I ran into Ashley a couple of years ago on one of those beautiful Toronto summer afternoons that we spend the winter waiting for. She had exciting news: she was quitting her job to focus on her business full time.
Fast forward to another beautiful summer afternoon in Toronto. I made my way to the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation downtown to meet with Ashley and talk about how things have been since we last saw each other. I knew it’d be good news. Her brand, Omi Woods (named in tribute to her Jamaican and African heritage), had been spotted on Jidenna and Issa Rae, and named one of the top 3 sustainable brands in Canada.
For about 40 minutes we talked about the challenges of entrepreneurship within the competitive world of “African print” fashion, but also the community that has formed from it. I couldn’t include it all, but the best bits are below.
The Anya Wrap dress by Omi Woods
Take us back to the beginning. How did you get started with this business?
My friend Kemba gave me a sewing machine, and then I took a sewing class [laughing]. I also had a friend who was at George Brown College and she said, “if you really want to learn how to sew, go to school.” So I did George Brown’s Continuing Education program; one class in the evenings for four years. If I had samples that I made for class and people liked them, I would sell them. I started selling on Etsy and I saw what sold and what didn’t. I had a really popular dress and that alerted me to what people actually wanted and what my strong points were.
Was fashion something you always wanted to do or did you just fall into it with that sewing machine?
I studied communications but I’ve always loved clothing. I was a shopaholic on a budget. Then I started to really love African prints because, you know, we in Toronto have our African friends we would ask, “what’s this? Tell me about the culture.” And I’m kind of disconnected as a Caribbean person, so I used African prints to be able to tie myself to the culture more. It was maybe a year or two before it really blew up. I remember when I started, people were like, “meh, maybe you should try making it this way…”
Because of the prints?
Yeah, because it wasn’t popular. People didn’t want to wear a maxi skirt in African print. But now people are like, “oh I’m a goddess.” Things just popped off. I think people became super woke, and Instagram really helped because it created a community of that. Black women started embracing their own beauty more. So that’s great, but it also became super competitive.
Do you find that there is community among those of you working with these types of fabrics?
Yes, there is a community, but there’s also competition. There are brands like Kaela Kay who I talk to. Just recently I had a customer who seemed to be more in line with Kaela Key’s brand, so I sent her over. Often, people come to me with something they like and I will recognize that as another brand, so I never make it. I’ll tell them, “this other brand makes this, you should go to that brand and ask them.” And some people will, but some people also go to their tailor and get them to make it cheaper. And I won’t hate on that either, that’s just part of the culture of African prints.
What I started learning is you have to make something that no one else can copy. I’ve had pieces that have been copied by people I know. I’ve been copied by bigger designers. Sometimes it’s the exact same thing — styling, everything. But that’s fashion; people copy. So it’s complicated in that way, but in fashion the general rule is to change it a little, tweak it to your brand.
How much do you feel like you have to keep an eye on the other brands?
I grew up keeping an eye on the big brands. I think the brand that created the blueprint for African print
Leila maxi skirt & Zalinka wrap crop top by Omi Woods
fashion online is Demestiks New York. He sold on Etsy, he’s dressed Beyoncé, and he helped people see the silhouettes that would work for selling online. For example, if it’s a body-con in cotton, it’s very difficult to fit. So he created a blueprint for what worked.
I want my business to last for decades, so I think about what I have to do to make that happen, and what decisions I have to make that aren’t necessarily quick. So it’s just what you want for your brand. Once you’re working from within yourself there is no competition really. Sure, you watch what other people are doing, but really we are competing with ourselves. There’s a professor here who said, in fashion people are always going to be copying what you do, and the way that you become a successful designer is to just keep creating.
And how much business training did you have before you started?
So how did you get caught up?
When I first started I sold on Etsy and they would send out emails with tips and tricks, Shopify does it as well.
Your site mentioned that you like to use African and Indigenous prints. Why is that important for you?
Because they are bomb-ass [laughs]. I think they’re really beautiful, and they have meaning. And those prints specifically, because they are for people of colour and we are so starved of that in mainstream society because those [mainstream] prints are geared toward skin tones that are lighter.
Smaller designers can make things on a smaller scale and you don’t have to think about the masses. You can make things that are actually beautiful for different skin tones, different sizes and body shapes. Most people now are 1X in the States. Average size is XL/1X. That’s plus sized but most stories are not plus sized.
Tell me about Omi Woods’ values.
In terms of price point, I like people to think of this clothing as being for a special occasion. We pay our people fairly and we do our best to make sure that our practices are ethical. We also understand that the struggle is real right now. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, so where does our brand fit in the grand scheme of things. You’re likely going to pay $1500 for a wedding dress, so why don’t you do a different type of wedding dress that’s going to cost you $300 instead? And people are already there, so we’re just meeting them where they are and providing that for them.
And do you make custom designs for people?
I do, but I’m starting to do it less because it’s very hard when you’re selling online to make a custom design that people love, because you never see them. You know the things that you have to do to make it custom, in terms of fit. Like Jidenna said, you have to flex your arms with your tailor — they want your muscle flexed and your regular size and you can’t really do that online.
Speaking of Jidenna, what’s the story behind his Omi Woods tie?
A close friend of mine is his producer, so when they came into town, he linked with me and I just went and dropped off a tie. And he really liked it. I really like looking at people’s complexion, their hair color and eye colour, and finding an African print that just blends into their life. I want them to say, “this person knew my soul.” So I had this popping print in my basement and I knew I needed to make this for him. So I gave it to him and he wore it a lot. I knew it would match him and bring him joy.
And what about Issa Rae’s skirt?
A lot of stylists are on Instagram and they creep designers and reach out to you. The stylists I work with know the struggle and are amazing; they’ll work with smaller designers.
But it’s all the same tribe. And it’s the perfect timing for this because it became digital. In the city, there’s maybe 100 people that are into this type of fashion and you can’t sustain your business off that. But because of technology, you can reach out to people globally. I think it’s a really beautiful time to be a person of colour, a Black woman, doing what we’re doing. Once upon a time we would have felt as if we were alone, but now you can see people around the world saying what you’re thinking. It’s beautiful.
Any advice for wannabe entrepreneurs?
Reach out to programs that help entrepreneurs and startups, or bring in someone who can help with you with the business side. You have to build yourself up so that you’re resilient. Start small, but start.