Outside of D.C., nestled in the suburbs of Springfield, Virginia, is a hidden studio stocked with African-influenced jewelry and colorful designs celebrities like Janet Jackson and movie productions like “Black Panther” seek. For those who are in the know, the store is TruFaceByGrace and the mind behind the growing design empire is Grace Yeboah Ofori.
Upon entering Ofori’s studio, the narrow hallway opens first to a small showroom on the left with a display case full of rings sculpted from cow bones and horns, gold-plated necklaces, wooden and beaded earrings and metal cuffs. A mannequin adorned with tubular-stacked leather necklaces and a Zulu hat flanks the display case and a rack of multicolored grid pattern-laced dresses and capes.
But behind the showroom is where I hear chatter, music and laughter. Just returning from New York Fashion Week where her jewelry was featured at local designer Dur Doux’s show, Ofori is still unpacking, organizing and checking inventory with her team. Even on a day of manual labor, Ofori is dressed impeccably. The Ghana-born creative is wearing her own pieces including a statement beaded necklace and a black cape she turned into a dress, along with adding removable sleeves that add more structural dimension to the garment.
Ofori describes her style as “head turner. When I attend an event, you have no choice but to come to me.”
I can attest to her claim. When I first met Ofori, I was at an event and spotted her across the room. She was wearing a red fringe cape dress, silver hoop beaded earrings and a matching cuff. I promptly went up to compliment her.
Designing comes as second nature to Ofori, who even before launching her company found ways to add her African culture to her everyday wear.
“I’d buy something plain from H&M and sew African pieces and accents to it,” Ofori recalls. “People would ask ‘Where’d you get that?’ I was always trying to change clothing. I don’t like to wear what everybody is wearing. One of my inspirations is not blending in because I feel like I’m different. So, I need to show myself my [truth]. That’s where the company name comes from. Your true self.”
Ofori did not always carry this philosophy about her outfits, though. At 15, her family moved from Ghana to Canada and in the teenage turbulence of searching for one’s identity and belonging, Ofori struggled.
“I went to a mostly all-white school in the middle of grade 11 and I was the only girl from Africa. There were some Black people there, but I still didn’t fit in. I was scared to wear African pieces. I was still finding myself.”
Following high school, Ofori followed a standard track of academics and pursued a profession that would appease her family.
“I’m from a very poor family,” Ofori says. “My mother told me in order to be successful you have to go to university. And in order to be equal with people who are born with money you have to work hard. Everything you do you have to put your all in it. And if you put your all into it and it’s successful, then you made it. That’s how I grew up.”
Ofori went to college in Canada and double majored in pre-law and sociology. While an undergrad, she worked three jobs and graduated without loans. Originally, she aspired to go to law school but found the cost too steep. Instead, she earned a master’s in public policy by attending grad school at night while working a full-time job in the Canadian government. The continued hustle throughout her early adulthood fueled her entrepreneurial spirit.
“I’ve never had just one job. I always have a side job. If I have one job, I feel like I’m wasting my time.”
One of her consistent side hustles for close to twenty years was working as a makeup artist at events. Self-taught and starting at 17, Ofori would book out every weekend for months for people’s weddings in Canada. Even after moving from Canada with her husband in 2014 to the DMV, she continued to work as a makeup artist on top of her full-time job in the U.S. government — but struggled to find a loyal network.
“Here [in the DMV] everybody and their mom is a makeup artist. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago back in Canada. I was the only one when I started.”
Ever the innovator, Ofori began to rethink her business and saw an opportunity for an untapped market in the U.S. for African clothing and pieces.
“My company would not be a success in Canada,” Ofori affirms. “In Canada, it is easy for Black residents to trace back their heritage. They still have strong immigrant roots. They were not enslaved or stolen from their country the way many African American [ancestors] in the U.S. were. When I came [to the DMV], I saw African Americans were seeking [African] culture. It was amazing. They knew our food. They celebrated our music.”
From this observation and people consistently asking her where she got the outfits she created for herself, Ofori started her design company in 2015.
Ofori isn’t focused on creating replicas of traditional African jewelry and clothing. She wants to use her designs as a launching point.
“I’m inspired by the cultures of all the different African countries,” Ofori says. “Even in Ghana, there’s 10 tribes and each of the tribes have their own jewelry and clothing. I take inspiration from it and make it wearable art by adding my own flair. I make it modern.”
Through networking and scouting, Ofori now works with artisans in eight African countries that help bring her designs to life.
“It all starts when something pops in my head. I have to consider the raw materials. So what country am I going to create this piece from? Because South Africa will have a certain kind of beads. Is it Kenyan, is it Tanzanian? Because each of the raw materials is specific to that country. Even the same material like a cowry shell can be a different color depending on which country one sources from.”
Ofori notes she is always dreaming about “what-ifs” and is amazed at how often what she describes and asks for is brought to life. Take a pair of earrings she made that were inspired by traditional, hand-carved wooden Tanzanian dolls. When she came up with the idea and explained it to an artisan, they thought she was joking — but as I look through the showroom’s display case, there are two eye-catching mini wooden dolls hanging from respective earring clasps intricately wearing white and golden beaded skirts, necklaces and earrings of their own.
“I don’t draw. I scribble what I come up with and then show my artisans. I’m lucky to have artisans in different countries that can take what I describe and make it a reality.”
The first three years of running TruFaceByGrace, Ofori went to DMV markets and toured at festivals, such as the Brooklyn Dance Festival and ESSENCE Festival, to sell her jewelry, bags and capes. Customers were instantly drawn to her designs. She began to build a following and network with other designers.
For most this level of success would be sufficient, for Ofori this was only the beginning.
In 2018, L.A.-based fashion designer Claude Kameni of Lavie by CK, who is known for using West African prints to create red carpet looks, was working with Janet Jackson’s team for her new single and music video “Made For Now” with Daddy Yankee. Kameni also happened to be one of the designers Ofori networked with and even collaborated with on previous photoshoots.
“They were showing [Kameni] the mood board for the album cover and asked her to make these gorgeous African print dresses,” Ofori says. “Then they showed her the jewelry designs they wanted and [Kameni] said to them, ‘Grace has all of this.’”
Kameni told Ofori to come to New York with her jewelry immediately. Ofori hopped on a train with suitcases in tow full of jewelry and made her way north. Still working for the government full time, Ofori only had time to drop off the jewelry but not to stay for the photoshoot because she didn’t want to miss work.
“I regret it to this day because I could have met [Jackson],” Ofori says. “Claude recorded the shoot for me and they were dancing and chatting with her and talking about Jollof rice.”
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Following the photoshoot, Jackson’s team asked for more of Ofori’s pieces for her appearance on the “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and the subsequent music video.
As we sit on the couch in her studio, Ofori shows me the music video and points out every time Jackson or a dancer appears wearing one of her pieces. One of the most memorable is a golden-beaded, layered-draped neckpiece Jackson wears cascading over her shoulders which stops right before the waist.
However, despite all the memorable pieces throughout the music video if you search for Ofori’s name with “Made for Now,” nothing comes up. She was not publicly credited for the jewelry worn. Behind the scenes is another story. Before Ofori knew it, other celebrities like Phoebe Robinson and “Orange Is the New Black’s” Danielle Brooks began reaching out to her — as well as movie producers.
A buyer for costume designer Ruth E. Carter was the first producer to request jewelry from her for “Black Panther.” Since then, there has been a steady flow of production requests including “Coming to America 2,” “Red Notice” and “Raising Dion.” While at the studio, Ofori showed me some buckets full of requested jewelry and pieces created for an upcoming film sequel she could not disclose.
In spite of her success in the entertainment industry, Ofori notes there have been some drawbacks.
“I used to have this gold choker made in South Africa from a Zulu tribe. It’s based off the traditional Ndebele Choker commonly called the DZILA or IDZILA is a tribal piece from the Zulu tribe in South Africa. I used to order the original handmade one from my artisans in South Africa. With makeup artist Danessa Myricks and a photographer, we had a photoshoot with models wearing the necklace. The two images from the photoshoot were then used by companies in China to sell a mass-produced copied choker, which ultimately took my South African artisans out of business. The mass-produced choker was made with fake materials like faux leather and sold for very cheap worldwide using our two images. The models’ faces were all over Amazon, Alibaba AliExpress and Google.”
Ofori is no stranger to people copying her designs. When selling at markets, she noticed other designers began copying her work. Yet, the increase of exposure her products receive from celebrities, influencers and film productions — and the lack of attribution — exponentially increases the issue and her ability to control it.
“When I go to Ghana and scout artisans they now show me my own designs. They tell me ‘We have this amazing design from the U.S.’ and show me my picture.”
Furthermore, because film productions buy the pieces from Ofori, they are not required to list her in credits or publicly acknowledge it. With some productions, the buyer requests a large number of custom pieces of jewelry and accessories — which Ofori pays for — but then only purchases one or two pieces, leaving her with unnecessary inventory.
Once, Ofori loaned out an estimated $13,000 worth of jewelry to a music video set where most of the pieces came back damaged. Worst, Ofori didn’t get compensated for the damage or credited in the project.
“They just have no respect for us,” Ofori says about the entertainment industry. “It’s as if [we’re expected to be] privileged and honored they want to pull from us. And most of the time, it’s like, ‘Can you ship it today?’”
A New Horizon
Although frustrated, Ofori is looking forward. In June, she quit her government job and for the first time in her life is focused on one career. In August, she bought her studio space — prior she was running her company from her house — and recently hired a lawyer to help with contracts and copyrights.
Meanwhile, Ofori continues to come up with new designs and focus on her brand’s mission.
“I see the women who try my pieces. I see how confident they look, how happy they are. They feel like royalty. So it’s not just me designing for myself. I feel like I design for people.”
Ofori recently has been conducting photoshoots at her studio with a professional photographer for micro and macro-influencers and a handpick of creatives. She has a hairstylist come in and does their makeup before styling them, too.
Her return from New York Fashion Week also sparked a new idea.
“What I learned from Fashion Week is I want to bring a full collection out. Because I release all these pieces randomly.”
Knowing Ofori, I have no doubt we will be seeing a collection sooner rather than later. Whatever Ofori sets her mind to, she makes it happen.
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