it belonged on the internet. But they let us do it. And we had many versions of it after that because it kept changing. It was exciting.
It taught me so many things. First of all, how to really build an international business. It also taught me honor, integrity and quality, and that was a lot from our creative director. The upper management team really sets the stage, and Tomas Maier was very detail-oriented and all about honoring handmade crafts and the artists, reviving old crafts that were dying… Also, being relentless about consistency and quality across everything that you do was a core value that I stood by and still stand by. It’s such an interesting thing that at that level, it actually becomes a little bit more democratic because it’s not about who’s more rich and who’s not — it’s actually about the pursuit of excellence, and that can happen at any level. That could be a $2 local dish; that could equally be caviar. One is not better than the other. It’s just about how it’s made. That was a really valuable lesson.
What happened post-Bottega that led you to start Studio 189 in 2013?
I’ve known [Dawson] for a long time, from when we were young, and we talked about doing things together, but we didn’t know what… Gradually, over time, it just got more and more, ‘I have to do something social impact-driven.’ [I did] little volunteer things here or there, and eventually I realized, ‘Is it possible for me to do something in the field that I’m already at?’
I was going to these really great charities, but they still had that kind of granola fashion vibe going. You were buying it because it was charity, but maybe you didn’t really like it or [you liking it] wasn’t your reason for buying it — and it should be. You buy that BV bag because you love it, not because it preserves a school in the Veneto. If you don’t like the thing, it’s better not to buy it.
I was trying to pitch this idea [for Studio 189] for somebody else to do it, because I was trying to keep my life. That strategy was a failing one. Note to self: Do it yourself, don’t delegate responsibilities like this. I wrote a whole thing and pitched all these concepts, and people didn’t really understand. Then I heard Muhammad Yunus talking about microloans and social enterprise, and I realized there’s a marriage that can be done here. I pitched it to Rosario, she invited me to the Congo and the universe took over.
We went on literally an impossible mission — it was the most complicated trip ever. Years before, my grandmother died, and I didn’t go to her funeral because I didn’t have the wherewithal to say, ‘I have to go to Ghana.’ I just didn’t feel empowered enough to explain myself… Also, I couldn’t afford it. It was a huge regret. A year later, my dad had a stroke. That was the moment I grew up in the sense of realizing… that life can be here and life can be gone. It’s not promised to you. I became really aware that my connection to [Ghana] was through him, that I didn’t have my own identity. I’m born and raised in America. When you have a stroke, your brain changes a little bit, and I felt like he was reverting back to years before, becoming more Ghanian than I ever knew him [to be]. So I was curious and decided to volunteer. All that to say that a few years later, when Rosario [asked if I wanted to] go to the Congo, I was, without a doubt, like, ‘Hell yes.’ No hesitation. That’s when I really started to find my power.
I went to my boss and I don’t even know if I really even asked — I was more like, ‘I’m going.’ We were supposed to do New York, Brussels, Bujumbura in Burundi, [drive] through Rwanda and into the Congo, which was fairly complicated in and of itself. People who were like, ‘You’re never going to get your visa, it’s impossible.’ I took my passport and figured out how to do some of it. I found a consulate, then I found another place in Washington, D.C. for the other visa… Right on time, I’ve got my paperwork, and the day we’re supposed to travel, there’s a massive snow storm. I had the car outside of Bottega Veneta on Fifth Avenue and Rosario’s flight, thank God, had left L.A. She was landing soon and I was like, ‘We have to go to the airport.’ I called the airline to change our flights to [leave from] Philadelphia. We booked it to the airport and when Rosario landed — she didn’t know what was going on — she jumped in the car and we headed to Philadelphia, trying to catch this flight. We got there and the flight was gone, so they got us on the last flight out of that airport to London. We got there, we couldn’t find our bag or our flight. We called the airline and it’s the same woman who helped me with the flights [earlier] — can you imagine calling a hotline and getting the same person? — and she was like, ‘Don’t worry. I’m helping you. I see your journey.’ When people want to help you, they can. We go from London to Kenya, from Kenya to Burundi, and we make it in time to meet the convoy of people that had taken a different itinerary to drive through Rwanda, into the Congo. That moment, I realized when something is meant to be, it’s going to happen.
It was a true testament of faith. But also, for Rosario and I, it’s [why] we think we can make anything happen. The reason it worked out is because we both put our faith in each other and our trust in this moment. It was hard, but it was nothing compared to what those women that we were going to see have been through.
We realized we could hustle together. Also, we realized that we had to do it for something that was bigger than us, because that’s what was carrying us. The women were so amazing. They had been through so much trauma and they were still pushing forward. So we were like, ‘If you can do it, we can do it.’ That was, to me, the moment that really solidified our friendship and our ability to work together. We were so deep into the bush and also so deep inside that country that had been through so much war — I can’t solve those issues, but [those women] can solve those issues. They know what they need. She can feed her family, she might just need to buy land or a machine or someone to talk to. So, how do we take the power of what people are already doing, elevate that and then connect it to what other people can do? Can we connect the dots along the supply chain to build something that’s stronger?
That’s where this thing was born, but that’s not when I quit. I went back and I did what most people do: nothing. I sat at my desk and thought a lot. Kering has a foundation for women’s rights and they had emailed me and said, ‘Do you want to mentor this organization in Uganda?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, this is a calling, I’ve got to go.’ I went and met this organization called AFRIpads. It was so beautiful because it was locally-sourced, locally-made… It was very powerful, and it created jobs for the women. It starts this cycle of encouragement and uprising.
When we were there, I started doing this side-volunteer thing where we put a group of local designers and creatives together in like a pop-up school and trained [people] on different topics, culminating in a fashion show for International Women’s Day. My thing is always trying to elevate the standard, to make it that level that I knew from corporate…. Fashion can bring you back through the door and it’s powerful. We did this fashion show and it was really beautiful, to see people do all this stuff. And what’s more beautiful is that some of the women we worked with actually came to Ghana, lived with us here for a few years and helped us start Studio 189; another founded Kampala Fashion Week.
I want to talk a little bit about Studio 189’s emphasis on sustainability. When did the importance of sustainability in fashion really become clear to you, to the point that you made it a priority when you founded this company?
A lot of times, we get discounted and marginalized. I recognize that I had doors open for me. Really, the only difference between me and somebody else might have been a stroke of luck or a decision made by somebody else that put me in a good school and gave me opportunities — but in two seconds, I could have been somebody else. It’s hard to not reconcile that. When I look at women making clothes, I see a person with a name. I see my auntie, I see my cousin, I see my sister, I see a brother, I see an uncle… It just seems like there’s a lot of unfairness. People begging for money? People fighting over $2? It’s so insane to me. Like, how did we get here? And why is this happening? It didn’t make sense that I had a nice apartment and a cell phone and all these things, when somebody who literally looked exactly like me — maybe even in my own family — couldn’t get on a flight to go somewhere, just because of where they were born. Also, through the volunteer work we were doing, [seeing] the things that people go through for money, it was hard for me to reconcile the differences. I was just trying to redraw the line and make it more equitable.
Where sustainability takes a big leap here is: We’re building for a hundred years from now. Most people look at the next five minutes, we’re thinking about the long-term. The whole concept of dead aid — it’s not good enough, to just throw money at somebody and say, ‘Oh, ten percent of sales go back to this organization.’ It’s gotta be a lot more than that. Ghana, we have all these natural resources. Instead of throwing some charity money, why don’t you just pay fairly for the goods you’re getting at-value? Let people make their own money and decide how they want to spend it. And if you’re not gonna do it, fair enough — maybe an international system doesn’t want that to happen — but then let’s be honest and talk about it.
Sustainability comes in again in the idea of wanting to create a system where people can empower themselves, not necessarily [through] charity money, and the only way to do that is to create a system that can be self-sustained. It’s okay to trade internationally, it’s okay to trade domestically, but it shouldn’t have to be a requirement.
And then, there’s wanting to build a system that’s bigger than aid. At the time, the fastest growing GDPs were in Africa — so how is it possible that you’re living like this? What’s the role that fashion plays? It was about recognizing what people’s names were and about understanding how they were impacted. I’m still learning. The more you trace where your goods come from, the more you realize the direct impact it has on somebody’s life; the more you understand that, the more you want to build something that’s sustainable. Again, you might not nail it at the beginning, but you want to make an effort. You want to ask yourself, ‘Do I really need these clothes? Am I investing?’ It’s just about equity for me. It’s always about equity.
Can you give an example of the way that Studio 189 works as a social enterprise, of how you work to create that equity within communities?
The Fall 2021 collection started by weaving fabrics with communities in Burkina Faso. I wasn’t there because it was during the pandemic, but it was two different communities fully involved in this process. I briefed them like I would have briefed anybody else. The idea is for people to have the same targets, so we all share common targets and we’re all treated the same. They made these fabrics, they spun them, they wove them — all the intricate steps of making original fabrics. Borders were closed but one of the many reasons I love all of them is that they didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, they figured out how to get the fabric from Burkina Faso on a bus into another area of Ghana, and then we called a friend who went and put it on another bus and took it to us. From there, it went to the factory. We used patterns that we had previously made in the U.S., with a pattern maker locally — again, trying to even the playing field. Then, we work with a production manager here, who we pulled from another role in the factory and promoted, and a second in command, who’s having a baby soon. I think also supporting mothers is really important. Without them, this doesn’t work.
We have graphic design, producers here, quality control here. If we need support from another country, we ask for it. We go through all the marketing, the process of producing a fashion show, casting and shooting the video locally. And we try to make them understand the goal, right? Because the goals aren’t always the same. New York Fashion Week comes along before most fashion weeks within Africa, so the timeline is tight and then the sales period is tight.
To be honest, we tend to be late, because when you localize it, it takes longer — people are learning that the American timelines are really fast and precise. Listen, I’m not even sure if I’m doing the right thing or not, but I’m doing it anyways. If we’re late, we’re late and if we lose an order, we lose an order. I hope we don’t, but if we do, we do. The reason it’s important is because it’s the only way you understand what it means. I can tell you what it means, or I could outsource it to another country, but then you don’t learn. You have to learn what it means by doing it. Luckily, some of our shops are very patient and they’re willing to wait. Ultimately, we have to work together like partners to make it happen. The point is to balance it so you have a shared understanding and a transfer of skill-sets that go in both directions. I have to be honest, sometimes it’s hard. Because obviously in some countries, you make way more money than you make in others… It’s never gonna be even because the cost of living is completely different, but I try my best to be transparent.
You’re usually based in New York, but have been living in Ghana for a while. How do you split your time, usually? What challenges arise from living and working in two places?
I did this a lot when I worked for an Italian fashion company. Because of that, it actually made me realize that I could do this. I used to think it was too far and too complicated, but then I realized that Milan is not that much further than Accra. I used to be here a lot and now I’m here more around production periods. I usually stay for a few months. Last year, I spent in New York. I’ve been here since January and that was because we were shipping orders and also working on the new collection. Now I would like to avoid the airplane because of Covid, so I feel I’ll stay here for a bit and then probably stay in New York for a long time when I get back.
Has your vision and your goal for Studio 189 evolved since you started the company?
In the beginning, I wanted somebody else to do it. I wanted to keep my regular life. I wanted to create a platform to connect the dots so other people — designers, brands — could present their work directly. The industry here is still new and I wanted to support other designers by creating an e-commerce platform. I wanted to be in more countries. My thoughts were much bigger. But I realized that I needed to create a model that could be replicated. Because it’s expensive, it’s stressful, it’s a lot of resources being used…. I realized I had to put my money where my mouth is and take the lead on it, show what I knew.
It became more of its own brand. Ultimately, I hope, [it will have] more of a focus on the back-end people and artisans, the infrastructure, the logistics and the value chain. I’m obsessed with systems, so as long as I feel we’ve developed a completely sound system, then I think I’ll be able to go back to the original idea.
Right now, I do collaborations and also some training. I work with schools. I teach at Parsons on it. But I would like to be able to impact thousands more people. It’s nascent across the board: Sustainability’s nascent, the role of African fashion in the global fashion industry is nascent, all these conversations are still new. And the market has to change, too. The customer has to be ready for it. I feel like they’re more ready for it now. They have to also understand their role in the supply chain, that they’re directly correlated with what happens to the people in the supply chain.
What’s something you’ve learned from working on Studio 189?
One of the main things is patience. I’m not the most patient [person], but I’ve learned to try to be more patient. There are so many things that are out of our control, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to do it here, when I could have done it sitting from New York at the beginning. Also, really understanding what other people go through — not having access to water, having to figure out what to do with their trash, all of these very intricate details of what someone goes through to get through the day — and learning that you’ll make it through the next day.
I’ve also had to learn how to forgive myself and that it’s not always gonna work out the way I want it to work out, and cut myself some slack. Sometimes you gotta take a step back and realize that if you’re doing it for the right reasons, it will work itself out. That has very fortunately actually happened a lot at Studio 189. A lot of times I thought, ‘What are we gonna do?’ And then, something really powerful and beautiful happens, when I realize that I’m not alone and that it’s bigger than me. And just the power of community: I believed it before, but what I see now is it’s bigger than us. Money can’t buy you everything. Money doesn’t buy you community… Ghana reminds me of the power of human connection. You see people who sometimes have absolutely nothing and still, babies are smiling and playing with one shoe. They keep it moving and it’s not the end of the world. It’s grounding.
What have been some of the most gratifying moments of Studio 189?
The people — seeing how they’ve grown up and changed. It’s about them having foundation and knowing that they’ve gone into the world with foresight and understanding, and that they hopefully pay it forward. I have one person who used to intern with me who moved to Rome as a Gucci fellow; another volunteered here when she was in college and now has a very similar company based out of India, impacting the lives of so many women. I see my students at Parsons, people who were at the factory that went up the ranks, people who worked in the office and have moved on and created their own thing. I see them also as they help each other out and work together as a community. They’re willing to go the lengths for each other. You can remove me from the picture and they’d still do it. That level of love and care and family is really special.
What’s inspiring to you about the fashion industry right now?
That people at the top seem to have an open mind and are willing to listen to calls for change, and also reflect on their participation and open doors for other people…. I also think there’s a wonderful crop of young and mid-career professionals that are pushing change and, if you’re not willing to hear what they’re saying, they’ll create their own thing, make their own path, build their own table. They’re changing the system. I think of all the emails I get from people I don’t know who are studying Studio 189 — we get this a lot because more and more people are actually finding this as an actual major or topic.
These organizations like Aurora James’s Fifteen Percent Pledge are opening more doors. At all levels, I see shifts — so many endeavors and initiatives just launched. Sometimes it’s about LGBTQ+, sometimes it’s about plus sizes, and I think it’s wonderful. That brings me joy.
Ultimately, I think we’ve got a long way to go, but it’s a bigger-than-fashion conversation. We need to, as a society, decide what our shared values are and what it is that we want to put our energy towards. As long as we’re making things for the sake of making money… I don’t think that things will really change. We have to take a step back — I hope people did that in lockdown — and think about our shared values and create these programs that are not just performative, but collective, symbiotic and are supporting each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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