The fashion industry is known to be notoriously lacking in ethnic diversity. While African Americans are projected to have a buying power of $1.1. trillion by 2015, black designers remain underrepresented in every sphere of fashion. “The talent is just as strong as an Oscar de la Renta or an Alexander McQueen, but due to a lack of funding, they’re not out there,” says Adrienne Jones, the co-curator of an exhibition on black designers. This lack of industry support has not stopped three handbag designers from America, Nigeria, and Ethiopia from breaking down barriers and launching their own companies.
Kunmi Otitoju is the Nigerian-born Founder of Minku, a leather goods company based in Barcelona, Spain. Her designs are handmade with sumptuous leather and traditional African textiles. Otitoju had an unconventional path to fashion: She studied Computer Science at Howard University and Virginia Tech.
Feeling increasingly drawn to her creative side, Otitoju decamped for art school in Barcelona and established Minku in 2011. Customers from over 20 countries have purchased Minku handbags, and the collection was featured at the Barcelona Fashion Week. Otitoju was recently included in Forbes magazine’s “30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa” list.
Gregory and Terri “Sylvia” Pope are the husband and wife team behind Gregory Sylvia, a high-end handbag collection that has been featured on Bravo’s Married to Medicine. The North Carolina-based African American couple each hold MBA degrees and bring combined experiences in business development and lifestyle design. “From our start we saw the lack of black-owned producers in this arena and we wanted to bring some diversity…and not just diversity, but excellence along with the diversity,” says Gregory Pope. In addition to its signature pieces, Gregory Sylvia also designs Greek-themed handbags.
Ethiopian-born Abai Schulze is the Founder & Creative Director of ZAAF, a company that produces high-quality leather goods made by Ethiopian artisans. At age 11, Schulze was adopted from an orphanage by an American family who raised her with a strong reference for her Ethiopian heritage. She studied Economics in college and gained work experience at development aid organizations. But in 2013, Schulze left promising prospects in Washington, DC, for Ethiopia, where she wanted to make a difference. “I wanted to give back something to my country. The place that you’re born always influences you. I was always drawn to go back,” she says.