FOR ENTREPRENEUR, EDUCATOR, AND DESIGNER Abrima Erwiah, personal and professional ambition are one and the same. In both domains, the New York City native and co-founder of fashion brand Studio 189 focuses on joy and gratitude. “I made a choice to be grateful, and to be happy,” she says. “And I purposely surround myself with people with the same energy.”
Erwiah wasn’t always living in this kind of alignment. In the early 2010s, she was working as an executive for a European luxury brand and was struck daily by the stark lack of diversity in the industry. “I’m at a company, I'm looking around, and thinking, as much as it’s nice to do okay, it’s not nice to do it when you’re the only one.”
Though she grew used to being the only Black woman in the room, it never became comfortable. “I decided it was time to hold myself accountable,” she says. “I realized that if I wanted to see change, I needed to do something.” In part to deepen the connection with her West African heritage (her father is from Ghana), she began traveling the African continent, volunteering and learning. “I realized so much of my identity was homogenized, and I really didn’t understand my culture. I was looking it up on the internet,” she said. As she traveled, she found herself especially inspired by the textiles and local fashions. “The beautiful tailoring, the cloth, and the incredible craftsmanship — it sparked my interest to understand more.”
Erwiah used her travels to assist organizations working with local artisans. The apparel and accessories products they were making were fair trade, but she found them lacking in aspirational design, and felt the skills of the craftspeople were being underutilized. She saw an opportunity. By shifting the focus from craft to design, and elevating the idea of slow fashion made by hand, her vision of using “fashion as an agent of social change” could become reality. The goal was to create opportunity and employment, to build a factory in order to uplift unknown (and unseen) talent, and establish access to a global market. Erwiah knew these were aspirations she was well-equipped to accomplish. She wrote a mission statement and sent it off to potential partners. Only her friend Rosario Dawson bit.
The pair launched Studio 189 in 2013. The production was set up in Accra, with the commercial business in New York. Fortuitously, the timing of the brand’s creation coincided with a wave of diaspora returning to Ghana. Returning descendants found an already booming creative economy made up of local artists, musicians, and creators, and according to Erwiah the air of possibility felt electric. Within a short time, the brand established a design studio and two boutiques in central Accra, which serve double duty as hubs for community and creative exchange. Now, nearly 10 years later, she adds, “a new crop of talent is returning and emerging. They see it’s possible to build, and there’s a market for it. A huge renaissance is happening.”
I like taking those stories back. It’s the gift of an education — bringing them back through clothing or through storytelling, lightening up the mood with colors and with print.
Inspiration for the brand’s designs stems from appreciation — for the bounty of nature, and for the traditions that traversed through history between coastal West Africa and the United States. The use of bright colors reflects the lush Ghanaian landscape, and hand-blocked batiks are the primary print motifs that recur in the traditional craft, mirrored in American freedom blankets. To the untrained eye, hand-batik fabrics can be admired for their beautiful patterns, but each shape also tells a story. Symbols rich with stories from the African continent came ashore to other lands, narratives passed down by generations. “I like taking those stories back. It’s the gift of an education — bringing them back through clothing or through storytelling, lightening up the mood with colors and with print.” The designs themselves are a celebration of return to source.
This rejoicing was felt during the rapturous Studio 189 show, which took place during New York Fashion Week a few months before the pandemic hit. The excitement and happiness of the audience was palpable. The whole setup was an exercise in joy and celebration, with custom sound by resident music director Uproot Andy, and models dancing down the runway to a live performance by Congolese-Canadian artist Pierre Kwenders. “Everything came together. All the people involved bent over backwards and put their hearts into it. When you add everyone’s hearts together, what you get is joy, and your heart bursts.”
This past spring, Abrima Erwiah became a 2021 CFDA Fashion Fund recipient, her tireless work merging creativity, commerce, and social consciousness finally gone mainstream. Her efforts to break down stereotypes and reshape ideas of what fashion looks like have come full circle. For this she holds only more gratitude for everyone who has taken part in the journey that has brought her to the present. “I’ve been surrounded by a lot of love. I have given and received so much in return, and for this I'm grateful. When we celebrate it’s our way of saying thank you, of saying I see you, I know what you’re doing, I appreciate you, and know very well that I would not be here without you.”
Abrima Erwiah’s Guide to Accra
Since relocating to Ghana and launching Studio 189, Abrima Erwiah has fallen in love with Accra. “The creative scene is explosive with art, music, fashion, design — everything.” Here, Erwiah shares her must see, eat, and stay places in and around the capital city.
Where to Visit
The Door of Return
The Door of Return at the Cape Coast Castle is about two and a half hours from Accra. It’s a slave castle that I insist everyone who comes to Ghana visit. This is where people were kept before being put on slave ships. In 2019, The Door of No Return was closed, and this new door was built to symbolize the return of those who were taken away now returning.
Akosombo is a small town about two hours east of Accra that has a dam built along the Volta River. It’s a completely different energy from Accra, which I find peaceful. It has lush vegetation and deep nature with hiking trails. There are farms producing organic foods, and there’s plenty of wildlife around.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim is my good friend and the curator at Ano Gallery. She has been at the forefront of the West African art boom. Ano Gallery works collaboratively with emerging talents to develop exhibitions that range from smaller to more grand-scale works.
Gallery 1957 represents some of the most well-known artists. It is located at the Kempinski Hotel.
Where to Swim
Kokrobite is a beach town about 45 minutes from Accra. Ghanaians love to go to this beach on Sunday right after church.
Where to Stay
La Villa Boutique Hotel
La Villa Boutique is a very lush, green hotel that’s in the center of the city. The whole property feels very calming and integrates local elements. The owners are Italian but the vibe feels local.
Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City
If you’re looking for somewhere bigger, the Kempinski is a beautiful hotel that manages to seamlessly weave local details with the comforts of a 5-star chain hotel. Our second Studio 189 boutique is also located at the Kempinski.
The Kwarleyz Residence is a new apartment-hotel residence that was recently opened by a Ghanaian owner. It’s got a modern vibe and is conveniently located in the center of town.
Where to Eat
For visitors who have not yet acclimated, I take them to Buka. The restaurant incorporates various West African cuisines — Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Togolese. You can sample a variety of traditional dishes. I love to order Nana's Special Light Soup. The base is a tomato and ginger broth with lots of pepper.
Asanka Local is one of my favorites with several locations in Accra. I like to order waakye, a rice and beans dish, for breakfast. What I love most is the palava sauce, a curry-like dish with spinach greens and boiled yams.
Bistro 22 is my favorite restaurant for when I’m feeling homesick for America. It’s also the only place where I can get a kale salad.
Where to Dance and Lounge
Ghanaians love to dance. The most popular late-night spot is Twist Lounge. It’s an after-hours kind of place that starts from 2 a.m. onward.
Sandbox Beach Club
Architect David Adjaye designed the most incredible space on the beach in Accra called Sandbox Beach Club. It’s a social club and restaurant. To me it represents the new Ghana and inspires me to see the possibilities ahead.
Polina Aronova-Cahn Writer
Polina Aronova-Cahn is an editor and writer who connects the interrelated dots of culture, style, movement, and conscious living. She is the editor-in-chief of Human Shift magazine.
Daniel Kons Photographer
Daniel Kons is a Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana based fashion and fine art photographer whose body of work encapsulates everyday contemporary life. His work has appeared in L’Officiel, Vogue Runway, British Vogue, and Nataal.