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  1. Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah

  2. Rosario Dawson 

  3. Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah

Inside Studio One Eighty Nine

Studio One Eighty Nine was created by childhood friends Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah to use luxury fashion as an agent of change. The founders work with Ghanaian artisans to produce beautiful designs. Here they tell their story (full interview)

Written by
Daniel Neilson

Where did the idea behind Studio One Eighty Nine come from? Who was involved in the process? 

Rosario and I had been talking about doing a project like this for a very long time.  Rosario is an amazing human. She has been a social-activist and philanthropist since she was a child. She has done so much that the world will never know. I have always been inspired by her and the work that she does for others. How she uses her voice and her medium as a platform to give voice to those that otherwise may be unheard.

In addition to Rosario, I have always been inspired by my family. I am American on my mother’s side from Mississppi and on my dad’s side I am from Ghana and Ivory Coast. My mother’s younger sister, Naomi Sims, moved to NY in the 60s and tried to model and they would not let her because they said she was too dark and too African looking. So she found a photographer that was willing to take her picture and ended up on the cover of the Sunday Style Section of the New York Times in 1967 and then landed the cover of Life magazine in 1969  spearheading the “black is beautiful movement”. She went on to model for Vogue, Harper’s, Ladies Home Journal, Halston etc… She showed me that fashion can be a powerful engine for social change.

I went on in my career to work for various luxury brands. I have been working in the fashion industry for roughly 18 years. I have worked for Hermes, Cesare Paciotti and most recently, Bottega Veneta which is part of the Gucci Group family now called Kering Group (they also own Gucci, Puma, Yves Saint Laurent etc). I really love luxury as I love the principles upon which it stands… commitment to quality, excellence, craftsmanship, the artisans etc… I valued greatly the time that I spent at Bottega Veneta where I was able to travel and meet 2nd and 3rd generation artisans. I respected and was inspired greatly by the work that they are doing and by how much the community around them, their country and the world really valued the “made in italy” label. Then when I would travel here in Africa, or visit my family in Ghana, I would see so much amazing craftsmanship and wonder…. Why are we not receiving the same accolades? It seemed like people were doing so much great work but hitting a glass ceiling and we felt like their was so much creativity and innovation… we wanted to be a part of the process of seeing it grow. 

So when I would have time on my vacations, I would come home to Ghana and do like a work/volunteer vacation for several weeks… I worked with Global Mamas for example as I really like the work that they are doing with the women… but it wasn’t enough. I need to be more committed because that’s what the community and the work required.

Then in 2011, Rosario invited me on a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (to Bukavu) for the opening of the city of joy. The COJ is a project with Vday, Eve Ensler’s organization dedicated to stopping violence against women and rape. Rosario sits on the board of Vday. What I loved about the COJ is that it’s a leadership center. It’s a place where women who have been the victim of horrible atrocities go after they have been to the hospital… they go to rehabilitate and to learn or be re-taught certain skills in order to help them live their lives in the community. The trip to the Congo was a very hard and long one and when we arrived we met the most amazing women that had been through a lot but were smiling and energetic and positive… they built the city themselves and push through so many obstacles and were finding their voices. We met women that made amazing crafts and fashion items and they would take proceeds from the sale and invest in farming… they would farm cassava for example and then feed their kids and take proceeds from the sale of farming to send their kids to school and support their families. The circle of sustainability was real and inspiring. 

After the trip, Rosario and I just knew what we need to do. We felt that our role was to create a platform that could help share the stories of all of the amazing women and met in our journey.  We launched Studio One Eighty Nine in order to create product locally that could incorpoate various artisanal skills and that could be a platform to tell these stories and help create a market. We believe greatly that there is a lot of creativity and innovation and we believe that it’s important to preserve artisanal skills. We believe that if focus on the value chain and work with different partners from raw materials through the consumer… we can collaborate together and try to develop a global African fashion industry… just as it exists in other countries. This is our mission and this what we would love to see develop… a global industry that is comparable to the UK, the US, Italy etc… where creativity contributes to GDP and creates millions of jobs. We want to see that happen for the men and women that we met in our journey and to all the unknown or known talent that works so hard doing what they love and value. 

So what we focus on here is on one side – education, trainings … we work a lot with schools and we train students and artisans. We also link them up with professionals in other countries that have greater experience to also help create the space where talent can compete internationally.

We also focus on job creation. We work to make products and create a space to sell them in order to build a sustainable project that can sustain itself.

Many many people were involved in the process. We have an incredible community that has worked to make all this possible for everyone involved.

How did you and Rosario Dawson meet? 

We met growing up in NYC.

Was there a visual aesthetic from the outset you wanted to stick to? Has it changed over time? 

Yes. We want it to be a collection that is about travel. Rosario and I travel a lot and so do many other people… we are all travelers moving throughout villages or cities or internationally. We cannot always have many things with us so we tried to create garments and products that are multi-functional. Easy fit items that both a man and a woman can wear… unisex often times. Loose fit items that you can share with your friends and that accentuates many different body types.

The color palette is always inspired by the colors we see around us in Ghana and other places in Africa and the relationship with Africa to the rest of the world. We love to show that you can see similar aspects regardless of where you are in the world to show that we are all linked more than we think. For example, for SS15, we had a beautiful shade of pink inspired by the bougainvilleas in Uganda, in Ghana (at busua beach) and in front of rosario’s place in LA. We were also inspired by the flamingos in migration in Kenya.

We use blues a lot as we are inspired by the sea (as we are all living in coastal areas) and the importance of water as a source of life. We use green a lot as well naturally as we are living in very green places where the natural environments plays a key role in our every day.

Aesthetically we try to be colorful but discreet subtle as well. We try to balance traditional techniques but stay modern and fresh and representative of how the world is changing. We do change over time. We hope to be ever changing. We learn from experiences and try to apply them in what we are doing.

Using Ghanaian artisans is important for Studio 189. Why did you feel the need to use local talent? 

The artisans and the women are the backbone of society. The work, the dedication, the talent… without the work that they do, nothing is possible. We believe it’s important to preserve it. Also, we were asked. We were asked to do this work… so we listened and we did it.

Are you still working with the UN on projects? 

Yes. We began working with the UN International Trade Center Ethical Fashion Initiative in 2014. This is a partnership between the UN ITC, the swiss government SECO and the Ghana government. It has been an incredible experience for us to work with them. UN ITC EFI believes that you can help lift people out of poverty by getting marginalized communities into the value chain and they work a lot with luxury brands… we share similar beliefs and it’s a blessing to work with them,. The factory is in the industrial area in North Kaneshie. There we have been able to train artisans and setup a factory that is able to compete internationally and that has received training from professionals coming from the most important luxury companies in Italy and beyond.

A major part of Studio 189 is Fashion Rising. Can you tell us a little more about this project? 

Yes. We launched on Feb 14 2013 in honor of eve ensler’s one billion rising campaign. Eve ensler put out a call to action saying that 1 in 3 women will be raped or sexually violated in her lifetime. That translates to 1 billion women which is horrible. She asked for 1 billion people to take a stance against this on Feb 14 2013 and called it “one billion rising”. She asked everyone to dance on this day and she said the earth will shake and you will feel the power… it was a beautiful and simple message. It was a way of saying… we have had enough. 

So we wanted to also show that we can rise through creativity and fashion. So we collaborated with various groups that have come into their own through their craft. For example, a women’s group in Liberia setup after the war, women in gulu in Uganda that had been forced to be the wives of child soldiers, artisans in Ghana… we collaborate across several countries and we created together. We called it “Fashion Rising”.

We have met so many more people that have shared their stories with us. Stories that are private to them. There is a layer that is the more frontal version of fashion… beautiful, aesthetic etc… and then there is this deeper under layer… real people and real stories and real experiences. Fashion is a powerful medium… if we can connect the humanity behind it, then we can focus on development and doing our best to be ethical, sustainable and playing a human role in what we are doing. We can only try. We believe through fashion we can rise… and that’s what all are trying to do together.

Where does your inspiration come from for your collections? 

We are inspired by what we see around us. Right now, we are really inspired by everyday life… artisans, fisherman, market people, etc… we think it’s really interesting to see the communities created around everyday life and how groups find creative ways to express themselves within it. Drawing from the past and mixing it with what they find in the present to create their futures. It’s the result also of a migration of people… the 60s was a time of great change here in Ghana and in the world. Many people traveled abroad and settled in other countries post colonialism seeking a brighter future. We have Ghanaians in Russia, Germany, Italy, France, UK, US, Canada etc… the result is that they have given birth to another generation of Ghanaians that are mixed heritage and have so various points of view. I think it’s fascinating that many have returned or are creating projects abroad mixing backgrounds and developing new realities. I also think it’s fascinating that this happening also locally in so many countries where people have created new realities all while honoring the past.

It’s like next generation .. it’s very cool.

At the same time, it’s very important to preserve the foundation of it all. To ensure that we are preparing young people to enter this future and giving them the tools we have been able to learn. I think that’s why it’s important to come back to the source… water, plants, sand, the sky. This is very inspiring to us.

We are inspired by traditional techniques, and work done by hand and we inspired by the environment in which we live in and the importance of preserving and maintaining it,

What can we look forward to in your new collection? 

The next collection out in September (2015) is an evolution from previous collection. It’s more mature and the quality is only getting better. We have amazing fabrics that are both local and also amazing fabrics from Italy. Fine silks, cottons, jersey and so on. We also have really beautiful fabrics from Mali and Burkina Faso.

The collection is ideal for someone who travels, and someone who has a kind of ‘resort” ‘vacation’ mindset. The silhouettes are clean and the fit is good. You can find great pieces to mix with your wardrobe.

We also have a few collaborations coming. We did a shoe together with Heel the World another Ghanaian brand that we very proud of. It’s kinda east meets west. Inspired by the Masaii tribes, with fabrics from Mali and made in Ghana.

And where does Studio One Eight Nine go from here? 

Studio One Eighty Nine has a lot up coming. We have a presentation/cocktail during fashion week in NY. We will be participating in very important fashion show that we are not allowed to disclose yet but it’s extremely exciting for us. We have partnerships with stores that are growing and very good ones. We were very pleased for example for our collaboration with opening ceremony and Lexus.

We are launching our editorial series on our website documenting the stories of the people that we collaborate with. We will present the work of new designers which is cool. And we are expanding our workshop and will have an even greater ability to support the work of other designers and do more trainings and support more people.

We also wrote the preface of a book coming out by Daniele Tamagni… he is the author of the Gentleman of Bacongo which is a photo-documentary of the Sapeurs in the Congo. The book is called “Fashion Tribes” and it speaks to what inspires us. 

Our new workshop is in North Kaneshie. It’s a center of excellence where we focus on workshops, creative projects, healthy eating etc… It is a creative hub for Ghana and everyone is invited to collaborate, create with us and grow together. It will take a village to do this work. It’s not easy. But it can be done and we believe a lot in Ghana!!!

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