In February of 2013, two longtime friends Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson combined their passions for sustainability, social impact, and African culture into a social enterprise of their own, called Studio One Eighty Nine. The enterprise, headquartered in Ghana, West Africa and the USA, was inspired by their desire to showcase the talents of African artisans, while preserving culture, and employing and empowering local communities. Through the enterprise’s quest for social change, Erwiah and Dawson have become the people that they had always wanted to be; “Angels,” as Erwiah said, “it’s a person saying I’ll help you, or I know something, or here’s another way you can get there.”
In 2011, Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson took a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that changed everything. While there for the opening of V-Day’s City of Joy, a community led by Eve Ensler that heals and empowers women survivors of violence, the two friends collaborated with a group of kind and passionate women, all drawn to the creativities of the world: the arts, fashion, beadwork, craftsmanship, and raw materials. Watching these women truly inspired Erwiah and Dawson, and immediately they knew that they wanted to create a sustainable project of their own: “What Rosario and I learned was that you can let these “no’s” stop you, you can let these challenges stop you, or you can find another way.”
Studio One Eighty Nine launched its first collection “Fashion Rising,” in 2013 with the One Billion Rising campaign – a global movement to end violence against women. The line collaborated with all kinds of artisanal communities: tee-shirt makers in Liberia, screenprinters in Ghana, designers in Nigeria, and women who used to be child soldiers in Gulu, Uganda. Erwiah and Dawson were supportive, innovative, and curious in designing the collection, thinking about the story behind the story of the production: “Where is my cotton coming from? We are curious, who are you growing my cotton?” Soon after its launch, the collection gained immense recognition, was sold in Urban Outfitters, and was featured on the International Women’s Day fashion show in Uganda.
“We really try to make sure the message is about the talent, the artisans, and the skill.”
As the production of “Fashion Rising” shows, the world of Studio One Eighty Nine is an innovative and international community of creators. To source the artisanal talents, the enterprise combines the craftsmanship of Mali’s indigo dyers and bògòlanfini artists (who specialize in mud textiles, the imprinting of patterns on cloth), with artisans all across Ghana: batiking artists in Cape Coast, goldsmiths in Accra, basket weavers in North Ghana, and beadworkers in East Ghana, who work from recycled materials, such as coke bottles and church windows. For Erwiah and Dawson, it is about approaching the value chain: “All these things connect together in the end, when you buy something, you’re connecting all these industries that we don’t even think about. Somebody touched it.”
The two founders are active in sponsoring local art students, and running workshops and pop-up schools of their own. “It is about the people,” said Erwiah, “and taking the time for each individual person to the best of our ability is so important.” Studio One Eighty Nine has also partnered with the 14Plus Foundation, a like-minded organization that builds and operates schools and orphanages in rural African communities, where the enterprise is the hands behind the creation of the schools’ uniforms.
“We try to enhance what other people can do, they enhance things in us, and we create together.”
For co-founder Erwiah, the most important piece of advice that she can give is this: “I think not just talking, but doing and trying… For an industry to grow, I think it needs everybody, different kinds of people, opinions, thoughts, expertise, skillset… we don’t all need to have a factory, we don’t all need to do the same thing, but we all should work together.” These are the inspired words that keep Studio One Eighty Nine relevant and impactful. It is doing the work, not just providing the aid, but producing and creating the change: the long-term jobs, training, and opportunity.
“[Great brands] don’t talk ‘charity,’ they just talk ‘craftsmanship.’ They talk ‘doing great work.’”
Today, Studio One Eighty Nine continues to attract the support of many organizations. A core supporter of the enterprise is The United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative, who have helped the company build and operate a new production factory in Accra, near one of its main headquarters. Additionally, Studio One Eighty Nine has collaborated with Vogue, Yoox.com, and Fashion 4 Development, and has gone on to win many, highly acclaimed awards, including the Taormina Humanitarian Award at the Taormina Film Fest and the Social Justice Award from the University of Pennsylvania.
Ultimately, Studio One Eighty Nine is “all about the people that are involved in making it. I would like them… to feel empowered and sexy and stylish and strong. ‘Discrete empowerment’ comes from regular people doing work just as they are.”
Photography courtesy of Studio One Eighty Nine