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African-American Designers Struggle to Gain Influence in Fashion Industry - 2004-02-21

It's Black History Month, and many African-Americans are wearing their heritage on their sleeves… literally. February is a favorite month for sporting authentic African attire, and finding African-inspired designs in mainstream fashions. February 27, a fashion show at New York's historic Apollo Theater will showcase the creations of more than 40 black designers. And, as Faiza Elmasry discovered, there's an informal fashion show, every day, on the streets of Washington, D.C.

"What I'm wearing is a beautiful African outfit, it's a two piece outfit with the pants matching the top. It has little symbols. Nice pastel colors, embroidery around the pants and the top. This is from Nigeria," says a man modeling an African outfit.

"I really like the outfit and I think the buttons are significant. It symbolizes African masks. I can't tell you exactly what they mean. I'll go to African shops and get more attire because they feel good, they're nice and comfortable," says a woman, admiring his clothes.

Not only nice and comfortable, but symbolic.

"It gives you a closer tie to your African roots," the man explains.

"I feel royal!" exclaims a woman in Toast and Strawberries clothing shop. "As a matter of fact my husband bought an African-American outfit for me for Christmas one year. Last May I wear it to my daughter's college graduation and I got so many compliments. I could not believe how many people talked about my outfit."

"We have designs from Morocco, Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania," explains Sabrina Miller, a saleswoman at Toast and Strawberries, one of many shops in the nation's capital that sell African fashions.

"We now work with a lot of women cooperatives in these countries, which allows these women to have an outlet in the United States. And that's why you see a nice mixture of fabrics, beads and things like that," she adds.

Toast and Strawberries also features fashions created closer to home. Store owner Rosemary Reed says the main focus of her business over the years has been to open a window for African-American designers to sell their clothing and accessories.

"We were pleased when we opened Toast and Strawberries in 1968 to encourage local talent," says Reed. "And I actually used to represent them, in terms of selling to other stores in other cities. We do fashion shows around the metropolitan Washington area and we do highlight our designers. We try to help them build their portfolio."

For the last 20 years, African-American fashion designer Sahara Peerzada has been selling her creative designs through Toast and Strawberries. She says she draws inspiration from different cultures and fits them into the American life style.

"The United States' national dress is jeans and a T-shirt. So anytime you're more dressed up than that, you run the risk of looking like going to a costume party," she says. "So I try to design things that people can wear in their everyday lifestyles where they have some influence from someplace else."

Much of that influence comes from Africa, where the designer finds unique fabrics and ideas.

"Africa has a lot of history. As a matter of fact, it has the most history in terms of clothing and adornment. And it's interesting that a lot of fashion design books start their history with Egypt, and they go straight to Europe - like the rest of the world never wore clothes! So instead of going to Europe first for influence, I go to Africa first. So there's no middle man in terms of influence," she says.

But even with support from boutiques like Toast and Strawberries, young African-American designers, like Christopher Williams, find it challenging to get their creations into the public eye.

"One, and most importantly, the lack of funds and lack of commercial businesses that are willing to put up funds for African American designers," he says. "Another one is the tremendous lack of support among our own community. We tend not to want to support ourselves; meaning other African American designers.

"African Americans tend to be more willing to purchase Caucasian name [designers] versus African American names," he continues. "Once we stop that, once we begin to support ourselves and put more of our hard work and money into black-owned businesses, I think that's the first step to making us more powerful in the mainstream industry."

Along with monetary and community support, Toast and Strawberries owner Rosemary Reed says young designers need role models. In her book, The Thread of Time: The Fabric of History, she offers 22 success stories of African-American dress makers and fashion designers.

"For example, Anne Lowe who designed the wedding dress for Jackie Kennedy. She was one of the first black designers in New York City to have a major clientele that included the Rockefellers and one of them was Jackie's mother," notes Ms. Reed. "And that dress, the wedding dress of Jackie was probably the most photographed wedding dress in American history."

Ms. Reed says as more African-American designers move to the fashion capital of New York and proudly express their heritage in their couture designs, more African-inspired details and styles are appearing on runways around the world. From there, they'll make their way to the clothing stores - and closets - of America.