A celebrity startup where the real star is an African community


It’s hard enough to build a fashion brand, let alone an empire. Rare is the person who makes a mission of using fashion to build communities. Such is the case with Studio 189, a label founded by longtime friends Abrima Erwiah (formerly a marketing executive at Bottega Veneta) and Rosario Dawson (an enduring star most recently seen in Netflix’s Marvel franchise).

“The idea is to produce everything in local markets,” says Erwiah. “Particularly in Africa, particularly in Ghana.” The founders set up the company in partnership with the United Nations’ Ethical Fashion Initiative, which also works with such socially conscious brands as Edun, Marni Group Srl, and Vivienne Westwood Ltd. The mission of Studio 189 dovetails with the slogan of that UN off-shoot: “Not charity, just work.”

“It’s a social enterprise,” Erwiah says. “We think that’s much more powerful than aid.” The company, founded in 2011, dropped its first collection in 2013. The company has since thrived in its effort to allow impoverished communities to take advantage of the global economy (rather than the other way around, as is customary) by fostering an industry grounded in traditional craft.

Jointly headquartered in Manhattan and Accra, Studio 189 makes clothes and accessories that offer an attractive compromise between age-old traditions of handcrafting and contemporary chic. The line sells at online retailers such as Yoox Net-a-Porter Group Spa and in its own  brick-and-mortar Nolita boutique.

Studio 189 excels at boldly patterned, brightly colored, loosely structured garments, including kimonos (generally priced between $250 and $750) and mandarin-collared shirts ($195). Though the latter tend to be worn by men and the former by women, Erwiah believes many of the brand’s wares are fluid in gender appeal and many other aspects. “They’re easy to travel in and to go from day to evening and share with your partner,” she says. “We like the idea that less is more.”

The brand was inspired by a 2011 trip that Dawson and Erwiah took to the City of Joy in the Democratic Republic of Congo—a community for female survivors of violence. The visit motivated the longtime friends to invest their respective star power and fashion savvy in a creating a clothing-manufacture infrastructure in Ghana, where Erwiah was born and raised. (She can claim tribal kinship with Kwame Nkrumah, who spearheaded the colony’s achievement of independence from Britain in 1957.)

Socially, they can measure their success on the micro level—for instance, providing training programs to people who have begun to embark on entrepreneurial careers and providing good wages so factory workers might then afford engineering school. “I just love the idea of people being able to do that of their own accord,” Erwiah says. As a rule, she adds, each person receiving an income for Studio 189 lifts the standard of living of 10 others.

Sartorially, triumphs include a wide range of garments made with natural indigo from Mali, a selection of fabulous patterns inspired by local tradition and abstract expressionism, and a $695 voluminous cotton skirt officially called the Black and White Jazzy Jeff (and informally known, in house, as the Alicia skirt, because it is a favorite of singer Alicia Keys. “It looks like toned-down couture,” Erwiah says.