In New York, London and Paris, leading fashion houses and designers are inspired by the richness of African patterns, colours and fabrics. However, local designers still have a long way to go to get the recognition they deserve. Charlene Dunbar, a talented fashion designer, is on a mission to change that.
Her brand, Suakoko Betty, originally started as a response to the lack of everyday fashion that tells the story of young African American women. Now living in Atlanta, she's building partnerships with local businesses in Liberia, her home country. We sat down with her to find out more about her passion for prints and her efforts to help African designers to tell their own story through their designs.
Your family moved from Liberia to Atlanta when you were 11. What was the transition like for you all?
We relocated to Atlanta because of the war in Liberia. At first, the transition was tough. I remember people asking me awkward questions - did we live in a hut in Africa, could I ride a lion, could I swim? I worked hard to lose my Liberian accent to avoid those questions.
After our arrival, we joined a Liberian church which helped us to settle down and feel more at home. Thanks to the church, I was able to stay connected to my culture. I learnt about our customs and admired all the traditional dresses that I wouldn't have been able to see otherwise.
What was your journey to becoming a designer? How did you build your business?
The journey was anything but straightforward. I was good at maths and science and chose to get an engineering degree. But shortly after starting my first corporate job, I realised that it wasn't the right thing for me. So, I took the risk to go back to school to study fashion design. I learnt how to drape, I learnt about textiles. I was in heaven.
During my studies, the idea to build an African inspired brand was born. My whole life, I've been surrounded by all these beautiful patterns, colours and dresses. But people usually wore them only for special occasions, like weddings and funerals. I wanted to dress like that every day!
In 2008, my husband was managing an Afrobeats event. I saw an opportunity to introduce my clothes at the festival. I wasn't ready at all - I didn't even have a business card to give to people who visited my stand! But still, I saw the opportunity, jumped on it and have kept going ever since. I've made a ton of mistakes along the way, but never gave up.
What's Suakoko Betty about? What are your aesthetics and who do you design your clothes for?
My business went through many changes before I got it right. The brand, as it is today, is called Suakoko Betty. I put a lot of thought into the name. Suakoko is my dad's hometown. "Sua" means "new beginnings", and "Koko" stands for "place". And Betty is your girl next door.
Although more and more people are interested in my designs, my typical customer is an African American woman. She wants to feel comfortable but sexy. She has a creative streak and wants to look good, while not being tied to the latest fashion trends. It's important for her to express herself and to show her identity.
What do prints represent in your designs?
Many prints have a meaning hidden behind them. I learnt that from my mum. For example, there's a print which represents a proverb - "Money has wings" - teaching us that we have to manage money well. Because if we don't, it flies away quicker than we realise. Each fabric and print represents something unique - just like the woman wearing it.
What was the biggest challenge in building your business?
The hardest part of building my business was transitioning from designer to businesswoman. I realised that I couldn't just put my designs on a website and cross my fingers. You have to build an email list, a social media strategy and partner with people. It's the networking that's helped my business to take off.
At a designer event, I met a woman who pulled me aside and said, "I feel like you're more interested in being an artist than a businesswoman. People love your designs, but you don't have a collection. If you're not making money out of your talent, what are you doing?" She helped me shift my mindset to responding to customers' needs, instead of creating just for the sake of creating.
On your website, you mentioned that you would like to see West Africa benefiting from the boom of the African fashion industry. Where does Suakoko Betty fit in this vision?
My team and I cooperate with artists and manufacturers in Liberia. We're building these partnerships mostly by word of mouth. The people I work with are incredibly talented, but they don't have exposure and visibility - and they can get that from partnering with us.
Together, we've designed a collection of boutique pieces that were handmade - only six feet from where the fabric was produced. These prints are like miniature pieces of art; so beautiful that they could be displayed in a museum.
A creative career is often perceived as a hobby or a side project. We're allowing Liberian artists to make a stable living doing what they love. With us, they get paid for their hard work and the money goes straight into their pocket. Our partnership makes such a big difference for them - they can provide for themselves and their families.
My vision is to cooperate with more designers and help them get signed with major design houses or retailers. I want to ensure that African designers get the appreciation they deserve and fair financial evaluation of their work.
What advice would you give to young Africans aspiring to build a business?
I'd tell new entrepreneurs not to overthink things. You're going to learn more by starting somewhere and trying different things, rather than sitting at home just thinking. You're going to make mistakes anyway, everyone does. So go ahead and start.