As local businesses in all sectors begin to reopen after the coronavirus shutdown, several Black-owned small businesses in the District are facing the added emotional work of operating in a country coming to terms with systemic racial injustice. While Black Washingtonians accounted for 71 percent of D.C.’s population in 1970, that number had fallen to 49.2 percent by 2011, and has continued to decline since. But several Black-owned businesses are staying strong through change and adversity, and doing it in style. Three fashion-forward D.C. entrepreneurs are rising up to participate, educate and move the fashion industry toward a more inclusive, sustainable space for all.
Dionna Dorsey, District of Clothing
When 2020 began, Dionna Dorsey could never have imagined that her T-shirts would be part of a racial protest movement, or that she’d be designing a line of apparel that would support relief aid during a global pandemic.
Dorsey, a trained fashion designer and entrepreneur, returned from New York to her hometown in D.C. in 2009. At the time, the Great Recession was impacting businesses all over the country, and there was little work to be found in the design field. But the entrepreneur in Dorsey saw opportunity in using the economic downturn as a time to reevaluate her own dreams, and soon thereafter launched her graphic design firm Dionna Dorsey Designs. That practice in adaptation prepared Dorsey for surviving the Covid-19 pandemic as an independent business owner.
“The first thing that I did was very quickly realize that I needed to pivot,” Dorsey says. “Secondly, I realized that I needed to not just pivot, I needed something to help me be productive, but also something to help me keep my peace. I needed some sort of normalcy, and I also needed a way to stay profitable during this time as a small business owner.”
When by March her client requests had dropped by 80 percent, Dorsey’s side hustle, District of Clothing, became her full-time job. The District of Clothing brand includes basics like tees, hats and sweatshirts that feature simple, bold statements of identity. To bolster sales, Dorsey refocused her social media strategy, posting encouraging messages and information about Covid-19, and shifted marketing to events like “work from home” sales that featured customers wearing items from her popular Dreamer/Doer and Trust Black Women collections while on Zoom calls.
“Isaac Newton was home during the plague and invented the Theory of Gravity. I thought, ‘We can be productive, too.’”
But still, Dorsey wanted to do more to encourage people and to help. So, she made the decision to launch her Common Purpose collection. The collection was initially designed to support and encourage Americans to participate in the 2020 presidential election.
“I kept thinking there’s no time like the present and we actually need each other. If I’m constantly encouraging my community of dreamers/doers and changemakers to go from dreaming to doing, then I should probably do that, too.”
A portion of the proceeds from the Common Purpose collection goes to World Central Kitchen, to assist Covid-19 relief efforts. With this line, Dorsey says, “we’re celebrating the unity of intention and harmony because we need it now more than ever and we all have to do our part.”
Beyond fostering a sense of hope during the pandemic, District of Clothing has become an emblem for many seeking societal change. Mayor Bowser wore the line’s 51 hat – part of the collection that promotes D.C. statehood – during a recent press conference, and Black Lives Matter advocates don Common Purpose and Trust Black Women tees during street demonstrations.
“Seeing people connect and inspiring action and self-love, and wearing something from District of Clothing – or even apparel I’ve designed for campaigns like Planned Parenthood – on the frontlines while they are demanding change [leaves me] completely speechless. Our clothes won’t change the world, but the people who wear them [will].”
Safisha “Fia” Thomas, Fia’s Fabulous Finds
Tucked away in Petworth’s Upshur Street corridor, Fia’s Fabulous Finds has been a neighborhood mainstay for second-hand fashion for more than eight years. Store owner Safisha “Fia” Thomas, a self-described thrifter, started selling clothes from her dining room as a side hustle when she wasn’t on the clock at her full-time gig with the Department of Treasury. Thomas would find pieces that didn’t necessarily match her own style, but that she knew someone would love, until eventually she had collected about 100 outfits.
“I got them dry cleaned, bought a rack and had a one-day little happy hour that turned into an every Saturday event with 40 people in the house,” Thomas says.
One day, while walking down Upshur Street with her husband Frank, she noticed the storefront at 806 was available, and they both agreed the spot was the perfect fit for what would become Fia’s Fabulous Finds. In addition to being a place to combat the fast fashion industry while scoring unique and vintage designs, Fia’s is known as a clothing store that is inclusive of all sizes, and is one of the only boutiques in D.C. that carries up to size 4X for women. When she had to close the shop due to coronavirus, Thomas had to think fast on her feet.
“It took us for a spin,” she says, “but if we’re being very, very honest, a lot of retailers in D.C. were struggling before the pandemic even happened. It looked as if there was no hope for the fashion business.”
But the shutdown provided a new opportunity. Thomas learned how to sell on Facebook Live, Instagram and other social media platforms, using her store as a staging area.
“I’m reinventing myself. I now have customers from all over. People who may never have visited before are now able to find me and that puts a smile on my face. And the fun part is shopping my own store for those things that people are going to want to purchase.”
Thomas has curated virtual sale events to accommodate women coming from all different backgrounds and with all different fashion needs. Thomas says for her customer base in D.C. and beyond, she caters to a growing market that, like herself, is more socially conscious.
“What I have found out for fashion is that used clothes are in. It’s not even about the financials. It is the right thing to do. Women are becoming more conscious about who makes their clothes, and more conscious about slow fashion. It’s a lifestyle. Eating healthier, using resources wisely, making sure your carbon footprint is limited. It is fashion for living.”
Follow Fia’s Fabulous Finds on Instagram and Facebook @fiasfabfinds.
Isaac Appiah, Flyshikis By Sankofa Kreations
Isaac Appiah was born and raised in Ghana, where his mother was a seamstress. When he immigrated to the D.C. area as a high schooler in 2006, Appiah wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew he wanted to do something that represented his culture.
Fast forward 10 years, and by May of 2017, Appiah and his business partner, Jehu Graham, had launched a new company that did just that: Sankofa Kreations. Sankofa and its line, Flyshikis, uses the advertising power of clothing to tell the stories of West African history, and to embolden those who wear the clothes to feel proud of that history.
“The name Flyshikis is a play on words,” Appiah explains. “It’s dashikis, the traditional African garments that we sell, combined with fly, because our clothes are fly.”
The bold, bright prints that are characteristic of the line are sourced from and produced in Ghana.
“It’s one way to stay authentic and invest back into the market [in Ghana],” says Appiah, whose mother helps to oversee the production.
Among Appiah’s favorite designs are those that feature the Kente print, one traditionally worn only by kings and queens.
“If you’re wearing a print that royals wore, it gives you a different kind of courage,” he says.
In addition to selling through an online shop, Appiah and his small team travel around the DMV hosting Flyshikis pop-ups, largely on and around colleges – in the last year, they visited 86 campuses. He says that even during the pandemic, they’ll continue to be creative in finding new ways for their designs to reach the public.
“Anywhere we go, we sell out. The reason we stand out from other designers is that we educate the masses about the prints that we use. There are amazing stories and traditions behind them, and we want people to know that.”
His favorite part of spearheading his company is making it a platform for education. Appiah’s vision is to use fashion as a way to help people connect to their roots, and his hope for Sankofa is to open a fashion school in Ghana within the next five years to teach people how to sew, get them exposure and use the Flyshikis brand to “help launch their journeys in life.”
Learn more about Appiah at www.flyshikis.com and follow the brand on Instagram @flyshikis.
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