By Margarita Hirapetian
RAW fashion designer Adjo Honsou-Piper is a remarkable person. For one thing, she’s also an analytical chemist and trained biologist. As she says, this is not your typical background for a fashion designer. But it makes her that much more impressive and extraordinary. Having an analytical mind also helps with her designs. What is undeniable, though, is that her designs are absolutely gorgeous, featuring incredibly vibrant colors and prints, and flattering and unique silhouettes that will make any woman feel like a queen or goddess to wear them. Consequently, Adjo admits that’s one thing that she loves about fashion, how it can “project sentiments that one is feeling internally.” She elaborates, “I can walk out with my superhero cape and feel on top of the world, or I can be a businesswoman on my way to a board meeting. Clothing gives you that power.”
Since she was seven years old, Adjo has had an introduction to designs and patterns in her homeland of Togo in Africa. Her grandfather is a clothing designer, and Adjo remembers watching him sew as a child. She admits she did not realize the impact of that experience until she was in high school, but she has always loved fashion nevertheless. At 14, Adjo and her family moved from Africa to the United States, and it was during her teen years that her interest in fashion was reignited by Mrs. Douglas Taylor, her high school sewing teacher. High school was also where she took her first sewing class. Adjo says, “I remember buying my first sewing machine at age 16, because the 50 minutes, three times a week curriculum was just not good enough for me. I remember making six pieces for my class’s end of year fashion show, even though our requirement was two. Even at such a young age, I loved creating.”
Following high school, Adjo wanted to go to college for fashion design, but “as a child of an immigrant in the US, fashion is not one of the career paths you are destined for. So the idea of asking my mom to spend thousands of dollars on a fashion degree was unfathomable.” As previously mentioned, she is an analytical chemist, which makes her “extremely analytical and structural” in her designs. She considers herself somewhat self-taught, and admits that she could not have done it without the help of the people in her life: “I’ve learned and I am still learning from designers back home when I go visit.” Adjo’s brand is called Tribe 228, and it focuses on “providing contemporary designs with modernity, African heritage, and superior artistry.” Moreover, her brand’s clothing is “influenced by the gorgeous patterns and entrenched Togolese culture with a dash of western Africa styling and culture.”
Sharing the African culture is incredibly important to Adjo. She explains, “The medium that I use to express myself is ANKARA prints or WAX prints. I use these prints because of the boldness of the fabrics. Not only does wearing ANKARA command attention, it holds a deeper meaning for me. Right now westerners see African culture as this exotic foreign fragile entity that must only be preserved because of the deep roots and history. Most of the culture is misunderstood and some of it is unknown. As a designer, and particularly one with origin to the continent, I see it as an opportunity to show people that it is ok to experience other cultures. Admiration is good, but admiration without participation only adds to the lack of understanding. I know that we live in this world that people are very conscious of culture appropriation and may feel as though enjoying my culture via my clothes may offend other people. I am trying to break that mold. Ankara fabric is beautiful, it is bold, it speaks to you, and most importantly it gives you the ability to express yourself in a unique way. I want the world to see that. I want everyone, and every race and every culture to see, and feel like I do daily. It’s not just a newest hip thing to do, or an exotic thing, it is a way of life.”
Adjo also travels home to Togo (especially when she has a creative block). She visits local fabric shops, local markets, beaches, and clubs. She also talks to people and asks them what representation means to them: “I ask them what they would want to see Togolese culture represented as. And I hold those experiences very near and dear to my heart.” As for the challenges she faces, they are probably familiar to many other artists – time, money, and clients. As a full-time chemist, she doesn’t always have time to devote to her design work. Money can be an issue because she has to use income from her career to help fund her projects. And clients because “there are not that many people ordering ANKARA gowns for their wedding receptions, or prom or gala.” However, Adjo is working diligently to change that. She hopes to draw people in with her latest showcase, to let them experience and see the opportunity of what she does. We have no doubt she will prove successful in this endeavor. There’s no way you can see her work and not be in awe.
Adjo’s ultimate goal is to see an A-list celebrity walking the red carpet at the Oscars in one of her gowns. She also wants people to embrace ANKARA prints and fashion, and for Tribe 228 to be a force in the fashion world. But perhaps more importantly, she wants people to understand that “culture is to be shared with the world. Appreciate it, sure, but don’t forget to experience it. My designs make statements, they command attention, and they are very unique. My prints and patterns are changing with each design and are never repeated.” We absolutely love that, and can’t wait to see what Adjo does next.
Don’t forget to check out more of Adjo’s designs on her Instagram (@shoptribe228) and visit her website (tribe228.com) where you can purchase some of her amazing work.