Real Leaders

How Careful Listening and Diversity Can Build a Business With Impact

Here’s how fashion studio owner Abrima Erwiah built a fashion brand on sustainability, representation, and social change. 

Abrima Erwiah’s (above, right) journey from a corporate luxury fashion job in Milan to her current role as president of Studio One Eighty Nine, a collection of African-inspired clothing made in Africa, is an example of how breaking down seemingly staggering business issues into a series of small decisions and actions can amount to sizable impact.

A few years ago when Erwiah was working at Bottega Veneta in Milan, she was interested in using her job in fashion to make a social impact — so much so that she spent her vacations volunteering for organizations that worked toward that goal. The work of the micro-finance founder, Mohammed Yunus, inspired her to write a manifesto for using fashion as an agent of change. It piqued the interest of actress Rosario Dawson (above, left), who invited Erwiah on a trip to the Congo for the opening of City of Joy, an empowerment center for female survivors of rape and violence.

“We just embarked on the craziest journey to get there,” said Erwiah, during the opening remarks of the CFDA’s Fashion Education Summit. “We tried to get the visas and were told, ‘It’s impossible.’ But what we learned is that when we tried, we ended up meeting these people, ambassadors who were like, “’If you want to go to our country to help our women, we’re going to sign your visa on the spot.’”

Erwiah and Dawson went from New York to Philadelphia to London to Kenya to Rwanda to the Congo. When they finally got there, they met women who had been through horrible atrocities, yet were happy and functioning and resilient. They were making crafts to sell and then investing in agriculture to put their kids in school.

For Erwiah, this was sustainability at its most granular level. “I realized it wasn’t for me to go top-down, saying, ‘I have a great idea,’ but it was about going bottom-up and listening,” she said. “I realized that it was happening already in marginalized communities all over the world.

“I was so excited by that, I went back to my job in Italy, sat at my desk, and did what most people do, which is nothing,” says Erwiah. The universe jumped again, as she puts it. After she was sent to Uganda through Kering, she eventually left her corporate job to focus on building Studio One Eighty Nine.

Education is a pillar of Eriwah and Dawson’s mission, partly inspired by a woman named Ruth, who Erwiah met in Uganda. Ruth was a cleaning lady forced to leave school when a bomb attack by Al-Shabaab killed a family member. When Erwiah asked her what she wanted to do, Ruth said fashion. “So often, young girls will end up in situations like that,” says Erwiah. “They don’t go back to school because the family needs the money or because they feel like they’re too old. But fashion is what got her back in school.”

Sustainability, inclusivity, diversity, and social change are complex issues, but Erwiah can pinpoint everyday decisions and actions that initiate change. Making a purchase activates an entire supply chain. Education gives people the skills to participate.

It’s also about representation, making people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities visible and central to projects and leadership positions.

When Erwiah was in Ghana, she thought about the difference between herself and women and girls in the villages. A lot of it was about education, networking, and access, which leads directly to the history of West African slavery. It was 400 years ago, which, as Erwiah pointed out, is not that long ago in the history of humankind. Its effects are still felt today.

Erwiah noted that changing that comes down to small, everyday decisions. “A lot of times when we talk about history, we over glorify it,” she says. “We make it seem so big. You know, like somebody did this and someone did that. It’s this huge action. So we feel like we can’t do anything.”

Change can come down to an intern pushing your resume to the top of the pile, “even though they can’t pronounce your name,” she says.