This Entrepreneur Is Bringing Some of Africa's Best Designer Brands to the U.S.

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Amira Rasool was first inspired to launch her own business while studying African American and African studies as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. “Many of the people I studied the most during college, like James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, all produced work that was impactful and pushed Black social, economic, and political agendas forward,” explains Rasool. “I decided then that I would dedicate all of my career pursuits to serve the same purpose.”

Fast forward to when Rasool was 22: A year and a half after leaving her job at V Magazine, while working on her master’s degree, freelance writing, and living between New York City and Cape Town, Rasool felt it was the perfect time to launch her business, The Folklore. “I noticed African brands were receiving more notoriety from the international press but not much traction from international retailers,” says Rasool. Given her experience in fashion media and e-commerce, a knack for storytelling and merchandising, and a vast network, Rasool was confident she could address the gap in the market. And that's exactly what she's been focused on since launching in late 2018.

 

Not only is The Folklore a carefully curated online concept store carrying high-end and emerging designer brands from Africa and the diaspora, but it has turned into a hub for brands, artists, and creatives to share their personal stories, too. “[Since the safer-at-home orders were put in place], we shifted from being just an e-commerce channel to being a source of support,” explains Rasool. To raise funds for African-based brands impacted by COVID-19, Rasool hosted a virtual fashion conference with a number of its designers and fashion editors from Condé Nast. And now, Rasool is planning to offer more business services to The Folklore’s designers in addition to partnering with other industry people to build a non-profit that could continue to help these brands even after the pandemic.

Even though Rasool has had to shift her efforts and restructure her finances and business model to reflect the current state of the world, she's not discouraged. In fact, she's more determined than ever to provide African designers the opportunity to further monetize their brands with The Folklore's platform. We're inspired and thankful Rasool took the time to chat with us about everything from starting her business to all the things bringing her comfort these days, and everything in between. Keep scrolling to read our interview, and if you're able to show support, Rasool shared some of her favorite pieces from The Folklore that you can shop online.

First of all, how are you?

I'm doing very well actually. This time off has been good for me. It's allowed me to refocus my goals, touch base with family and friends more, start new projects, and catch up on some much-needed sleep. I'm healthy and well-fed. I have a roof over my head, and all of my loved ones are doing well. There is nothing for me to complain about at a time like this.

Tell us a little about yourself and your business.

I launched my online concept store The Folklore in September 2018 as a destination for global customers to shop a curated selection of contemporary designer brands from Africa and the diaspora. It was about 18 months after I left V Magazine, where I worked full-time as the fashion coordinator. At the time, I was living between New York City and Cape Town while working on my master's degree and freelance writing.

I was only 22 and I was juggling a lot of responsibilities, but I knew that the moment was right to start the business. After noticing African brands were receiving more notoriety from the international press but not much traction from international retailers, I knew it was time to leverage my knack for storytelling and merchandising and my extensive network to address the gap in the market.

What inspired you to start your business?

My undergraduate experience inspired me to start The Folklore. While attending Rutgers, I majored in African American and African Studies. Before I started the program, I had not been exposed to that much Black literature, art, and innovation. Many of the people I studied the most during college—James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston—all produced work that was impactful and pushed Black social, economic, and political agendas forward. I decided then that I would dedicate all of my career pursuits to serve the same purpose.

Having had experience in the fashion media space and in e-commerce, I knew I could build a platform that would provide African designers with the ability to further monetize their brands through capturing the attention of global audiences. Fashion is a major revenue driver in countries around the world—it employs so many people. I wanted to start a business that could leave that type of impact in Black and brown communities.

How have social distancing and stay-at-home orders affected your business? How have your priorities shifted?

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders affected my business a great deal. I was in the middle of raising our pre-seed round right when the orders were put in place. Many of the investors I was speaking to told me they had to focus their attention on their current portfolio companies before they could return to having conversations with me. That was hard because I was confident that I would raise the money by spring.

Instead of being discouraged, I decided to shift my efforts to restructure our finances and business model to fit our current financial position and our deep decline in sales. I moved our products out of our space in NYC and brought them home to New Jersey so I could ship orders without leaving my home. I cut over a dozen $10- and $15-a-month subscriptions and brought my expenses down to the bare minimum.

After figuring out our new financial plan, we connected with the 30-plus designer brands that we work with. We checked to see how they were doing, how COVID-19 affected their business, and how we could help. We shifted from being just an e-commerce channel to being a source of support almost immediately. We hosted a virtual fashion conference alongside a number of our designers and fashion editors from Condé Nast to raise funds for African-based brands impacted by COVID-19.

We are now making plans to offer more business services that will allow brands to create online direct-to-consumer businesses of their own instead of relying solely on multi-brand retailers. We are also partnering with other people in the industry to build a nonprofit that could continue to help these brands long after the orders are lifted.

Some people are finding joy in getting dressed and doing their beauty routine, even if they have nowhere to go. What do you think fashion and beauty can offer people right now? What has it done for you?

I honestly rarely take off my sweats and sweatshirts when I'm home. Dressing up has always been a way for me to present my personality and creativity to the world, so when I'm inside with no one to present this side of myself to, I'm in a bonnet and sweats. I've been doing a number of virtual talks, so I've put on makeup four times since March, but I'm honestly enjoying not being a fashion girl right now.

I love dressing up and it always makes me feel good, so I understand why others have continued to do so even while at home. It's just not something I have taken to quite yet. I do have some great outfits I'm planning to debut once the city opens back up.

Speaking of fashion, how would you describe your working-from-home style?

A rotating selection of Warby Parker eyeglasses (I always keep at least three pairs by my bedside), my University of Cape Town hoodie, and sweat pants are pretty much my thing at the moment. I tried on some new items we got in for S/S 20, but other than that, I keep it comfy and casual.

Aside from fashion and beauty, what are some things that are currently bringing you comfort?

I started reading again. I have always loved reading, but I fell off for a few months. I'm having a great time reading short stories and articles from authors of the Harlem Renaissance. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., also has these amazing six to eight hour-long PBS documentaries about African and African American history that my dad encouraged me to watch. I watch them and then have two-hour history nerd fights with my dad over FaceTime. I love it. I also love organizing. I'm a Virgo, and I just started using Asana, so obviously I'm making plans for 2031 right now.

What are your favorite brands?

I always love supporting Orange Culture, Pichulik, and Maxhosa Africa. It's not necessarily because they are my favorite brands to wear or that I prefer them over all of the other wonderful brands I work with, it's just that they have built really strong businesses and I admire that. I love supporting brands who run their brand like a business. It's rare to find good designers who are also good entrepreneurs. I love knowing that their products will be around for me to buy for years to come. My goal is to help more African-based brands reach that position.

What’s one fashion or beauty trend we shouldn’t sleep on and why?

The no-makeup makeup look is my go-to. I can get on my NJ Transit train to New York at 1:45 with a bare face, and at 1:50, have my make-up routine done. A dash of Fenty Beauty concealer, some powder, a bit of blush, and mascara can be a game changer.

Shop Rasool's Favorite Products:

I have not met a customer who tried this jumpsuit on and didn't love it. During our pop-up shops, these fly off the racks. It's comfortable, made of a really light breathable linen, and the wrap-around design is super unique. It's also great for our more petite customers who struggle to find jumpsuits with legs short enough to stop above the ankle.

If you love the jumpsuit, you'll love the romper, too; especially if you're a shorts person. Whenever I sell it, I always tell customers to picture themselves at a cookout with low-cut sneakers and a cool hat.

It's rare to find a one-piece swimsuit that has the same sex appeal as a two-piece. Andrea Iyamah always does a great job of making sexy wearable swimwear. This is the swimsuit you take on vacation with you to capture some great pics.

These earrings remind me of the bamboo earrings I used to wear when I was a teenager. I feel like these earrings are made for the girl who used to wear bamboo earrings but has a more minimalist and subtle style now.

Not many designers can integrate pine green into their collections, but Edas found a way to make it work. A pine green shoulder bag with a super-large tortoiseshell buckle? It's definitely a wildcard bag.

This skirt is just fun. That's literally the only way I know how to describe it. Everyone is always attracted to the color, but I think the really special element is the pink panel draping.

This dress is for someone who likes feeling like a boss outside of the office, too. Pinstripes always project a sense of strength. Because of the high slit I never recommend people wear it to work, but I highly encourage a woman to pull it out for a post-work drink date.

There's nothing like a good mismatch earring, especially when it still looks like a cohesive pairing. The Quad earring gives you an oversize look without weighing down your ear. That's rare nowadays, and that's what really makes it special.

These earrings are for the jewelry fanatic who wants to add something fresh to their collection. Lorne's jewelry is artistic and playful. I always show visual artists and entertainers this piece first.

If Sex in the City 3 ever happens, I could definitely see Carrie Bradshaw making an appearance in these sandals. These bold sandals are for shoe girls who curate their look around what's on the foot. I always have fun selling these at pop-up shops.

I personally own these sandals so I can 100% confirm that these are a must-have. I've worn them for NYE, on a date, and on vacation. They are so versatile and comfortable, but also a real style statement. Ankle cropped jeans, an oversize off-the-shoulder white top, and a hat is just one of the casual looks that will make this shoe pop.

I always pair these earrings with the Selfi oval sleeve jumpsuit because I find that there's so much symmetry there. Both pieces are minimal but have really great elements that make them stand out.

These are for the girls who don't normally like wearing jewelry but have a special occasion to go to. They are super light and subtle, so you barely notice they're on, but when you're looking back at images later, you'll see how much beauty they adds to a beautiful garden-wedding or cocktail-party look.

These wrap dresses fly off the shelves at pop-up shops. They fit every kind of body type because it's so adjustable and can easily be layered. I have worn it as a top with wide-leg pants, a skirt; and I even pinned it at the bottom once and turned it into a minidress that I wore for a night on the town. The versatility combined with the print makes it a fan favorite.

Anything that Beyoncé loves we should also love, and Beyoncé loves this bangle. Every time she wears it, I find new ways to style it. You can either do an all-white suit like she did or pair it with a casual jean look.

You can't have the bangle without the ring. It's great to have a ring like this that plays with shapes without obstructing your ability to use your hands. The lightness of the ring is what I love most.

The classic Moroccan shoe received a major upgrade by Casablanca-based designer Rhita Sebti. I love how she combined the flatform trend with this traditional shoe style. These are a great casual brunch shoe that provides both height and comfort.

Another great example of the old-meets-new trend is this special hat. Fez hats have been around for ages, but they've never looked or felt quite like this before. Most people's favorite element about the hat is that it's unisex, so they can always swap colors with their partners.

A belt bag is never a bad idea. Who doesn't love having a place to store your personal items while being hands and shoulder free. I always tell people that this is the bag that allows you to still feel luxurious. The ombre fur and smooth leather is a major bonus.

I bothered Leonie for months to get Studio Badge on the site. I had never seen serving platters like this in my life. Ghanian teak wood and cement? I couldn't think of a better combination. These platters make entertaining at home a lot more stylish.

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