|A black woman who has come into her African womanhood is an awesome presence to behold. She commands attention simply by showing up. She need not utter a word yet her very essence loudly proclaims her confidence in herself and in her rich heritage as an African woman in America. You need not look far to get a glimpse of this woman in all her splendor. For a long time I was simply awed by women who dared to drape themselves in the vibrant colors of Kente or cloak themselves in the power of Adinkra prints and the drama and lushness of mud cloth. Today, those images still leave me transfixed. And I'm not alone.
"I remember checking out the exhibit on Kente cloth at the National Museum of African Art a while back and being just blown away by just how powerful it was. "It does explain why the material was woven especially for royalty," said Marcia Hamilton, a pediatric nurse. "But I couldn't see myself wearing it because it just seemed too much for everyday wear and I'm much more conservative in the colors I use. And to be honest while I could see wearing African garments for special occasions I couldn't begin to imagine how I could fit it in my everyday wardrobe or budget," said Hamilton, voicing reservations shared by many.
"I'm one of those people that get caught staring at brothers and sisters who wear African clothes because the colors and styles are so rich and magnetic. But I was also one of those sisters that resisted wearing African clothing because I was conflicted," said Trish Richardson, a graduate student at the University of Maryland. "On the one hand I wanted my whole being to be a representation of the pride I felt about being a woman of African descent, but I also wanted to make sure that in doing so I didn't trample on the cultures of Africa. Because some textiles and styles have very specific cultural values I believe I have a responsibility to make some informed choices even in the clothes I wear," she explained.
Neither woman could resist for very long and now admit that regardless of the occasion they have no reservation about strutting their stuff in Afrocentric wear. The range of styles, textiles and colors that are now available allow women like Hamilton and Richardson, regardless of their lifestyle or income, to incorporate Afrocentric accents in her wardrobe.
Desiree Brown firmly believes this and since 1992 this has been the focus of her work. Through her fashion label Leighel Desiree Design Studio, she creates original garments that draw heavily on African influences. She said that her creations encompass two areas -- on the one hand she will make traditional African styles like the 'booboo' but her specialty is now showcasing the irresistibility of fusing traditional African textiles (especially authentic all natural imported African Mud Cloth) with Western forms.
Her foray into the fashion business started innocently enough. "This has been in me every since I was a little girl," said Desiree. As a child, she explained, playing dress-up with her Barbie dolls was a favorite pastime. She got so good at cranking out styles on her sewing machine that by the time she was 11-years-old she was able to make her own 6th grade graduation outfit. There was no doubt for her that fashion was in her future. She later studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology then worked in the city's garment industry for over 25 years.
Then she moved to the DC-area and her personal and career focus shifted. "I began designing Afrocentric garments when I moved to DC and it all happened because of the progression in my own journey and consciousness," said Desiree. That very personal sojourn influences her perspective on the women who choose to wear/not to wear Afrocentric fashions. She believes that the women who decide to wear her fashion and any other Afrocentric fashions, must come into their own consciousness on their own timetable.
"People go to extremes, they're either all the way African or all the way American (Western) -- they can't get with the whole African thing. But we are Africans in America so we have aspects of both cultural heritage to draw from and that is so unique and we need not deny it. I love claiming both so I show that in my clothes," explained Desiree. She also reminded us that many of us still have to work in the American world with its own set of norms and expectations but we can fit in and maintain our own distinctive flair. "My clothes have the best of both worlds," she said with professional pride.
For many women cost can be a real impediment to making the shift to Afrocentric fashions. The reality is, for the cost-conscious consumer a sale tag will often dictate our purchase, but it is not always the smartest investment personally or collectively. Part of the problem, Desiree explained is that "some people don't understand the concept of custom ordering. Some actually do believe that it should be cheaper than something off the rack. But the truth of the matter is, it is a more expensive product and it's a more valuable product because you have something that was made for you; it fits you perfectly and should suit your need."
Most women are able to weigh it all and resolve the issue of cost. "If we see something and we like it and we make a decision that we're gonna have it, the cost really doesn't even matter," said Desiree. That is part of the reason why Desiree welcomes the inclusion of Afrocentric lines in major department stores. That kind of mainstream access, gives more people exposure to the fashions and can foster even greater acceptance, especially among some in the community who may need that kind of validation.
Adding Afrocentric fashions to your wardrobe need not cost an arm and a leg. Desiree concedes that the key is assessing your wardrobe and adding pieces that will compliment what you already have. You can begin the journey, she said, by simply adding an African earring, necklace, scarf, wrap, vest or jacket to your current wardrobe. Once you begin, Desiree said you will find that wearing Afrocentric clothes are good for you because they are made of natural fibers and allow your skin to breathe. She does insist that every woman's wardrobe should include at least one item made of mud cloth.
After all these years Desiree says she remains passionate about creating fashion because she enjoys the reactions of her clients. "I do it because when somebody puts on something that I make its almost like a transformation takes place right there. When they put it on and go look in the mirror and say, 'Oh yeah, this looks nice,' and a bright smile comes on their face and they get excited, that's it for me, that's the thrill. That just really delights me."
As Desiree explained it, the connection between the creation process and the relationship that each client has with her garment is a very organic and intimate one. "When you wear authentic, African mud cloth you can't help but experience its creativity and power. I work with that, so for me this is more than a job. I truly love what I do and I pour that love into each garment I design," she said. The tag on each garment created by Leighel Desiree Design Studio offers a constant reminder of this because it carries the phrase, "Feel the Love!"
If you would like to experience the all natural beauty of fashions by Leighel Desiree Design Studio you can find them in three locations in the metropolitan area
But if you would like to assess how you can cost effectively incorporate Afrocentric elements in your wardrobe, Desiree is available for consultations. Call 301-516-0725 or visit her
website at www.feeltheloveonline.com.
- Gallery Africa, (Beltway Plaza and Forest Village Park Mall, 301-345-2322/301-736-8107)
- Asa All Natural Hair Care (220 Upshur St., NW, 202-545-9272)
- Trade Secrets (1515 U St., NW, 202-667-0634).