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.

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(Image credit: @amirarasool)

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.

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(Image credit: The Folklore)

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.

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(Image credit: The Folklore)

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.

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(Image credit: The Folklore)

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.

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(Image credit: The Folklore)

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:

Up next, this former fashion editor wants to bring luxury style to all body types.

Caitie Schlisserman
Beauty Director, Branded Content

Caitie Schlisserman is an L.A.-based beauty director with over a decade of branded content and editorial experience. She joined Who What Wear in 2014 as the first branded content editor and has worked her way up to overseeing the beauty department of the media revenue team. Before Who What Wear, Caitie helped launch FabFitFun's first subscription box and worked at a beauty startup where she assisted in successfully launching the editorial department.