By Style Blogger Felicia Bridgewater
Fashion trends come and go but inspiration is eternal. For decades, we have witnessed the power and influence African and Caribbean cultures have on fashion from street style to haute couture. In recent years, ankara fabrics, chokers, headwraps and hair cuffs have become some of the most popular and trendy items on the market. Unfortunately, Afro-Caribbean brands and designers have been unable to penetrate the barriers of the luxury fashion industry. When was the last time you went into your favorite luxury department store and found an authentic African garment?
We chatted with Haitian-American Tania Celestin and Nigerian-American Ian Omotoso, the co-founders and owners of Oluwa & Celestin about how their brand will bridge the gap.
When you started Oluwa & Celestin, what was your vision?
The vision for Oluwa & Celestin was to a create a store that pushed the envelope of what was considered luxury retail. Luxury items usually have a connotation (or association) of European heritage and design. However, we loved discovering emerging black designers in the fashion industry and believed that there were other customers like us who would love to have one place where they can discover and support these brands. We wanted to create a store that is stocked with items we would shop ourselves and that also carries designer brands that we love. Overall we wanted to create a department store specializing in luxury goods from designers all over the Black Diaspora that welcomes everyone who has an appreciation for well-made items.
How do African and Caribbean cultures influence the fashion industry?
African and Caribbean cultures usually have a cyclical moment in the fashion industry. However, it tends to lean towards cultural appropriation and not genuine ‘cultural appreciation.’ You’ll see designers adopting our hairstyles, tribal prints, or music- but not delving deeper into what it means to us or not backing it up with enough representation in their runway shows, print campaigns, or executive positions.
However more attention is being brought to the strides we are making in the fashion industry. From Lagos Fashion & Design Week getting international attention, Edward Enniful being named the British Vogue Editor-in-Chief, and Gucci now working alongside fashion designer Dapper Dan and having all black models for their current campaign. It shows the influence we have on pop culture and trends that are happening the fashion industry. More and more people are looking to Africans, Caribbeans, and African-American influencers for trend forecasting. We’d love to continue to see diversity in all aspects of the industry!
How has representation changed in the fashion industry? How do you plan to affect it?
Representation has actually improved throughout the industry, albeit slowly. We believe that the trends are changing on who is the face of fashion right now. It used to be perceived as in something only rich white women could indulge but now with accessibility and representation, anyone can participate. Neither supermodels nor celebrities solely represent fashion now. With the power of social media and the internet anyone can be the voice of fashion and set trends. We love that we see various races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations securing their seat at the table. The old norms are now hand in hand with what use to be taboo in fashion.
I think that is what makes our business exciting and made the timing right for us to launch. We plan to continue to spotlight Black designers and help unite the various cultures within the Black community through our shared love of style and fashion.
And although our store focuses on designers of the African Diaspora, what we offer is for everyone. We have customers from various backgrounds who appreciate our culture and recognize that a platform like ours is needed. Our brand is not to exclude anyone- quite the opposite- it’s to allow Black designers a platform so they can be recognized for their skills and artistry and seen as equal to other American or European designers.
What is the future of your brand? Where do you see it in 5 to 10 years?
In the near future, we will continue to expand our product and price range. We’ll be carrying shoes, jewelry, kidswear, and more accessories soon. And we we are always on the lookout for new designers to add for each season. In 5-10 years, we plan on opening brick and mortar stores to give our customers the option to shop in person or from home. Our first flagship store will likely be in New York, the center of fashion, but we want to open department stores across the nation and later, internationally. We’re excited to see how diversified our store becomes with the number of designers product categories we’ll offer in the future.
If you could say one thing to Black business owners, what would it be?
We should share these three keys with other Black business owners:
Be unique in their branding and create a story to tell.
“Community Over Competition.” There is enough sunlight for all of us to shine. The world needs you and your ideas- and mine. That’s how we create a cultural shift.
My favorite business concept is by Issa Rae. She speaks about the benefits of ‘Networking Across’. We have the tendency to reach out to those in higher positions but your peers are those who can and are willing to build with you and in turn, we can reach the top together.
What are some of your favorite items that you carry?
There are so many! Two that come to mind are from our Haitian designers. I love the Za Drawstring Mini by Vavvoune, it’s the perfect carry-all to sightsee and pack light. The Francoise Elizee Sylvie Crocodile Skin Tote is amazing. You can use it as a chic briefcase to carry your laptop, documents, and daily planner. We carefully curate all the items offered in the store, so we love everything.