Expat Diaries: Sierra Leone Gangstas Design Kicks for K1X

Meet the African-American expatriates of EBONY.com’s “Expat Diaries,” a weekly series detailing the varied experiences of Black Americans living abroad. If you’ve ever wanted to pack up and leave the United States to soak up foreign cultures in search of adventure, live vicariously through the “Expat Diaries.” From Paris and Berlin, to South Korea and beyond, “Expat Diaries” dips into worldwide cultures and tells the truth about blackness all over the world!

Mallence Bart-Williams was sitting in a quiet corner at her own exhibit opening slash product launch in Berlin when we met. Short curly Afro on top, lithe denim-clad legs stretched out before her, she was sipping a soft drink and wearing a gold-plated chain that read: I’M POSSIBLE.

Only a handful of years ago, Mallence started visiting her father’s home country of Sierra Leone again after a hiatus forced by civil war. Tens of thousands dead and a shiny new government later, Mallence went to the Freetown neighborhood of Lion Base daily to check on the progress of a jacket she’d commissioned from a local tailor. Crossing a bridge to reach the tailor’s studio, she noticed something strange.

“From a bird’s-eye perspective,” she says, “you could see there was some life going on underneath the bridge. And I just always wondered who was under there.” Mallence came to learn that living underneath the bridge was a feared neighborhood gang of about 20 boys calling themselves the Lion Base crew. “For some reason,” Mallence muses, “we just started to greet each other.”

As she became friendlier with the group of outlaws, all of Freetown thought she was crazy. What if they robbed her? Or worse? “I asked people, and they said, Just stay away from them. I was always warned about these guys. That kind of intrigued me,” she smiles. “One of the first guys I befriended was 6 Pack. He was the leader or boss of the gang. I think that helped, because then the others didn’t dare to harm me. He and I just got along.”

The innate trust on her part that she’d be safe with them, was reciprocated. They invited her to see how they lived. There. Under the bridge. What she saw changed her.

“It was something else. Like, you see the waste passing in the gutter, and one meter away from that, they slept on the naked ground. If they were lucky they’d have a piece of cardboard. Every time I went, there would be lots of commotion. I’d ask, What’s your story? They’d say, You really want to know? It’s a looong story. Of course, I wanted to know. So me and two of the ones I knew a bit better, we went to the beach to have a little bit of a time away...”

“Lion Base” documentary

"Lion Base" documentary

It’s said that you may not remember what people say or do, but you’ll always remember how they made you feel. The details of what Mallence heard on the beach that day are fuzzy now, but they inspired her to action. “Of course from that moment on, knowing their stories made me responsible. I felt like I had to do something.”

Fast forward to the German launch of urban street brand K1X's new DCAC Batik sneakers, made by the hands of the boys of Lion Base. Along with a book and a documentary film (Lion Base) based on the making of it all, these kicks form the foundation of their new lives: proceeds pay for their apartments and their education.

On this night in Berlin, their faces smirk down at all of Afro-German Berlin from the room’s stripped-down walls. The same posters have been plastered along the Freetown bridge under which they once slept, as well as on the storefronts of designers like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent in Berlin and Paris. Each image is a portrait of a Lion Base Crew gangsta-turned-fashion-designer, rocking an I’M POSSIBLE chain identical to their new leader/sister/mama/business partner, Mallence Bart-Williams.

She and I met up at Soho House Berlin days later to speak about it all.

Ieishah Clelland: Whose idea was it to make a sneaker? Was this something you suggested to the Lion Base Crew, or did they come up with the idea?

Mallence Bart-Williams: No. I had to work with the contacts that I had, and it just so happened that I was working with this sneaker company, K1X. I went to K1X with the idea to do an African print sneaker from materials I found in the market in Freetown. At first they said, No. What a stupid idea! I had to fight for it. It was just too fashion forward for them. [Germans] think in white, black and grey. You know, you don’t see much color. Then, persistence, persistence, persistence, and finally, they said yes. Working with this factory in Thailand we produced the sneaker, and showed K1X the final