Fashion has long had an obsession with "dressing like a French girl," but the truth is that Paris isn't the only city with seriously stylish residents. In our column "International It Girl," we celebrate our fashion inspirations from all over the world. First up? Ghana.
When I was a junior in college, a friend grabbed my hand in the cafeteria, said "I have someone I need you to meet," and dragged me over to the milk dispenser. There she introduced me to a short girl with a dramatic hourglass figure and a single dot of eyeliner under each eye. "You both love fashion," my friend said, "and you need to know each other."
It turned out that the girl's name was Aseye, and we did need to know each other. In the following months, we quickly bonded over our mutual love for melodramatic designer biopics, thrifted denim and the fact that we were two of the very few sentient beings on our Midwestern campus who knew (or cared) when fashion week was. And I wasn't the only one drawn to Aseye's style — in our largely white school, she stood out in the best of ways. Whether she wore velvet pants or an elegantly twisted head wrap, her look never missed a beat.
Some of the coolest pieces in Aseye's wardrobe were things she had custom-made from wax-print batik fabrics in Ghana, where she often spent summers with relatives on her dad's side of the family. The pieces and pictures she would bring back — full of bright colors, loud prints and unexpected silhouettes — first put Ghana on my radar as an intriguing style incubator, and it's been there ever since. Its citizens didn't seem to hang on every trend coming out of the West, but they had a strong sense of personal style that felt well-developed in a different way than I'd ever seen before.
Aseye's still one of my favorite fashion fans; if today is like most days, she will probably have DM'd me six fashion-related Instagrams by the time you're done reading this. And ever since meeting her and her two sisters, I've been unable to stop noticing intriguingly stylish women with connections to Ghana everywhere I go. Here are some of my faves.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
With a unique style that's attracted the lenses of the New York Times, the Sartorialist and Essence, it would be easy to praise this New Yorker-by-way-of-Ghana for her unique looks alone. But Brew-Hammond is no mere muse: she's an author and speaker with a novel and a TEDx talk under her belt, both of which wrestle with African identities.
She's quick to assert the impact her years in Accra, the capital of Ghana, had on her personal style. "Ghana has a strong tailor and seamstress culture," Brew-Hammond explained via email. "Many Ghanaians get clothes custom-made for special occasions. Because I've been getting clothes made since I was 12, I've come to understand how certain fabrics drape and which silhouettes work for my body." Brew-Hammond notes that Ghana even has its own signature fabrics, like the silk-and-cotton textile kente, though they may be incorporated into silhouettes found across many nations in West Africa.
Montia got her start as a pageant queen in Ghana before becoming a model and social-media personality. Since then, the mother and serial entrepreneur has gone on to found a charity called Africa Eats Now that addresses hunger in the continent, a children’s book series called "Zuzu and Sasa" that seeks to provide young Ghanaian readers with positive African role models, and an eponymous natural skin-care line.
The latter features products like shea butter-based soaps and scrubs made from recipes handed down by her grandmother, and often involves traditional herbs and processes that Montia documents engagingly on social media. If Montia's perpetually glowing skin is any indication, Grandma knew what she was doing.
A Ghanaian and Lebanese stylist, blogger and runway producer, Afua Rida grew up going to international schools in Ghana and attended university in California. Since then, she has moved back to Ghana and built her reputation by championing designers that feel distinctly modern and distinctly African.
"I am delighted when I see designers in Ghana finally start to move into their true selves, expressing it through their work," she wrote on her website Styled By Rida earlier this year. "It is very easy to just copy a model that has worked for someone, and believe me, too many creatives are staying safe. I believe that when you tune yourself to you, you create your best work and the world will applaud."
Musician Jojo Abot has played shows with the likes of Lauryn Hill and represented Rosario Dawson's clothing line, but she claims her biggest artistic inspiration comes from the Ghanaian artists she was surrounded by when she lived in Accra. Having grown up mostly in Brooklyn, she got tickets to visit Ghana for her grandmother's birthday — and ended up staying. She now spends significant time in New York, Copenhagen and Accra, and her "Afro-hypno-sonic" tunes have a global flavor whether she's singing in English or Ewe, a language spoken by many in Southeastern Ghana. With lyrics that address everything from interracial relationships to women's rights, the themes in her music have a broad appeal, too.
Her ability to cross borders using the languages of fashion and makeup are no less effective. Abot's self-directed music videos, like the one for her mesmerizing single "To Li," often feature her in face and body paint, bold makeup and either luxurious natural hair or a neon wig. "I stumbled upon a truly powerful underground movement that provoked me in a positive way," she says of the creative community in Ghana. "I am forever grateful to Ghana for giving me the space and people I needed to blossom."
Her designs have been spotted on Michelle Obama and Rihanna, and featured in the likes of Vogue, The New York Times and WWD. Mimi Plange, the Ghanaian-born and San Francisco-raised designer behind the eponymous label, doesn't make clothes from recognizably African fabrics. But subtle details — like the ribbing in her spring 2016 collection that references scarification or the kente-inspired abstract print in her recent furniture collaboration with Roche Bobois — show that Africa is never too far from her mind.
"I grew up in the melting pot that is America, but I have not forgotten where I came from," Plange explained over email. "Our clothes are a mix of American sportswear soaked in African traditions and modern silhouettes. I believe the clothes translate an authentic Ghanaian aesthetic because that is what I am."