At age 11, Charlene Dunbar’s family fled from Liberia to the U.S. during a civil war. “[Ankara] became my connection with home,” said Dunbar, who in 2006 established Suakoko Betty, which combines the vibrancy of African textiles with modern silhouettes.
Q: What is ankara?
It’s a printed fabric that’s inspired by West African culture. It started with folks out of India trying to copy batik prints that are produced in West African countries and Japan. You lay the wax down [and then] put the dye in. They produced it on a machine. It didn’t do so well in Europe, so some of the European traders ended up taking it to Africa and it took off from there.
[An ankara designer’s] job is to pay attention to what’s going on in African culture, whether it’s the rise of cell phone use or different proverbs. They interpret those proverbs, those aspects of everyday African life, into these great designs. Some of them are classic and show up every year, maybe in a different color story, and some of them have to do with the sign of the times, so you’ll have one [print that has] a cell phone and a purse and a high heel—it’s this story of what’s happening in West African culture. It’s steeped with a lot of meaning.
Q: How has ankara found its place in the U.S. fashion scene?
Seeing a lot of celebrities wear [ankara] was really a tipping point. Seeing ankara show up on red carpets and on different celebrity Instagrams—it was already growing and rising amongst a lot of black women and I think, maybe two years ago, it really exploded. It’s an exciting time to be in African fashion.
It’s been a blessing how far I’ve been able to go with it—being in Essence and going to New York Fashion Week and partnering with different brands and building a following. I’m grateful the idea resonates with so many people.
African fashion is not just one note. There’s the sexy African fashion lane, the glamazon African fashion lane. I’d like to think I’m more the modern, clean line take on it. [Suakoko Betty is] more for the girl who’s not trying too hard—she’s artsy, she’s interesting and she’s more laid back with it. It all goes back to celebrating African design, African culture.
Q: How do you recommend styling ankara?
One of the most popular is a midi skirt—you can wear them with a solid top, a blazer.
I’ve seen people get a lot of mileage from clutches. Not everyone is an allover print all the time kind of girl, so the print clutch is a great way to bring in that splash of color without committing to it all the way.
I’m seeing blazers gain popularity, whether you want to wear them at work or with jeans for a night with the girls. The blazers are really cool because they can take you from work day all the way to the weekend.
Crop tops can go a lot of different directions. For an evening event, you can pair it with a pencil skirt. For a more casual look, throw on a pair of jeans with it. And you can winterize it by putting a button-down shirt underneath it.