Guest blogger Maria Hannah Bass interviews Brixton fashion designer Abenaa Pokuaa about her colourful clothing collection and the twin influences of London and Ghana on her work
With sequins, mesh and PVC glimmering amongst Kente cloth and vivid batik, the clothes inside Ohema Ohene boutique are almost as colourful as the street beyond. It’s on Brixton’s Atlantic Road, alongside halal butchers, trendy bars, Indian sari shops and Caribbean market stalls blasting ska, that designer Abenaa Pokuaa has found a natural home for her African-inspired fashion.
‘I always felt Brixton was the right place for my shop ’cause it’s just a melting pot of cultures,’ Abenaa enthuses. ‘In Brixton – in fact, in most places in London – you wouldn’t know straightaway what country you were in. You can see people from Bangladesh, from Italy, from Ghana, from Mauritius… You can’t help vibe off that. It makes you more creative, it makes you want to mix things together.’
Abenaa has perfected the art of ‘mixing things together’, creating beautifully cut and trend-aware clothes in traditional African fabrics. ‘I’m trying to fly two flags,’ she says: ‘the British flag and the Ghanaian flag. I’m proud to be British but I’m also proud to be Ghanaian. I want to fuse the two together.
‘I’ve always wanted to be a designer. I wanted to produce a brand that was wearable and relevant to who I am, British Ghanaian, born and bred in South London. I like to wear things that are wearable but also slightly unique. Topshop and H&M are great for what they do but at times you want something slightly fresh, slightly different.’ Abenaa picks up a shoe that looks like a Converse plimsoll, only covered in bright African batik print with a PVC cuff. ‘See this? Worldwide, everybody wears trainers like this. I didn’t see why I couldn’t do that but using my own culture.’
So fresh out of the London College of Fashion, Abenaa set about starting her own business. The start-up was completely self-funded – along the journey from student to businesswoman she designed for high street stores and even worked in the costume department for Strictly Come Dancing. ‘That was the total opposite of what you’re taught at uni!’ she laughs. ‘Ridiculously over the top with no budget, just do what you like!’ Finally founded in 2008, Ohema Ohene is now in its third collection and Abenaa recently opened the boutique on Brixton’s Atlantic Road.
Abenaa talks me through this latest collection, bringing out cocktail dresses in bold Ghanaian prints heavy with sequins or bandage detailing. She’s constantly got her eye out for seasonal trends to keep the look fresh whilst retaining that African influence. She’ll buy pink Kente prints when fuchsia’s in fashion and she made sure the cuts in her current collection reflect the vogue for body-conscious tailoring and underwear as outerwear. In a nod to the flurry of animal print that prowled this season’s catwalks, there’s even a mesh panelled dress covered in ‘Africanised’ leopard spots.
Men’s polo shirts and hoodies have the subtlest of Kente print trims and Abenaa promises a similar approach with her upcoming collection of soft tailoring. ‘The menswear is smart London streetwear. Think Tinie Tempah – he’s Nigerian but he’s also British and his look is just very London. That’s the kind of look that my menswear is trying to portray. It could be worn by anyone – black, Asian, Caucasian, whatever.’ You’ve probably already seen Ohema Ohene designs popping up in music videos but Abenaa has her eye on some more stars who could do with a little Afro-British fusion. ‘I’d like to dress somebody daring like Kanye or crazy like Andre 300. Men like Mike Skinner, Pharrel Williams… Someone like Jay Z might be a bit too hip hop for me! Colin Farrell or Dermot O’Leary would look good in the new menswear collection.’ Like her dresses, the future is bright for Abenaa and Ohema Ohene. With international fashion shows coming up in the new year and two other designers moving into the fabulous Brixton boutique, Ohema Ohene is putting Brixton at the heart of London’s multicultural fashion scene. Britain, Ghana, but most of all London is Abenaa’s biggest influence. ‘I love London. I miss it wherever I go. It’s so diverse – film, food, fashion – we’re just surrounded by so much choice and so much culture. And anything goes – I love the freedom of London, that feeling that you can do anything, wear anything.’
Maria Hannah Bass blogs at www.mhdbass.wordpress.com