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SocietyJune 21, 2017

‘When people think Africa, they think safari. I haven’t even been on a safari’


Next in a week-long series chatting to Wellingtonians about what they’re up to in the windy city, Alex Casey talks to fashion entrepreneur Pinaman Owusu-Banahene about bringing Africa to Wellington, growing up in a matriarchy, and the slow death of fast fashion.

For someone who once thought fashion was shallow, Pinaman Owusu-Banahene’s iridescent turquoise outfit is an honest to god blindingly beautiful rainbow fish in the sea of gloomy puffer jackets on Wellington’s Tory Street. “I got all of this from my mum,” she says, gesturing up and down, “I always used to stare at her in the mirror when she was dressing up, she was always so stylish.” 

Growing up in Ghana and moving to New Zealand at the age of 18, Pinaman now works in Wellington as a public servant by day, and a fashion entreprenuer by night, organising the African Fashion Festival and co-ordinating African fashion collective ADJOAA. That kind of ‘slashie’ vigilanteism makes her a very busy woman, graciously giving me an hour of her time before she had to head off to her day job. 

We met at Poquito on Tory Street, one of her favourite spots to work, conveniently just down the road from her apartment building right opposite Te Papa. Was it scary living in an apartment during the dramatic earthquake that shook the city awake last year? Turns out all her precious glassware was left rattled but intact – save for her giant cracked jar of coconut oil that fell off a shelf. Side note: that’s about the most typically “Wellington” thing I’ve ever heard on this trip so far.

Aside from her crushingly impressive sense of style that definitely put my bad outfit to shame [pictured below], Pinaman still holds several values close from her upbringing in Ghana. “I always felt like I was raised by a village, so helping others sits really well with me” she says, “I often work on nothing but just my belief in people.” Returning to Ghana during the recession in 2010 to work on engaging youth in employment, she saw a need to grow the fashion industry out of Africa as well as re-introduce the diverse continent to the world.

Cut to several years later, where Pinaman is opening New Zealand’s first African Fashion Festival in Wellington. She’s most definitely a do-er. 

Pinaman speaks at the AFFNZ opening launch in 2014. Photo: Dominic Gutierrez

Primarily working with African artisans who use traditional methods of weaving and dying, the move away from industrialisation feels particularly timely in this era of fast fashion, commercialisation and horrifying textile waste. The fact that those same Western fast fashion brands readily lift the prints of other cultures – with little or no acknowledgement of their origins – adds another level of urgency to her work with ADJOAA, a fashion collective aiming to bring work from 55 African nations together into one online platform

But how does she manage it all from Wellington, a tiny city thousands of miles away from the colossal continent of Africa? I ordered an unfashionable porridge and she ordered a glamorous flat white with sugar, and for the next hour we talked about her place in the Wellington fashion scene, being raised in a matriarchal society, and if Wellingtonians have any sense of style at all.

How does the approach to fashion in New Zealand differ to the Ghanaian approach to it?

See, we’re really spoiled in Ghana. Everybody has a tailor, so everything fits you perfectly. It was a shock to me that people didn’t have tailors in New Zealand. Obviously, the industry is more advanced here when it comes to the infrastructure compared to the small scale of Ghana. We don’t have the luxury of having amazing designs schools like Massey, AUT or Fashion Tech. South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya are booming with manufacturing, but Ghana is still it’s in early stages.

There’s also a difference in how people dress for certain situations. How you might dress to go to the clubs is, for us how we dress in our Sunday best to go to church. In Ghana, catching up with your girlfriends is always a good time to dress up. We dress up for our friends and ourselves, not for guys. It’s a very different culture, you’re very close to your girlfriends and the women of the family. Women are sort of the epitome of society in my culture, they’re the head of the family and always very strong women.

Florence from Unique Model Management wears Laurence Airline. Photographer: Tamara Jones

How would you characterise the broader Wellington style?

It’s quirky. I really love it, because people have their own sense of style and people also opshop a lot. They can mix in the new with the old, the versatility of people’s sense of style here is quite unique. Maybe the only place I’ve seen that is in London, or in Europe, where people have their own sense of style. Sorry, no offence to Aucklanders, but I do feel like people wear the same things there and everybody looks quite similar. Here, we’re quite unique and I think that’s the beauty of our Wellington streets. I’m always inspired walking around here, checking out other people’s style.

Has your interest and experience in public policy transferred easily into what you’re doing now in the social enterprise side of fashion?

I don’t think that without a policy background I would’ve really pursued anything like this, because I would’ve felt like I wasn’t qualified. But looking at something like ADJOAA from a job creation perspective, I thought I had something to contribute. I’ve got the facts and figures, I can do the research, and find out what’s required to help the fashion industry grow. I purely came from a policy angle, I don’t feel like I’m a fashion expert.

Can fashion work well as a new avenue for people to interact with other cultures?

Absolutely. Especially with the African Fashion Festival, it’s much more of a fusion of fashion and culture. That’s why I like to integrate elements of spoken word and poetry into our events. I knew if I was going to something unique like this, I’d have to fuse all these cultural elements together so people as close to a holistic view of the cultures as possible. You know, you might see some African drumming in a show but you don’t often get all those other components.

Raiza Biza at the inaugural African Fashion Festival. Photo: supplied

For me, I’m using it as a platform to give back to New Zealand. I want expose these cultures to people and have them realise that Africa is really huge, it’s like 55 countries. I hope this is a glimpse of it through my eyes and the people that I’m working with. This is our interpretation of the Africa we know, and people have been really receptive to it. Last year we had Raiza Biza down from Auckland, as well as a spoken word artist which is very much a big part of our culture. Poetry, like Māori culture, matters a lot. People speak in proverbs.

What do you think this kind of fashion can teach us about the environment and sustainability?

A lot of the artisans and the designers we work with use very traditional practices. Even this piece I’m wearing now, the fabric is made from one of our designers. It’s not something I would just wear and throw away, I’ll take better care of it because it wasn’t mass produced, it was handmade and has that more personal touch.

We’ve got one designer called AAKS that makes raffia bags – traditionally they’re for taking to the market and they’re not glamorous. She has been able to refine the weaving skills and dye the raffia into pieces that are very luxurious and very high end. She doesn’t mass produce, she probably does 200 at the most and she’s stocked in over 46 countries.

That side of it’s pretty impressive and appealing to me – the fact that she’s creating jobs. She started with six weavers and now she’s got 30 weavers. That’s valuable when she’s working in a very harsh environment with people who don’t have jobs, and now suddenly she’s creating jobs. It’s also exciting to see the revitalizing of techniques that most of us wouldn’t have thought much of. Same with using traditional dyes, making that old technique something that’s now associated with luxury.

Capsule Runway Show, March 2015. Models are wearing Sokona by Zainab Sokona-Whyte. Photograph: Dominic Gutierrez

With this return to traditional techniques in fashion, how do you then feel when you see huge chain stores ripping off and appropriating African design?

It’s a very sensitive matter for me. One area I’m very interested in personally is getting intellectual property protection for these traditional techniques. Because Africa is so huge and a lot of our things, being an “indigenous” culture by Western standards, has no protection. People take without even recognition, even in the media, and it’s quite hard to protect things at the moment without an IP. The IP industry is hugely underdeveloped in Africa, so that’s one of my huge interests at the moment – to see how we can work with other creators overseas. How can you protect traditional manufacturing techniques across 55 different countries with regional language barriers and all sorts? It’s a challenge, but something needs to be done.

So you’re putting on the African Fashion Festival, the first one was last year, why did it take so long to get running?

I think Africa is a mystery for a lot of people. When people think Africa, they think safari. I don’t think African people think safari, I haven’t even been on safari myself. So because the whole place was a mystery, there wasn’t really an appetite for it, people couldn’t see what Africa has got to offer New Zealand. But now, with technology and a very vocal bunch of young African millennials, they’re doing some amazing things. They’re pretty outspoken and they don’t let the media get away with things that are saying about the continent that aren’t true.

I think that alongside the technology, I’ve also got the network. I’ve got a really good bunch of New Zealand friends who have travelled a lot and really wanted me to show another side of the continent, so they were my advocates early on. I’ve had to push really hard, I was told it wasn’t going to work from the day I started. 2011 is a long time to see anything happening, but here we are, seven years later.

And you’ve had to hustle pretty hard for funding, I take it?

I’m always hustling big time because I don’t fit anywhere yet – I’m not a community event and I’m not a mass, major event. So I’m in the middle of that with about 500-600 people at the most. There’s also the fact there is no funding for promoting African art or culture here. I mean, we only make up less than 1 percent of New Zealand’s population but we are going to be growing and contributing more and more. Luckily, the small businesses in Wellington have been very generous. They keep supporting me however they can, and I’ve had a lot of creatives giving their skills and expertise, whether it’s Willis York helping me out with hair or the Body Shop sponsoring all the makeup. You have to get out and ask for it, but people of Wellington have been very generous.

Afrika bar – Pinaman’s fave. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Also, because I work in public service by day and am a social entrepreneur by night, the only times I’m free is in the evening. So I set up meetings in places like this [Poquito] or Afrika bar. On Saturdays I have meetings too, so people are then giving me their free time instead of going home to their families. I’ve been so humbled by people giving up their time as well as introducing me to other people in the community that I could learn a thing or two from. That kind of connection is so precious, no money can buy that.

What are your plans, personally, for the future? Where are you going to take the festival?

You can say I’m naïve, but my dream would be to make this a travelling festival through Australasia and to have each of our designers that we work with get their products into stores. Whether it’s Singapore, Japan, or New Zealand, seeing their products on shelves would be a dream for me. The more people that buy their clothes, the more revenue we get, the more they have to produce, the more people we can employ. It’s kind of like a domino effect.

I’ve also been given a scholarship to study entrepreneurship in London. Hopefully I’ll go and learn something, then come back and drag more ethnic minorities like myself to be entrepreneurs. I’m often the only African woman in every room and I want to bring others alongside me. I’ve had some really great men mentors, but we need more women role models. If you can see someone in a powerful position, you can aspire to be them. If we see women getting shit done, then we can get shit done too.

How else have you seen the Wellington fashion scene evolve from the time you’ve been here, aside from the work you were doing?

What I find now is that people really care about everything they’re buying. Consumers are asking questions and holding brands accountable, which I had never heard of when I came to Wellington. When I first arrived and was speaking about being passionate about where people’s clothing came from, I was a solo voice. Now, suddenly, people are interested. People are more engaged and very aware of not just what they’re wearing and the conditions it was made in, but what are they’re eating and where it’s coming from. That’s the kind of movement I’ve seen in Wellington – people care, people ask questions, even when it comes to their daily coffee.

Pinaman at the inaugural Africa Fashion Festival, 28 May 2016. Photo: supplied by AFFNZ

In 10 years time, I’m hoping there will be a huge investment behind the creative industries from government, private investors and other entrepreneurs. There needs to be some investment into growing talent within our own industry, otherwise people now will pursue that opportunity elsewhere. Entrepreneurs need support to learn the rules. How do you set up a business? Who do you talk to? Where do you start? We’ve got amazing resources, great talent and so many people willing to give their expertise. We’re a very innovative city, so I can see great things happening in Wellington and New Zealand generally.

And finally, you’ve already mentioned Afrika Bar as one of your go to places in Wellington, is there anything else I need to do?

When I feel homesick and I want African food that’s where I go to. Ethiopian Bar is on Tory St and then African Bar Cambridge Terrace. I literally live there sometimes. I also love going to Matterhorn for drinks, listening to good live music on Wednesday nights. I love People’s Coffee in Newtown, otherwise I go to Memphis Belle. Oh, and make sure you check out Hannah Laneway and the Wellington Chocolate Factory, they’ve got really beautiful chocolate. My favourite is the one with the chilli, it’s so delicious. I see where my money goes now. My life is just food, work, food, work, that’s all.

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