Looking for Holiday Gifts


Trenchcoat, by BlackflyIt’s that time of year again, when your mind is in a tizzy over gifts to buy for friends and loved ones. You have your usual checklist with the latest gadgets, cellphones, electronics, clothes, sporting equipment, and even gift cards for favorite stores. What if you think outside the box this year, and go for one-of-a-kind items by African designers? In the world of fashion, jewelry and other accessories, for example, Ruth Abade of Kenya and Emu Getachew of Ethiopia are expanding the diversity spectrum by tapping into inspiration from their own backyard to produce extraordinary designs and wearable art while promoting the renaissance of Africa’s cultural influence worldwide.


Abade, Nairobi-based owner of the Blackfly label, produces clothing and accessories in what is described as “African modern, eclectic designs for the free spirited.” She incorporates traditional Kenyan motifs into colorful cotton and linen batiks that she produces in her workshop with the women she employs, and combines these fabrics and other vibrant African cotton prints with recycled materials to create her line of tote bags, clutches, wallets, tablet covers, trench coats, dresses, skirts and bomber jackets. “The inspiration for my designs starts with me thinking about some specific material that I have in front of me, and getting an idea of how it could be turned into something beautiful and functional,” she told The Network Journal via email. 


Abade holds a degree in industrial design from Nairobi University and studied at the Scuola del Cuoio in Florence, Italy, where she learned leather bag design. Many of her recycled materials come from the Gikomba market in Nairobi, reputedly the world’s largest secondhand market. It is there that she finds discarded leather garments of myriad textures and colors from all over the world and an endless supply of buckles and straps, into all of which she breathes a new purpose. “I see the design process as a way of solving problems, making products that are not only aesthetically appealing but that also make life easier through functionality, ergonomics and attention to detail,” Abade said. “I felt that fashion and accessories have a lot of potential for experimentation. It’s three-dimensional in the sense that you are able to touch and feel the product. And, again, there are so many beautiful and affordable materials available here.”


Blackfly collections are available online through www.blackfly.co.ke and www.estsy.com/shopBlackflyStore; at her studio in Nairobi; and at stores in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Stockholm, Sweden. She is mulling plans for a store in New York in light of her successful reception at the city’s street fairs, including the annual four-day International African Arts Festival, which takes place in Brooklyn over the July 4 weekend.   


Emu Getachew’s entry into the world of fashion was not as straightforward as Abade’s. While she did grow up in a home in Ethiopia where art was appreciated, she did not consider herself an artist even though she began to write poetry and design clothes at the age 13. Because she did not follow a formal education in art or design, Getachew confesses that she did not always trust her own talent. Now, as demand and recognition of the Designs By Emu line of scarves, jewelry and other accessories grows, she is embracing her calling. “I really started designing from a place where I said, ‘what would I like to wear?’” Getachew told TNJ. “I consider my pieces wearable art, and I feel honored when I see people wearing my pieces.”


Her work is available through her website, www.designsbyemu.com, and her Facebook page, designsbyemu, as well as at trunk shows in the Washington, D.C., area. 


Getachew sells one-of-a-kind jewelry, scarves and other accessories with traditional Ethiopian motifs. She draws design ideas from her physical surroundings and uses an ancient symbol of her religion as inspiration. The jewelry and accessories, for example, feature variations of the four original designs of the Ethiopian cross. These variations of the cross can be found in her silk scarves and other wearable art items. “My use of the cross has nothing to do with religion. It simply gives me great inspiration,” Getachew explained. “The cross is something I live by as a Christian, but I want to make people see beyond that. I want people to think of them as their own little Picasso in their closet. To me a piece of jewelry is not just an accessory, it’s an entire outfit.”


Abade and Getachew are just a two of the African designers that are garnering a global following, including in the United States and Europe. The work of other popular designers can be found in the various New York stores of Calabar Imports, which imports unique clothing and household accessories and gift items mainly from Africa, Asia and South America for shoppers who are looking for one-of-a-kind items.


Calabar Imports was established in 2004 by mother-and-daughter team Heloise Annette Oton and Atim Annette Oton. The name Calabar is no coincidence. Heloise Oton, a former educator, for many years lived in Calabar, Nigeria, a legendary port city from which Portuguese, Scottish and English traders sailed in ships loaded with captured Africans and agricultural and mineral commodities for delivery to the Americas. 


The Oton family business started out by importing items from West Africa to sell at street fairs in New York. Participating in the street fairs gave them the perfect opportunity to see what different vendors were bringing in from overseas and which items sold well. As their entrepreneurial dreams expanded, the Otons began to cultivate distinct items for underrepresented markets. Today, Calabar Imports sells worldwide and online through their website, calabar-imports.com, and at their four locations in New York City (three of which are in Brooklyn and one in Harlem). The stores fill a void that was lacking, making a range of aesthetically unique, quality items from Africa, Asia and South America accessible in a single location, says daughter Atim.


“When we began in 2004, we were exploring opening a store in Nigeria and began doing street festivals and fairs here in New York. We began with home décor, gifts and crafts that had an African and Asian aesthetic because that was what was missing,” Atim Oton says. “Gifts in the market were mostly from China. We did not see Africa, South America or other parts of Asia like Vietnam or Indonesia. And of Africa, what we saw were just masks and large clothing sizes.” Since their flagship store opened in Brooklyn, their catalog of items has grown to include furniture, home décor, seasonal clothing, as well as accessories. 


The items selected from each geographic region are based on current trends and what customers enjoyed in the past. In the past three to seven years, the stores have added more African-influenced fashion designers and stopped importing furniture from Morocco, India and Ghana when those items became available in stores like Target and Ikea. “We have a simple role. We sell unique ethnic products for the home and the body that have unique style, handmade feel and a modern aesthetic. We also look for products you don’t find here in the United States, so we search widely,” Oton says.


Between Blackfly Designs, Designs By Emu and Calabar Imports, this holiday season’s shopping can be a lot easier, certainly more interesting.