A dazzling array of crisp cotton cotton dresses, blouses and wide-leg trousers in vivid African prints hang on racks this week at the annual EnnYe Collection pop-up shop on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan. The entrepreneurial designer duo behinds the colorful, bold collection and pop-up, are sisters Mercy and Matipa Nyamangwanda, originally from Zimbabwe.
EnnYe Collection, launched in 2016, uses vibrant fabrics from different African countries to create modern apparel pieces and accessories, like a semi-circle clutch. These fabrics, sometimes called wax prints, Dutch wax prints, African wax prints or ankara prints, which have their own unique history, have traditionally been used to create formal attire two-piece gowns with head wraps, donned for weddings and other special occasions.
However, over the past several years, the Nyamangwanda sisters, have been making pieces, from A-line to sleeveless capes, in contemporary silhouettes using these brilliant prints. As an accent piece or striking ensemble, they can be worn to the office, a party or fancy event.
Amid recent dialogues in the U.S. around race, ethnicity and culture, the concept of cultural appropriation often pops up in relation to African prints, among other distinct fashion from specific regions or countries. The Nyamangwanda sisters discuss why they believe anyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, can wear African prints, and how they launched their apparel business.
How would you describe EnnYe Collection clothing?
Matipa: We are a clothing brand and our specialty is African prints; that’s our passion. We were born and raised in Zimbabwe, we want to maintain our heritage and share it with the world.
Do you only use fabrics from Zimbabwe?
Mercy: We use fabrics from all over Africa, incorporating prints from Tanzania or Ghana—it gives us a lot of diversity. African prints can be really intimidating, so we’ve always kept our silhouettes very simple. That way the pieces appeal to every culture, and ultimately, we want our brand to be global.
Speaking of going global, can white, Asian, Latina or Arab, etc, women wear your pieces? Many of those people worry about cultural appropriation or just looking ridiculous if they’d wear African prints.
Matipa: This is a hot button issue right now. As Africans, we feel that fashion in itself is global. Everyone is wearing everything, it doesn’t matter if you are African, Indian, Asian, etc. There is a way to wear someone’s culture respectfully. People have the right to wear African prints if they like it.
Mercy: We believe that the dialogue should be open. When people say, “Oh, cultural appropriation,” it’s not a one-way street as far as we’re concerned; Africans wear Western attire, too. If somebody is going to wear a sari or stick a turban on, if it’s in collaboration with a designer from that particular culture, there is more understanding. It should be a collaboration.
Matipa: The problem these days is a designer using African prints to create pieces without any connection to any cultures in Africa. Then people get up in arms, “This is our fabric, why are they doing this?”
Mercy: The print itself is a symbol of many different tribes in different countries in Africa, so there meanings attached to different prints.
Matipa: Some prints have a particular meaning, they are for royalty or worn in mourning, for example. We won’t use certain prints to make pieces that are short or cut out, anything that might be considered disrespectful to the culture.
I’ve heard African designers in the U.S. say as long as people don’t wear printed pieces like an “African costume,” but instead, incorporate them into their own style, it’s fine for anyone to wear these prints.
Matipa: I think there’s been a recent cultural shift among designers using these prints; they’ve gone more contemporary, making it more accessible. At work, someone might wear a beautiful white Calvin Klein dress with an African print jacket over it. There are sleeveless dresses to the knee, a print jacket you can wear with ripped jeans; it’s all very playful. The shift has extended to celebrities—Beyoncé seems more comfortable wearing prints.
Do you manufacture your pieces in the U.S. or Zimbabwe?
Mercy: It’s about half and half. When we started, everything was manufactured in Zimbabwe. But we were lucky enough to find a manufacturer here in Oakland, someone who really understands African fabric, to offset the cost of shipping. One of us goes home at least once a year, so we still get some pieces made in Zimbabwe.
EnnYe Collection has an obvious connection to your country, Zimbabwe, but are there other factors about being an immigrant that play a role in how you run your business?
Mercy: Yes, I think there are. When we came from Zimbabwe, we had to learn how to adapt to the American way of life. The ability to not only adapt but also thrive in a society that’s is completely different than the one we grew up in enables us to be good entrepreneurs. It gives us a lot of flexibility so we can think outside the box.
Entrepreneurs who have just lived in one country, speak one language, might have narrower ideas.
Matipa: Being from another country, you’re already outside your comfort zone, so I think you’re more likely to take risks—you’re living in a risk. It’s like, “I already left home, I have to make it.”
You both have your own professions. Mercy, you are an emergency room nurse, Matipa you’re a lawyer and a new mother. How did you manage to launch an apparel business, never mind keep it going? There are only so many hours in the day.
Matipa: We have a passion for fashion, we love to dress up, we love to stand out, we love to be bold and out there…
Mercy: If it’s a passion, it’s not a job!
Matipa: I’ll add that our professional jobs demand a certain part of our brains. When I come home, I use the other side of my brain, which then recharges me for the other job, so they work hand in hand. After eight hours of work, I look forward to getting home, looking at these prints and completely not using any logic! [laughs]
How do you market EnnYe Collection? Social Media? Pop-ups? Fashions shows? Advertising?
Matipa: All of the above. Having pop-ups is a decision we made so people can see and touch the fabric, try clothing on. We realized after our first New York pop-up, having people see what you have makes it easier for them to purchase online later. Meeting customers and telling them our story has been valuable. We have a lot of returning customers. People wait for our pop-up to come back and bring their friends.
Mercy: [The fashion show] in Milan, it was great because even walking down the street, people were asking us questions about our clothing, where we’re from. Europeans were very open to the African print and the idea of wearing something different.
Matipa: We use influencers too, because that’s where the market is right now.
Mercy: The influencers who reach out to us have been more successful than the ones we pick ourselves because they’ve already put some thought into how they want to wear a piece and it translates well.
Do customers buy more online or in person at the pop-ups?
Matipa: It’s varied over the years. In 2017, we sold more in person; in 2018, we sold more online. There are a lot of factors. Sometimes it has to do with what we’re selling. For example, people are buying the capes right now because they don’t want to wait until a pop-up because they run the risk of not getting one.
Do you have any down time to see movies, go for a walk? How do you relax?
Mercy: Relax? [laughs] What we do is travel to different countries and run marathons.
Matipa: I know, [laughs] it doesn’t sound very relaxing.
Mercy: We meet so many people from all these different cultures when we travel—we were in Jerusalem, Helsinki, Iceland, we’re going to Norway next—we get recharged from that too.
The EnnYe Collection pop-up shop is at 171 Elizabeth Street, opening the evening of June 4 – June 10.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.