Rosario Dawson caught our eyes in the 90s as an actor on the big screen in iconic films such as Kids and He Got Game. The Afro-Latina actor and activist is also a co-founder of Studio 189, one of the most popular sustainable Black-owned brands out right now. Her long-time friend and co-founder, Abrima Erwiah, is a business pro, who got her start in the luxury fashion space at Bottega Veneta. After a trip to the Congo together that changed both of their lives, two decided to launch their sustainable fashion line Studio 189 that would incorporate the natural materials of the Motherland and the techniques and craftsmanship of the continent's under-recognized artisans.

Made and produced in Africa, the brand focuses on working with sustainable natural fibers, such as organic cotton from Burkina Faso, and repurposing recycled materials from cotton and glass. In 2018, Erwiah and Dawson's eco efforts in style received industry acclaim as their brand was awarded the prestigious CFDA Lexus Fashion Initiative prize for Sustainability.

Models wear Studio189 clothing in fashion feature photographed in Lagos, Nigeria by Keith Major for EBONY Media.

Below, EBONY caught up with Erwiah on what moved her and Dawson to start the sustainable fashion brand and how empowering their community keeps them powering through.

EBONY: What brought about the creation of the brand?

Abrima Erwiah: I remember working in the luxury fashion space and looking around and not seeing very many people that looked like me. I was moving forward and rising but what does it all mean if we do not all rise together? I know that my opportunities exist because people struggled, sacrificed, and helped me get to where I am. I saw so many people that looked just like me when I would visit my country, for example, that had a lack of access. Why should you have to beg for charity money because of the passport that you carry? Or where you’re from? Or the color of your skin? I wanted to work together and create a project where I could use my skills and transfer them and give a path to others as many people have done for me.

I started working for luxury goods companies including Cesare Paciotti, John Lobb, Hermès and Bottega Veneta. I believed in the principles of what luxury goods stood for including the pursuit of excellence, high-quality standards, innovation and techniques passed down from generation to generation. I would visit first and second-generation artisans in Italy, and I would see how their country and the world treated them with dignity and respect and how they were able to earn a living doing their work and have control over their destiny and their family’s destinies. Meanwhile, when I would visit my family in Ghana, or when I would visit other developing economies, I would see so many people doing amazing craftwork and creating incredible work but have trouble accessing the market. I could see first-hand the inequities. I spoke to Rosario about it and she invited me on the most amazing trip that changed both of our lives. Rosario sits on the board of Vday which is V’s (formerly Eve Ensler) organization dedicated to stopping violence against women and rape. Rosario was invited as part of a delegation to take part in the opening of the City of Joy, a leadership center for women who had been the victim of rape and sexual violence. The trip was very difficult to take: we encountered a lot of challenges; however, when we arrived in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we met so many people that had been through so much trauma and yet were smiling and celebrating and focused on rebuilding and doing what V calls “turning your pain to power.” The women would make crafts and sell them and buy farmland and farm produce like cassava to feed their kids. They used the money that they made to care for their families and to send their kids to school. This was the first time we really saw the power of sustainability. We said that so many people had come into their own through their craft and creativity, and that if instead of always focusing on the negative stories when we are speaking about regarding the marginalized communities in Africa, imagine if instead we focused also on the positive and saw the beauty of the work that was being created. Imagine if products were produced that consumers would like to buy, and when they were sold, the funds could be directed back into the supply chain and create wealth and empowerment opportunities along the chain.

studio 189 sustainable
Studio 189
Cotton Andy Button Down Short Sleeve Shirt

Price: $260

Shop at Studio 189

In this way, instead of having to constantly fundraise and ask for charity money to help these African communities, we could instead work together to create an industry in Africa that is bigger than aid. Every time the consumer votes, they vote with their dollar and they vote for the type of world they want to live in. We want to encourage the consumer to be an active participant in the creation of their clothes and to re-empower the value chain. It was a slow process. We took our time. We wanted to work together with the community and grow together. I moved to Ghana in 2013 and started very small. A few tailors that worked in a church and 1 batiker. We then grew from there very organically.

studio 189 sustainable
Studio 189
Cotton Short Shirt Dress

Price: $495

Shop at Studio 189

How did you decide that sustainability was the direction you wanted to take your brand?

The path chose us. We knew we wanted to create a brand that allowed people to take control of their own destinies. We knew we wanted to create a brand that put humanity at the heart of it. The more you trace the journey of where your products come from, the more you realize their impact. You meet the people that are working on them from the farmers to the dyers, to the weavers, to the sewers, and onwards. You see the interconnectivity of people and the planet and you see how the movement of people and materials and culture converge and diverge over hundreds of years. You understand the power of fashion to directly impact people’s lives.

We started because we saw people that looked like us and we saw that they were not included in the market. We also realized that so many resources were often extracted and value-added in other countries with a lack of recognition of those that protected those resources and with a lack of investment made into adding value to the raw materials on a localized level. We realized people in marginalized communities were already doing the work but often going unrecognized. We realized that it was important that we work together and that we create a system that is self-sufficient. When we started it was not called “sustainable” fashion. These nomenclatures came later. We, mostly, just wanted to be a part of the growth of an African fashion industry that we saw as closely connected to a global fashion industry and that we thought could have a greater impact than aid if the proper infrastructure was built to allow it to be sustainable. Just as we have had the opportunity to grow our careers, we felt like other communities should also have the same access where possible. When you are learning statistics including fashion’s impact on the planet and you are seeing its impact firsthand in your work, I think it shifts your perspective and it becomes clear that building a sustainable and circular system in your supply chain, trying to find systems that are regenerative and really just trying to be conscious of your actions is really the only way. It is a work in progress. We can only try.

What hurdles have you faced as a Black women-owned company?

We do face many challenges but we also have many blessings. We are standing on the shoulders of a lot of powerful women including our mothers and grandmothers that have faced greater difficulties than we have and have made it possible for us to be here today and continue to do this work.

studio 189 sustainable
Studio 189
Cotton Andy Pants

Price: $275

Shop at Studio 189

What are some words of advice to Black women out there looking to start a business?

Rosario’s favorite quote is “the journey is the destination.” Take time to remember that you are on a journey and allow yourself to be present and take in the moments as they come. Stay true to your core beliefs. Do not intentionally copy other people’s work.

Build an authentic brand that represents your values. Go deep. Do not focus on quick wins and press because that fades over time. Create a brand and products that you can look back on in 50 years and be proud of. Take your time to learn your craft and learn how to run your business. Put your customers and your team and employees at the heart of what you do. Allow yourself to make mistakes and to fail. Be open-minded and learn from your mistakes. Always listen. Never stop learning.

And always look behind you and remember to help bring up all those that have helped you rise but also all those that are following in your footsteps. We rise when we rise together. Lead with love. Be patient and have empathy. We never know what is going on in people’s lives, we always find it helpful to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and to try to turn negative situations into positive ones. And, most importantly, have faith.