by Bonnie Sandy Sterling and Atim Annette Oton
Brooklyn is a borough of immigrants. Their influence on Brooklyn’s aesthetic can be seen in the growing fashion industry. From presentations, fashion shows to the business models, some Brooklyn designers are doing what it takes to stay in the industry. But, one must leave these traditional expectations of the fashion industry at the Brooklyn Bridge as the perception of what a fashion designer seems to remain stagnant. Just stop and ask anyone on Fulton Street where you can find a Brooklyn designer and they would probably refer you to the storefront with “real people in the window — the real mannequins,” or perhaps to the fashion show on a Fulton street block or even those large stylized African faces they’ve seen emblazoned on merchandise from skirt, t-shirts, to handkerchiefs and totes. In case, you’re wondering, they are pointing you in the direction of Moshood Creations, and their most public reference to “Brooklyn Style”.
The Fulton Street veteran is known for its urban lifestyle brand that embraces the Afrikan Spirit, and represents its integration into the American lifestyle. Their success can be measured by customer loyalty, and many consider their early Moshood pieces collectors items. Their strongest suit is the ability to successfully integrate particular aspects of traditional African design, and fabric into hip urban clothing. They are known for their distinctive brand artfully included in the garment’s visual aesthetic, the silhouettes may be influenced by traditional African clothing but the fabric, styling and finishing are uniquely Moshood and uniquely Brooklyn!
Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Moshood arrived to make his mark in New York in the early 1980s. After years of tireless effort and hard work he opened his boutique in Brooklyn, New York. His timeless pieces bring together the traditional beauty of AfriKan tailoring and a taste of western flavor. His fluid and elegant designs have been embraced as Brooklyn’s unique flavor. Today, Moshood is still a mainstay on Fulton Street, and continues to churn out his distinctive style of fashion, with a twist of African couture.
When it comes to design and presentation, the African couture experience is not static, a few designers offer some semblance of a seasonal line, but most focus on a direct relationship with the customer — offering their clients individual service. In this format, their design services and concepts take on theatrical forms rather than the traditional runway approach favored by Seventh Avenue.
To examine the trends in African Fashion design in Brooklyn, one begins to see that drums, dancing, and live sculpture are all part of the process, and these elements create the staging for ways to translate African motifs from concepts into clothing. African designers are making this integration in conjunction while working from a retail store, an aspect that sets Brooklyn apart. Many designers also operate salons, boutiques or the traditional “African tailoring shops,” some of which are slightly modified versions of the places where they cut their professional teeth in Africa. Offering custom design service, some have the quality and skill in sewing but fall short of couture.
Raif Atelier is noted for his French cut and African tailoring; his bias cut line is a favorite with fuller-figured women. He is identified by his signature, vibrantly tie-dyed fabrics for women’s clothing and his strong menswear line, many with finely constructed leather details. These designers have created a makeshift tourist trail that draws people from all over the country and even Europe to Brooklyn on monthly or annual pilgrimage for “authentic African clothing.”
Those who crave a connection to the motherland find these designers a visible link to a lost heritage. Those who journey to Brooklyn for the exquisite fabrication and embellishment do so not for costumes but for the distinctive and individual designs and personalities.
These fashion designers have their clothing generously cut. The silhouettes are comfortable, with refined sewing details and the high quality fabrication guaranteeing longevity. Some of these African designers have an adaptation of their traditional silhouettes, but they also acknowledge western influences, on their design aesthetic, using their traditional fabrics and western construction techniques, denim for example, may now be tie dyed or embroidered — Moshood has created western-styled overcoats in African wax prints.
As designers and business people, African designers in Brooklyn may or may not embrace their role as cultural ambassadors, but their work actively steps forward to educate the consumer. Their existence is part of the process of defining Brooklyn Style and they add value to this niche.
Over the years, some Brooklyn African designers have been afforded press via magazine articles that celebrate their work, but I wonder where they will be sometime in the future. More exposure on a broader scale is needed for them but unfortunately I see that without an organized marketing effort, and given their scattered locations across Brooklyn, it is not surprising that many outsiders and even those in their immediate vicinity are not familiar with their products or services. Thus, they have not been given adequate opportunities to purchase, support and enjoy the designers’ creations. Ultimately, these designers will recognize that a proactive marketing approach may increase their bottom line.