The first time I ever saw a curve-hugging African print jumpsuit, it was on a model walking a Philly Fashion Week runway last year. I loved the piece's three-quarter length sleeves and jogger bottoms. I'd never seen a jumpsuit like that before.
The jumpsuit was part of D'Iyanu, an African-inspired collection from designer Addie Elabor. Other pieces featured that night were wrap dresses, long-sleeve sheaths and sweat suits. There were a few men's suits that featured tuxedo blazers and matching trousers.
And I'd wear them all.
"We are about bringing a modern, contemporary feel to traditional African prints," Elabor recently told me from her sleek 6,000-square-foot Philadelphia-area office and showroom space where 15 people work. "Our pieces are wearable in every area of your life, whether it's for work or play, or you are going to a concert."
African prints have been a staple in American fashion since the 1960s and '70s when Afros and dashikis emerged as styles closely associated with the black power movement. Gen Xers, inspired by the vibe and aesthetics of our parents' generation, adopted the African prints in a more laid-back style. Back in the day I bought as many funnel cakes as I did kente cloth maxi dresses and skirts at street festivals. But like the jazz-inspired raps that were popular at the time, the prints were fashioned into silhouettes that flowed.
Elabor, who was born in Nigeria, grew up going to markets where kente cloth and wax-printed Ankara fabrics were sold. Women turned fabrics into wrappers (long skirts) and bubas (blousy tops).
When Elabor was 6, her family moved to Philadelphia's Overbrook neighborhood. In 2012, Elabor earned a master's degree in international education at St. Joseph's University while working as a buyer for a lab supply company. She found herself wanting clothing made from the prints of her childhood, but the bubas and wrappers were too old-school for her modern, working-girl taste. "It was the old lady getup," the 33-year-old designer said with a laugh. "I wanted something I could wear that would express my culture and my roots but was more modern like a blazer."
In 2013 she started D'Iyanu with a more-than $15,000 investment. The name means "of miracles" and is a blend of two languages: French and Yoruba. The first collection included six styles: two dresses, three skirts and a blouse. The best seller: a knee-length A-line skirt. "The print and the colors were really vibrant and the style was just really hot at the time," Elabor said.
As D'Iyanu's business grew, a renewed interest in African print clothing was underway. But millennium versions were decidedly more fashion forward. Brands like Yetunde and Ofuure crisscrossed the country holding pop-ups. In 2015 the kente cloth prom gown of East Orange, N.J., teenager Kyemah McEntyre went viral after Nicki Minaj and Sanaa Lathan tweeted the dress to millions of followers. Then Black Panther hit theaters in 2018 and throngs of fans went to opening night in head-to-toe African prints. "They wanted to feel a part of the magic," Elabor said. "Our sales went up. There was a vibe and feeling for celebrating African culture."
D'Iyanu's sales doubled that year. And, Elabor says, it's been going strong ever since.
D'Iyanu's women's collection comes in sizes small to 3X. Prices start at $20 for T-shirts, and women's maxis - depending on the style - are about $120. Many of the dresses feature pockets (insert clapping here). Men's blazers top out at $170. Signature pieces, like D'Iyanu long-sleeve sheaths, are fashioned from a special stretch fabric. "It's part of our unique spin," Elabor said.
Elabor recently expanded D'Iyanu's activewear collection to include a windbreaker for men and a sports bra for women. "We are building a lifestyle brand where our clothing is incorporated into our customer's daily life," Elabor said. "We are a modern brand that we want people to take with them into the future."
(Elizabeth Wellington is the lifestyle columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
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