Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah put art and soul into their fashionable social enterprise
Manhattan was beset by blizzards during February’s New York Fashion Week yet inside the Studio One Eighty Nine (S189) showroom, there was a warmth in the air that belied the icy temperature. “Everyone who came in to view our Fashion Rising collection would touch the fabrics, then try things on, feel happy and leave completely energised,” recalls Rosario Dawson, co-founder of the ethical label alongside Abrima Erwiah. “It was like, stop by here and get your smiles!” It’s been the same story everywhere S189 goes. At a pop-up in Los Angeles during the Oscars, Dawson’s artist and actor friends all swung by to browse and vibe. “People felt an instant connection to the clothes. One guy put on a shirt and started breakdancing.” And at the brand’s recent launch at Opening Ceremony, Seal couldn’t resist the urge to do an impromptu acoustic performance.
The magic of Fashion Rising stems from the love these two women feel for each other and for the tangible impact their project is having. In conversation with them about their social enterprise - an e-commerce platform curating African-inspired content and an artisan-made fashion line produced in West Africa - the energy between them is palpable. They graciously finish each other’s sentences and laugh loudly as they passionately debate the power of fashion to foster employment, education and female empowerment.
These gal pals go way back, originally meeting as teenagers on the Lower East Side. Dawson lived in an abandoned building with her mother and was about be street cast by Larry Clark for her debut film role in Kids. Erwiah, whose heritage is Ghanaian and Ivorian, was attending a French school and destined to study business at NYU before embarking on a career in the luxury fashion industry. “I thought Abrima was so fierce. She had a ready smile and always kept it moving, such a super young leader,” Dawson recalls. “Rosario has always been a visionary,” Erwiah counters. “Even back then she was involved in social activism and led by example.”
Erwiah became a marketing executive at Bottega Venetta and spent time in Uganda with the Kering Foundation. Dawson balanced her Hollywood success with a range of community projects including heading up the US voting organisation Voto Latino. She is also on the board of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women, and in February 2011 invited Erwiah to join her on a V-Day trip through Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the opening of a therapy centre. “Everything was a ‘no’ getting there - visa issues, snow storms, cancelled flights,” recalls Erwiah. “But we were determined to get to that place, do that work and meet these awesome women. After that it felt like the universe was opening up to us. On the journey home we started devising a plan for S189.”
“We believe it’s possible to do luxury in Africa. It’s about creating an infrastructure, embracing artisanal techniques and finding the right market for them”
Erwiah relocated to Accra and they established relationships with craftspeople and tailors across Cape Coast. Two years later, on 14 February 2013 (to mark V-Day’s One Billion Rising campaign), they launched their first capsule collection. The line has been developing organically ever since. Last year they partnered with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, a UN body that works with the likes of Stella Jean, Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney to produce in Africa while supporting local talent. This collaboration boosted S189’s production capacity and gave them an opportunity to be part of Vogue Talents in Milan. “We share a common mission so it’s been very rewarding being connected to them,” says Erwiah. “We believe it’s possible to do luxury in Africa. It’s about creating an infrastructure, embracing artisanal techniques and finding the right market for them.”
“What is luxury?” adds Dawson. “For us it’s not a price point. It’s a skill only a few people know because it’s been passed down through generations. It’s the scarcity of indigo dye. It’s drinking from a fresh coconut on a clean beach. So let’s appreciate what we have and built it out together.”
The SS15 colour palette was inspired by just such a beach, from its green banana leaves to its deep ocean blues, as well as the pinks of migrating flamingoes and the fuchsia bougainvillea that grow near Dawson’s LA home. These natural influences also informed the collection’s unique graphic textiles - batik and hand painted fabrics from Ghana and bogolanfini and indigo dyed cloth from Mali. Silhouettes embrace easy elegance. Kimonos, button down shirts, high-waisted shorts, A-line skirts, sundresses and caftans all mix, match, layer and flow. Accessories include glass bead necklaces made from recycled bottles and brass pendants carved into the shape of the Adinkra symbol for interconnectedness. And from start to finish, everything is done on the ground – they sketch with students from a local college, skills train pattern cutters and use a fit model who works on a stall next to the studio. “These are wearable works of art for those who want to feel the energy and story of the people who made them,” says Dawson.
S189 is also part of a bigger conversation around the impact the West African creative scene is having on the value chain with Erwiah name-checking like minded labels including Christie Brown and Osei Duro. “We want to advance together as a crew. One person’s success is tied to the next and together we’re forming an industry.” Watch out world because nothing is going to slow the stride of these irrepressible women.