Char­lene Dun­bar

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.

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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.

Charlene Dun­bar

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