In 2013, Nnenna Stella decided to embark on a meditative retreat. She had been waiting tables and trying to stay positive, but she wasn't happy. The Wrap Life, a popular head wrap and accessory brand, was born one month after the retreat — and mere days after Stella taught herself the requisite skills. "I sat in front of a sewing machine and taught myself how to sew two days before starting The Wrap Life," she confesses.
Now, five years since its founding, The Wrap Life is poised to become a full-on lifestyle brand. Stella's company is an eight-person operation based in Industry City (a business hub in Brooklyn), which is racking up millions in sales yearly. With close to 200k followers; the brand's bright Instagram account — where Stella often models her own designs — is where most customers find the online store. Jessica Williams, Issa Rae and Whoopi Goldberg have also been spotted donning the wraps, along with popular beauty and hair bloggers.
There are several traditions of head wrapping around the world, but The Wrap Life specifically references the West African iteration. Though they go by different names – geles in Nigeria, for example – head wraps are integral to dress practices across Africa. Enslaved Africans carried this tradition across the Atlantic using head wraps as practical as well as beautifying accessories. In 1786, sumptuary laws were passed requiring free women of color in New Orleans to wear head wraps called tignons. The purpose of these laws was to enforce the racial boundaries between women of color and white women, but rather than being a badge of second-class citizenship, tignons became so fashionable that they were even appropriated by some white women.
Today, Stella is creating new traditions and imbuing the head wrap with new meaning. Most notably, her designs add a level of accessibility and ease to the practice of head wrapping. Despite being half-Nigerian, Stella did not grow up wrapping her head in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas; when she discovered the power of adorning her head with fabrics sourced from Ghana and Morocco, she made it her mission to make the art of head wrapping easier. Accessibility and ease are central tenets of The Wrap Life's ethos.
Head wraps are both a form of self and cultural expression; they give many of the brand's customers a sartorial link to their African and/or Diasporic heritage. "It feels good to wear something that gives you a connection to something that is lost. Headdress is one of those connections," says Stella. "We aim to be inclusive — head wrapping is for everyone, [but] at the same [time], I am committed to the space that we created for women of color."
Given that the brand draws on African and Diasporic traditions of head wrapping, it's in a unique position to speak out on issues of cultural appropriation. That's why Stella adopts an inclusive ethos. "We often ask other fashion brands to be inclusive of us [as women of color]; we strive to be inclusive in the same way," says Stella.
Recently, the brand got a boost in its visibility when its wraps were featured on the March cover of Vogue Arabia on models Iman and Imaan Hammam. Stella was approached by stylist Michael Philouze to style their head wraps. "I thought it was a joke at first. I wasn't convinced until I received the call sheet," says Stella.
Shortly thereafter, Iman reached out to Stella to wear her headwrap to the "Black Panther" premiere. On top of the Vogue Arabia coup, The Wrap Life was featured in a recent issue of Essence. Since that editorial exposure, traffic on the site has noticeably increased.
As for what's next, Stella will continue spreading her love for head wrapping. By adding more color and dimension, she points out that a headwrap can completely transform a look. She encourages customers to take an intuitive approach to head wrapping. "Just go with the flow, keep trying, and don't be afraid to wrap it more than once," says Stella. For more visual impact, she suggests augmenting the inside of a wrap with more fabric.
The Wrap Life has come a long way from its beginning in Stella's Brooklyn apartment, with the brand's journey mirroring her own personal growth. "I grew up on food stamps, living in Section 8 housing and now I own a company," says Stella. "I barely recognize myself from five years ago when I started the brand."