A change in fortune hasn’t made Rosario Dawson forget her roots. Although she is now blessed with Hollywood paychecks, the 37-year-old grew up shopping at thrift stores in New York’s Lower East Side. In fact, the dress she donned to her junior high graduation ceremony was purchased at Housing Works.
With Abrima Erwiah, her business partner in Studio 189, which has headquarters in Ghana and the U.S., Dawson has found a way to honor her heritage and help artisans in Africa. Even though their families trace their lineage all over the globe — Erwiah’s from Ghana, the Ivory Coast and the U.S., and Dawson’s from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Ireland — Dawson observed that “there is so much that is connected all the way throughout and I think fashion is a really great way to express that conversation.”
Dawson and Erwiah talk to WWD about how consciousness changed the way they shop and why their dream projects are to design for First Lady Michelle Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders and the Olympic athletes from Ghana.
WWD: Why did you want to integrate a social platform into fashion design at Studio 189?
Rosario Dawson: The whole idea of really launching it and doing it in this particular way was inspired by going to Africa and going to the Congo and seeing these amazing women artisans and connecting it to our story and where we come from — everything from my great-grandmother being a seamstress to seeing what these women were doing there and looking at the sacrifices the women in our lives made in order for us to get the education we have and the opportunities that we had.
Abrima Erwiah: That’s part of the story we want to tell and we want to change. A lot of times when people think about Africa, they think it has to look a way and be a certain way. And the actual story of Africa is very complicated and involves so many different people that have gone to the States, to Asia, to North America, to wherever. And we really wanted to tell a global story and showcase that work on the platform of all the people doing all the work because we feel we come from so many different places and so do so many other people and we want to be able to show that.
WWD: Why is it important for consumers to know about artisans and buy clothes made by artisans?
R.D.: We’re in a really remarkable time right now. There is a consciousness that is happening in every fabric in everything we do. When you see the factories in Bangladesh burning down to the ground and then you hear people who were making clothes there just moved to some place else, it’s sort of like: But wait a minute. Why are people expendable? What is with this whole fast-fashion thing that means that if I’m not paying for it, who is?
WWD: How would you describe your personal style these days?
R.D.: I would say I’m very eclectic. I’m used to playing lots of different personalities. I think it’s gotten blurred whether I’m loaning parts of my personality to characters or those characters are permeating into my life. But especially with travel, with everything that we do, you need to be able to have something for everything. That’s one of the things with our collection we wanted to build and one of the reasons we wanted to make it more the unisex sort of side. Just to imagine: We travel a lot, we move a lot. How can we take something in one suitcase and all of us are able to pick something — man and woman, day and night, sporty and chic — and have fun but not be like hoarded down with 10 suitcases to travel with? This stuff should be interchangeable. It should be playful. And that’s my philosophy of life in general. Everything should be playful.
WWD: Has studying the way the fashion industry works and treats its workers affected how you shop?
R.D.: It’s more and more and more changed that for me 100 percent. When I buy something, it has to have multiple purposes. It’s got to be something that is usable in multiple, different functions in different ways. And not just wanting to get something that is hot for the moment right now because if it’s going to last only six months on my brain, on my shelf and it’s going to end up in the corner, there’s really no purpose for it.
A.W.: With this whole idea of buy-now-wear-now, working with artisans, we can do that. We have a factory. We have artisans. And we can actually show it to you and sell it.
WWD: You’ve been busy on Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Have you talked to him about artisans and makers in the fashion industry?
R.D. I mentioned it to a couple of people who work with him. But we’ve kind of been a little busy.
WWD: Do you ever give him style tips?
R.D.: [Laughs.] I’d absolutely love to. I’d love at some point for us to be able to make him something. That’d be really great. We do make men’s clothes. I definitely had that in mind.
WWD: Would you want to dress First Lady Michelle Obama?
R.D.: At some point, that would be really, really lovely. We’ve been having our inroads. For Idris Elba’s film, “Beasts of No Nation,” we were able to dress everybody for the premiere in Ghana. We have it as a fantasy of ours to dress all the Ghanaian Olympic players.
A.W.: They’ve expressed interest.
WWD: What would you make for them?
R.D.: I don’t know. We’ve been thinking about it. We do everything from high fashion here to students’ clothing as well. It’s a really cool idea to think about as they’re coming out, waving their flag and having that big, powerful, proud moment, that they could be wearing clothing that is made at home and reflects and represents them. That would be an interesting collaboration.
WWD: If you were to make something for Michelle Obama or Bernie Sanders, do you have any ideas?
A.W.: Michelle Obama has the best fashion.
R.D.: I know.
A.W.: She already wears a lot of Ghanaian brands. But also she’s not afraid of color and not afraid of prints. So probably even something we just made for Yoox, something with a bit of color and print that reflects her personality.
R.D.: And also show off those arms. For Sen. Sanders, he’s not a flashy guy. So what I would like to do is a really beautiful custom suit on him with just a hint of color like the inside. Just play with a nice tie or belt. Something maybe even just for him so he puts it on and feels good about himself that day.
A.W.: That would be a great day.
R.D.: That would be an awesome day. We’ll see what happens. Let’s send that out to the universe.