Authentic African fashions growing in popularity

Looking back, Yewande Sole can see that leaving Hampton was a bad business move.

After spending years gradually developing her imported clothing shop, African Outfitters, she and her husband pulled up stakes and moved to Virginia Beach, Va., in 1999.

She expected that her customers would follow her. She found out otherwise.

“I had built my clientele for so many years. I was thinking it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Sole, a native of Nigeria who has been in the United States since 1983. “Apparently, people don’t want to go from Hampton to (nearby) Denbigh, Va., much less drive through the bridge-tunnel …

“I lost most of my customers and the business died.”

But she didn’t lose all hope.

“I told my husband, ‘I want to grow back this business. It was burning in my heart.”

This year, her heart is feeling some relief. Her family is once again living in Hampton, and African Outfitters is alive and kicking.

Sole doesn’t have a retail space yet, so she’s serving customers by appointment only.

She has a lot of rebuilding to do, but the ball is rolling again.

An extra bedroom in her Hampton home is packed with colorful fashions straight from Nigeria. She’s ready to meet demand as Black History Month sparked interest in African heritage.

“My customers are reminding themselves of their African descent,” said Sole. “They want to be part of their roots by trying to connect back with their roots.”

She helps them do that – while also looking good. Larry Gibson, the social minister at First Baptist Church in Hampton, is a long-time customer – one who didn’t forget Sole when she moved to Virginia Beach. He figures he’s bought 12 to 15 articles of clothing from her over the years.

“I love the way they drape on you and the way they look, very regal,” Gibson said. “When I do put on a piece and step out, people notice. They’re very nice pieces.”

While Gibson said he enjoyed celebrating African connections during Black History Month, he wears styles from the mother country all year long. “I wear mine any time, all the time. For me, there’s no waiting until February.”

Sole said her merchandise represents strong currents in African style.

“What people wear in Nigeria is what I market here,” she said. “People want the authenticity, they want to know that they’re getting the real thing.”

Her clothes display bright colors, dazzling patterns and rich fabrics. A type of fabric called Aso-oke is worn as women’s skirts and head wraps or as a men’s ensemble called agbada.

Ankara, a Nigerian fabric made with darting geometric shapes, is sewn into a buba, or loose shirt. Lace, silk, embroidery and brocade lend texture and a sense of drama to many of the pieces. Sole modeled a deep blue ensemble made from hand-woven silk Aso-oke fabric and decorated with lace and purple fringe.

“People also get married in this,” she explained, saying that in Nigeria, when a husband and wife attend a party or formal occasion, they dress in matching colors and fabrics.

“When you go to a party, there’s no need to say, ‘This is my husband.’ They can tell because you’re dressed alike,” she said.

Pointing to a green dress with gold embroidery, she said, “You’d wear this to a party, birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries – any kind of formal party, and church. In America, people don’t really dress up. But in Nigeria, we go to church dressed up.”

Items range in price from $40 to $195, she said, although a blue dress Sole modeled costs about $350 and is not readily available.

The clothes Sole sells are sewn by tailors in Nigeria, then shipped to Sole, who attaches her own African Outfitters label.

She’s waiting to see if America’s first black president will have an effect on her business.

“I do think Obama’s election will generate more interest in these clothes,” Sole said. “I’m excited. Not only is he an African-American, but his father is from Kenya. That’s close to home for me. It’s history and I’m glad that they elected him … You can be whatever you want to be in America if you set your mind to it, regardless of your color.”

She said Obama’s election did not come as a surprise to her. Since arriving in Virginia to attend Hampton University, she’s witnessed little overt racism.

“To be honest, I’ve had open doors ever since I was here,” Sole said. “I never thought of my color. Coming from another country, I see America as a land of opportunity. I never thought of my color at all. I was not raised that way in Nigeria. It doesn’t even cross my mind.”

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services