Rosario Dawson is no stranger to advocating for positive social change through various organizations, including Voto Latino (which she started 10 years ago), the ONE campaign and the Vagina Monologue-inspired movement V-Day, among many impactful groups. It was a trip in June 2011 to the City of Joy, a V-Day supported community in the Congo dedicated to empowering women survivors of violence, that inspired the 35-year-old actress and her longtime friend and business partner, Abrima Erwiah, to launch Studio One Eighty Nine, an online platform dedicated to promote and foster African culture and African-inspired content through creative projects.
"We were loving the empowerment that was there. It wasn't just a different philosophy of life. It was saying 'You're powerful, you're strong.'" Dawson tells Pret-a-Reporter, recalling her experience of being at the City of Joy with Erwiah. "The whole thing was turning pain into power."
After meeting with members of the community, the duo recognized what the women had to offer ("We just felt their kindred spirits," says Dawson) and what they could give in return. Hence, it was the start of a beautiful relationship with the local creatives and the launch of their project.
The website is currently divided into three sections: an online magazine for showcasing African-inspired creative content; a supporting agency to help organizations with marketing and communications services; and a private fashion collection called Fashion Rising Collection, an artisan-produced label launched in support of V-Day's One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women.
"Let's not just make [the movement] a one-day event; let's create something that's going to be impactful and yearlong, so that's why we decided to call the line Fashion Rising because we're employing women. We're not going 'Hey, we're going to keep raising funds to keep your kid in school,' we're going to give you help and support for what you're already doing," explains Dawson. "That was the whole premise — we're going to rise together. We're going to collaborate and you're going to be able to put your own kids through school."
Dawson and Erwiah, who both travel often to Ghana as well as to other African countries, work directly with resident artisans, designers, artists, photographers and bloggers.
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"We're trying to tell long-term sustainable stories that are coming out of Africa to the outside market, as well as the inside market. It's hard to find brands that are really working through the whole value chain," says Erwiah, who previously worked at luxury label Bottega Veneta for 10 years, of the economic opportunities that have been created in Ghana, as well as other African countries, with the launch of the Fashion Rising collection. "We do our own textiles to sewing and cutting to like every element of craft through the value chain."
Erwiah adds: "By creating this platform that creates a demand for it, we're then able to benefit the community by creating jobs because that's an order, not just for sewing or cutting, it's an order for every step on that chain."
Currently selling on their website, the second Fashion Rising collection (the first was sold at a pop-up shop with Urban Outfitters in L.A. and New York this past May) features pieces such as a green Aggie-print hand-batik cotton military jacket ($300; below right) and lime green ODLR-print hand-batik terry cloth kimono ($275; below left), as well as Bottletop pink recycled pull-can leather tassel purse ($345), and vegan leather carry-alls and coin purses ($75 to $128). Designers featured on the e-commerce site include Geren Ford, Menzer Hajiyeva, and Lulu, to name a few.
Like what you see? Well, given that Studio One Eighty Nine's mission is all about working together, Erwiah and Dawson have recently teamed up with Quarterly, a subscription-based service of curated box-filled goods, to provide interested buyers pieces from the Fashion Rising collection, as well as a few other surprises.
"It's a beautiful idea — we're doing little glass bottles and each one, there's going to be three notes, a little sand, and tied on little black rocks, a little throw to Black Rock City where Burning Man occurs," says Dawson of her curated box. "It's really nice because we're doing it by hand, and that’s a lot of what you're getting with the Studio One Eighty Nine stuff, as well. I love that we're getting able to show our creativity and more direct relationship with that audience instead of putting it in a store and hoping they come across it. We're delivering it to them. I love that."
Another bonus? Dawson's package will include an autographed poster of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Yes, she signed her name on every single one, and she even persuaded co-star Jessica Alba to sign the one-sheet, too.
Next up, the pair will present their third collection during this September's Milan Fashion Week with the United Nation's ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative and Vogue, as well as at Ghana Fashion Week on Oct. 11.
As Dawson describes it: "Our Studio One Eighty Nine platform is all about collaboration."