Brenda and a market woman in Conakry, Guinea. Courtesy of Brenda Winstead.
I am a self-taught designer who founded Damali Afrikanwear 29 years ago. Damali Afrikanwear is an exquisite collection of clothing that uses hand-woven and hand-dyed fabrics from Africa, often combining them with fine linens, silks, cottons, and tapestries in a collage format reminiscent of quiltmaking. Each garment features distinctive trademark embroidery and asymmetric cuts of fabric, creating artwear to treasure.
I call this collection “New Afrikan.” The “New Afrikan” is a concept that represents our ability to establish our own standard of adornment. Through my designs and through my enterprise, I am introducing my clients to their image and styles as “New Afrikan” people. I am connecting them to the future by reintroducing them to their past
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in fashion and personal adornment. I began sewing after taking a home economics class at Taft Jr. High School. My mother, a home economics teacher, provided most of my additional knowledge. I enjoyed learning to sew and create my own fashion designs. I recall making special ensembles for social events, friends, and family.
After graduating from McKinley High School in 1961, I moved to Columbus, Ohio, to attend the Ohio State University where I majored in social work. As I became more politically and culturally aware, I started working with community organizations and attending political events. My interest in sewing continued during my college years and beyond.
In 1966, I moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., after graduating. Once again, I found sewing as a way to dress fashionably on a limited budget. In the mid 1960’s, African fabric and fashion were very popular. I fell in love with the vibrant colors and designs. I recall designing and making ensembles for myself and my daughter.
In New York, my first job was with the Department of Social Services as a case worker. I had the opportunity to visit many homes and work with a wide range of people. This allowed me to gain insight and realize that the system was not designed to solve the many challenges these families faced. I would do my best to deliver benefits. During this time, I also worked with a number of community-based organizations and participated in Black Power conferences, marches, and demonstrations.
When the Black Panthers opened a chapter in Brooklyn, I joined. I can’t remember just how and when I started working full-time for the Party. During the late 60’s, I was in a leadership position, setting up free breakfast programs, organizing political rallies, conducting political education classes, etc. During those years, I stopped sewing and designing. Still fashion-conscious, I would do my best to be stylish. You can imagine my dismay when the Party decided to ban African attire—a move that I personally found unproductive and divisive.
Looking back, though, these were very exciting years, perhaps the most exciting times of my life. I felt I was making a positive difference in the world. In the 1970’s in Oakland, Calif., I was involved in establishing a youth collective for children of Party members. That meant caring for 15-20 young people, 24 hours a day. Looking back, I can’t believe how we managed with our small staff.
Eventually, I was part of a committee that established the Intercommunal Youth Institute. Those years provided me with an opportunity to learn many new skills, e.g., learning to work effectively with people of different ages and backgrounds, and using our own knowledge and resources to implement programs and institutions needed in our community. What you believe, you can achieve! Collectively, we have tremendous power.
In 1992, I was introduced to bogolan fabric, commonly known as mudcloth. It was love at first sight and the start of my own design work. I had the good fortune of meeting Momadou Diop and Boubacar Bocoum, two Malians who imported bogolan textiles. We quickly formed a close friendship, which allowed me to procure exquisite bogolan for my collection. My first full-length coat was a “hit” and marked the start of clients following, purchasing, and custom-ordering my collection. I added jackets and tops as well.
The demand for these garments created another challenge. I needed to hire a professional seamstress, negotiate payment arrangements, and decide on the cost of the garments. I really struggled with this aspect of the business, which, in the beginning, caused financial difficulties. It took about four years to find the right production partner.
In 1997, I traveled to Mali to begin sourcing bogolan and other fabrics. On my first trip, I was fortunate to meet Boubacar Doumbia, a Master Bogolan Artist in Segou. This allowed me to acquire unique bogolan designs rarely seen in the U.S. and to form a working friendship that has lasted until now. This relationship has been critical for my success. In a very competitive business, the ability to acquire unique fabric is critical. Over the years, my travels to numerous West African countries—Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mauritania—has given me the privilege of collaborating with artisans who hand-dye and hand-weave traditional African fabrics such as ashoke, bogolan, kuba, adinkra, and kente for my designs. These collaborations have allowed me to combine different fabrics from different cultures in new ways. My hope is that the spirits of these great cultures will blend and empower those who wear my garments. Damali Afrikanwear represents that collective spirit. Through my designs, I celebrate it.
Creating the financial balance to provide fair compensation for all is very important. I believe in running an equitable business. Easier said than done, but I am committed to promoting the timeless and extraordinary talents of these artisans and compensating them fairly for their artistry. Fair trade is a necessary component to ensure the continuation of traditional African art forms in the world.
My approach to fashion evolved from my perspective on culture and politics. As an African in America, my politics are shaped in response to oppression. Culturally, I am rooted in the traditions and expressions of Africa. My involvement in the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement helped shape my design concepts and my decision to incorporate African fabric and design into my clothing collection.
From the very beginning of Damali Afrikanwear, I was embraced by—and formed lasting friendships and working relationships with—the African-American artist community. I held my first show in my D.C. home with the assistance of Rashida and Jamal Mims of Sun Gallery Goldsmith, who provided me with a mailing list. Francine Haskins and Julee Dickerson Thompson painted original works of art on my dresses, jumpsuits, and jackets. Denise Goring, an artist and clothing designer, gave me painting lessons. Marvin Sin and Akosua Bandele provided invaluable information regarding the African-American show circuit. All of this assistance is an example of Ujamaa (cooperative economics). These collaborations continue to this day. Over the years, I have collaborated with many artists and organizations including Golden Age of Black Art (GABA), “Nu Afrikan,” and Belmont Arts. I also participated in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s research and presentation project, “The Will to Adorn.”
From participating in many public art shows, I developed a mailing list for different cities. In California, I partnered with home gallery owners to host private showings of my collection. All of these strategies, along with word of mouth, proved critical in growing my business throughout the U.S. I now have a national show circuit to sell my collection.
My client base consists of a wide range of women: educators, nurses, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, artists, doctors, lawyers, policewomen—all conscious, confident, and comfortable in their own regal spirit—with a desire for unique, high-quality fashion.
Many were African-centered and wanted clothing that reflected their connection to the motherland. I owe the success of my business to these African-American women. Each step along the way, they have supported me with encouragement, attending and modeling at shows and events, and purchasing from my collection. I have an incredible repeat client base. I have some clients who have been with me from the very beginning. Artist Bernice Johnson Reagon commissioned performance attire for Sweet Honey in the Rock as well as a personal ensemble for herself. Dr. Johnnetta Cole, former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, commissioned numerous ensembles for her many public events over the years. When curators from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) asked her to donate one of her ensembles, she selected one of mine. Thus, I have the honor of having my work displayed in the NMAAHC.
As an African in America, the decision to explore and embrace cultures of Africa was a matter of logic and necessity. Africa is an undeniable part of my heritage. I have long been attracted to African art, sculpture, craft, food, music, and cultural tradition as sources of information and inspiration. My love affair with African fabric is spiritual, seductive, and addictive. From the fabric, I have learned to respect the cultures that produced it. I have learned humility from my understanding of the ways in which these cultures have advanced humankind.
Brenda Winstead is a Washington, D.C. fabric artist and wearable art designer whose spirit is rooted in the Black Power Movement. Fusing traditional African fabrics and hand-painted designs, her fashions are celebrated internationally.
Copyright © 2020, Brenda Winstead. All rights reserved.
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