RISING FOR ACTION THROUGH FASHION
A Conversation with STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE”S ROSARIO DAWSON and ABRIMA ERWIAH
By Eden Herbstman
It was the night after amfAR’s annual benefit gala kicking off fashion week in New York City, and Rosario Dawson had just received an honor for her work advocating for HIV and AIDS charity. Rosario’s vocal and active presence for these causes has been her public initiative for years, but now she is rising higher to obtain these goals through the medium of fashion.
Thus came the birth of Studio One Eighty Nine. Rosario and her life-long friend Abrima Erwiah are the design duo behind the brand. The duo were in town for fashion week showcasing their designs in a cozy studio on 14th street to buyers. Other designers and fashion labels have sought inspiration through Africa’s tribal trends, but Studio One Eighty Nine captures the true essence of African culture and content. Their philosophy is the same as the United Nation’s slogan “it is not charity, it is work.” Rosario and Abrima work directly with traditional batikers, while utilizing the indigo plant for all their brand’s denim, and helping one-on-one with designers and artists in Africa.
Once the finished product of the clothing finds a home on a rack, their vibrant colors, patterns, and textures radiate the spirit of traditional African designs, but there is a commitment, purpose, and cause that goes into each article of clothing and accessory. The blues, the yellows, and the hues of pink are all directly inspired from the tropical surroundings of Ghana, and that energy is absorbed through the clothing. Studio One Eighty Nine’s philosophy for partnership and collaboration is also echoed through their E-commerce platform, allowing other designers and artists to showcase their talent through their website as a medium. This collaborative spirit and rise through fashion and the arts is their way of pushing for serious social change in a creative outlet. While Rosario designs in California, Abrima spends time in Ghana directly working with their designers, creating a global unity through their brand. While speaking with Rosario and Abrima you could easily feel the bond the two friends have for each other, and their excitement and passion about their clothing. There is an instant empathetic identification, found in Studio One Eighty Nine creations from the unique hand made designs, connecting people on a global level through a dialogue of clothing.
Eden Herbstman: You two have a long history of friendship. How has it been working together on this business?
Rosario Dawson: It was a really great “graduation” in a way since we all knew each other from elementary and high school, so we went from students and now going out into the world through our work, journeys, and travels. There is a really great history and connection in that we’ve been supporting and encouraging each other for such a long time. For us, this line seems like that natural graduation, but for other people that don’t know the story, from the outside looking in, they may say, “Wait…how do you know each other? Why are you doing fashion?” But this is really in keeping with who we are.
EH: Where did the idea for the brand originate from?
RD: Abrima and I took a trip to the Congo. That made us become more specific and more targeted about what we were going to create together, from seeing the work they were doing in The City of Joy. That is how this was born. It’s always been about not doing a “handout” situation on the ground, which I think is not sustainable. It’s been amazing watching these people work and to help collaborate as entrepreneurs. We started a company in West Africa right when Ebola hit so that makes the circumstances we can offer and the stakes that much more serious, because the story happening over there is not the story we are telling. It’s really a true partnership between us and the people on the ground we are working with and coming together.
EH: From a fashion standpoint, how does your brand differ from other design houses?
Abrima Erwiah: Each item is hand made, so if someone likes a certain print but wants it in a different shade of green or a different style we can do that because it is hand made. The idea isn’t to have all this ready-to-wear immediate availability. Instead, the idea is about maybe waiting two or three weeks for something, but knowing it is hand made, that someone actually made it with their own hands. We still keep with utilizing traditional techniques, but we try to execute them in modern ways, like how we brought in a designer to hand paint a typical Ghana village scene on one of our dresses.
RD: There are some amazing artists in Ghana, but their creativity isn”t valued the same way there, so we try and help them through our brand to capture and really showcase their talent.
EH: You can definitely get the sense that there is this customized love and energy channeled into each piece. That connection is obviously important in your brand”s philosophy.
RD: People are buying things they think are pretty all the time, so why not let there be a social or ethical impact behind it? This isn’t a brand or manufactured line where you sit there, press a button, and a thousand shoot out. Everything is hand crafted, one at time, customized and unique.
AE: You are really connected to the person that did the work, and you can feel that. If someone is doing the work, and let”s say they are having a bad day, you will be able to tell. That harmony is really important. For example, we have a jumpsuit/kimono in the line, and that harmony and flow of culture is important in the intent.
RD: Yes, because it is batiked. It is Japanese, and there is that African design. This cyclical harmony is vital. It has a flow that makes sense.
AE: When we do a quality check down the line, we look at each individual print and each stitch, and we can tell if something is off. Usually someone says there is a problem with this or that, maybe they couldn”t pay rent maybe something else is going on, so we say let’s go work on that first.
EH: Where did the slogan “Fashion Rising” rise from?
RD: We recognized that women can rise up through fashion and there is an impact. It’s not like we are creating an idea that we think people will like. We’ve seen enough huge designers do well with their African-inspired lines, and people have spent a lot of money on gorgeous Masai-inspired pieces, but unfortunately the Masai on that collection didn’t benefit. In our collection we are really trying to have people rise and feel empowered through fashion. We have pop-up fashion schools and we encourage people to learn the techniques and better themselves. If we see a line isn’t straight or something wasn’t as good as we know it can be, we want to know what is going on and to help, rather than “oh, you’re fired.” We try to resolve the problems because we have a close personal connection to the people we are working with. That’s the whole point of the brand: to help, to collaborate, and to partner. If you were a victim of rape and feel outcast from society, we want to bring those people in and say that isn”t who you are, in fact you’re a really good seamstress and rise through that, and that talent, and that is your story, not that you were outcast from society. The story is you have a great talent and are a great provider for your child. If people didn’t invest in me, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today, so it really is about putting in that time and investment, and creating a story on the ground in Ghana and bringing that here. You go to Italy and you see cobblers or seamstresses and they are valued in their community. We want to encourage that same idea, respect, and rise through fashion talent.
AE: This is about saying this person has their job, I have my job, she has her job, somebody is already making or sewing something, so let’s pull all these people together and grow together, and so it”s about how we can grow in the industry as a unit.
Studio One Eighty Nine is a social enterprise created by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah that consist of creatives that seeks to provide a platform to help promote and curate African and African-inspired content through an ecommerce shopping site, a supporting agency, and an artisan-produced fashion collection.
Written by Eden Herbstman
Photography Courtesy of Studio One Eighty Nine
Design by Mina Darius
Rosario Dawson on the Left, Abrima Erwiah on the Right, Photography Courtesy of Studio One Eighty Nine