The women behind Studio 189 aren’t building a typical fashion brand. Since 2013, actor and activist Rosario Dawson and former luxury fashion house executive Abrima Erwiah have been building a sought-after clothing line that promotes and curates authentic African designs. Rather than simply take inspiration from West African native craft, Studio 189 is on a mission to use fashion itself as an agent for social change.
Headquartered in the USA and Erwiah’s native Ghana, the company has embedded itself in a community of makers in Ghana to create a unique value chain that impact everyone from farmer to producer to customers. During a recent live talk with the founders (watch the recorded Q&A above), they explain how they’ve invested in Africa and, at the same time, earned the sustained admiration of an unsentimental fashion industry. Through drought, social unrest and a host of other very serious challenges in various communities where they work in Africa, Dawson and Erwiah have stayed committed to remaining in Accra, Ghana, the source of where Studio 189 began.
We asked these dynamic collaborators—who work across multiple time zones and around demanding schedules—how do you get it all done?
Self-care & Attitude
What does self-care mean to you?
Rosario & Abrima: Time with family. Time to reflect. Taking a moment for ourselves – spiritually, emotionally, physically, intellectually, nutrition wise etc… Learning how to say no. It’s not easy to find time for ourselves because we are always trying to support others, but the older we are getting the more we are realizing how incredibly important it is.
How do you maintain a positive attitude?
Rosario & Abrima: We know how blessed we are. We know how much people sacrificed to get us to where we are. Our lives are much easier relative to those that struggled before us (our immediate families, our ancestors) as well as those that are experiencing enormous challenges around us. We know we are blessed and even when it’s hard, we are still grateful. We try to take every moment as a learning opportunity and to be thankful for our experience. One of our favorite quotes is “the journey is the destination.”
What are three things you do each morning to prepare for the workday?
Rosario: I meditate, journal and do some light exercise to get my blood flowing. Glass of water first thing.
Abrima: Make Lists (love making lists). Drink water. Celery juice (when available). Iced espresso with oat milk. Go for a quick walk or step outside for fresh air when I have time.
What are three things you do to wind down your workday?
Rosario & Abrima: Cook. Dance. Call family. Listen to podcast. Listen to music. Take a walk. Shower.
Workspace & Routine
How much do you work from home? What do you enjoy about it? What do you find challenging?
Rosario: I spend most of the time by myself because I am traveling for work. Otherwise, my assistant Leany is around during the day. She was recently hired but has been instrumental at helping me organize the admin parts of my day so I can give more time to my creativity.
Abrima: In Ghana, I’m surrounded by people working from ecommerce to graphic design, to photography to project management to design etc. In New York, it varies. During the pandemic, my family would spend time with me. The most challenging was finding space for everyone and balancing everyone’s needs. It has been particularly challenging on the kids (my nephews), as they are being schooled by video. They need separate workspaces. They need to take calls on speaker, they also have different hours. So, it was like all of us were on different schedules and the people on the other side of everyone’s different video conferences had different expectations from our realities… but everyone made an effort and we made it work.
What do you do to take a break and recharge during your day?
Rosario: Meditate at lunch. Eat during hair and makeup. Get walking in. Stay hydrated. Socialize… I am very chatty on set. It gives me energy and allows me to give energy to the people that I work with…. It can get exhausting and tedious and crazy, so bringing in each other’s company allows us to take a moment and enjoy the process as it is happening.
Abrima: I listen to podcasts and music. Sometimes I sit quietly or go get some fresh air.
Time & Organization
How do you keep yourself on track during the day?
Abrima: I love to-do lists. I write them everywhere. I write them in my notebook, on my computer, in the notes on my phone. I keep cork boards and white boards and I have organized folders in front of me as well as sticky notes. I use the calendar app on my phone and computer, which are synched. I also schedule activities on video conference.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned or habit you’ve formed to create more balance?
Rosario: No cell phone in the bedroom. Try to put phone down and be specific with my intention. I will send scripts to my tablet, for example, so I can separate my task of reading versus my output.
Abrima: I try to not put off something I want to do. Try being the operative word. If there is something I want to do and it’s within my means, I try to do it in the present and immediate. If it’s work related, it frees my time up. If it’s personal, I try to allow myself small moments of joy when they arise instead waiting for some unknown future.
Who do you turn to when you have a problem?
Rosario: I will talk to my boyfriend Cory, my brother Clay, my mom Isabelle, Abrima… I have learned as I have gotten older to have more faith in myself and to not necessarily try to look for answers outside of myself. I meditate. I go with my gut. My body knows what to do. I just have to trust it.
Abrima: I call my mom and my sister depending on the problem. I call my best friend Andy if it’s personal. I reach out to close colleagues of mine. I call professional mentors [in the fashion industry].
What is the best business wisdom you’ve received?
Rosario: You don’t have to be the expert in everything. Be specific about your task. To delegate well is critical. Make room so you can be creative, so you are not always in the development space.
Abrima: The customer is the most important. Under-promise and over-deliver. Try to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible. Listen to your employees. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Hacks & Habits
Do you have any productivity tips? Any habits you like to follow each day?
Abrima: Audio books are useful for reading books if you do not have time. My news apps that also allow me to listen to stories which helps a lot to save time.
So much of our lives happen through our phones these days, what’s on yours?
Abrima: Most used app: Instagram, Mail App, What’s App, Spotify, Dropbox, Shopify, Books, Kindle, Amazon, Netflix, Zoom, Slack, Economist
Favorite Music: Dancehall and Reggae playlist, 90s music, Afrobeats, Hip Hop, R&B, Soul
Favorite Podcast: Pivot
Rosario: I am in the car a lot, and the Waze app allows me to still be connected to Audible app.
Also, I use Shazam, because I get to create playlist for myself based on music that I hear around so I can find things that I like, versus following the recommendation of an algorithm. The Oura app allows you to check your sleep. It tracks and lets you know your blood oxygen level, sleep, steps, resting heart rate, how efficient your sleep is, etc.
The early days of a business venture can often be a rollercoaster. Can you name a time when something went really wrong?
Rosario & Abrima: Something goes wrong all the time. We have dealt with many issues including rolling blackouts, no water, infrastructure issues, cancelled wholesale orders, disease, sexual violence, harassment, border closures, political instability (not in Ghana), etc. At the same time, we work with customers sometimes that do not always understand how much we go through and have high expectations that we sometimes have trouble meeting. What we have learned to do is to take time to explain and educate our community about the process of making clothing and what goes behind it. We have found that the more we share, the more our customer actually understands and becomes more invested in the community. Transparency is super key and treating everyone (customers, factory workers, corporate staff, etc.) as stakeholders through the good and bad moments has been key. Finding ways to allow everyone an opportunity to participate and grow with you even when the moment seems unlikely. Supporting each other and finding ways to collaborate and co-create and being innovative has been some of what has worked. And patience is super key!
This interview is part of Office Hours, a series that connects you with entrepreneurs and experts with tips for running and growing a business right now. Find other can’t-miss conversations by visiting our Events page.