Whatever you do, don’t call Studio 189 a celebrity brand.
“We’re a tiny company with a big idea,” said Abrima Erwiah, the luxury veteran who founded the Ghana-based, artisan-produced label with actress Rosario Dawson in 2013.
Well not too little. In June, Studio 189 snagged first place, along with $80,000 in prize money, in the coveted CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, a nine-month sustainability program that has previously rewarded boldface designers like Maria Cornejo and Prabal Gurung.
Judges were charmed by Dawson and Erwiah’s consistent enthusiasm, passion and vision to clean up the supply chain and connect African artisans to consumers in the West, but Studio 189’s “big idea” crackles with even greater ambitions: to reshape the continent’s existing narrative.
“For so long there’s been so many stereotypes about what Africa looks like, who they look like and what they do,” said Erwiah, who grew up in New York City as the child of a Ghanaian-Ivorian father and an African-American mother. “People think it’s dangerous or they think about charity or they think it’s a Dark Continent.”
Erwiah knows it can be a struggle to change people’s preconceived notions. Her maternal aunt, Naomi Sims, had to overcome tremendous prejudice against the color of her skin before her triumph as the first black woman to appear on the cover of Ladies Home Journal in 1968 and then Life magazine in 1969, both vanguard moments in the Black is Beautiful movement. Today, Sims is widely considered to be the first African-American supermodel.