Archel Bernard sits on a bar stool in the middle of her little boutique in downtown Monrovia as a handful of customers drift in and out. Pieces of West African lapa hang over wooden ladders and colorful African-Western fusion designs sit on either side. A sign beside the counter that is made up of bamboo stakes reads ‘Life is Too Short to Wear Boring Clothes’.
The 25-year-old designer and businesswoman moved from Atlanta in the United States (US) in 2011 to her family’s hometown for a job at the government’s oil corporation, and now moonlights as a fashion designer in her spare time. Bernard established a fashion label called ‘It’s Archel’ and set up a shop called Mango Rags in downtown Monrovia, with her business partner Tania Abraham, who also grew up abroad, mainly in the United Kingdom. The shop celebrated its first anniversary in February and is among a small number of boutiques specializing in contemporary African designs, in a country where small fashion businesses are just beginning to emerge over a decade after the civil war, when shopping for clothes was a luxury many could not afford.
Mango Rags, now a polished little shop located in Bernard’s grandfather’s compound that was formerly a car garage, had less glamorous beginnings. Bernard would chug around the city in a white pickup truck driven by her mother Brenda Bush, a producer and writer for CNN, with a tape measure and notebook into which she would jot down her customers’ measurements. Building up a collection of tailors from the workshops spread throughout the city, she dropped off fabric and sketches of designs in between working her nine to five job producing multimedia for the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL). Bernard began to save money to open and fit the shop; now with a steady stream of mainly expatriate customers, she is looking to expand.
Born and raised in the US, but always identifying as Liberian and African, Bernard grew up in Atlanta, one of the few black kids in her community of Marietta.
When her mother did carpooling, she dressed in funky African clothes and head wraps.
“Can you dress like the normal mums do?” she had asked her, but later grew to appreciate her style. Named Archel, after her father Archie (a cultural quirk in Liberia), few of her schoolmates could pronounce her name, and so her label is ‘It’s Archel.’
When she was 16, Bernard returned to Liberia after the war to visit her grandfather, a businessman who had stayed throughout the 14-year civil war, despite the family’s insistence that he leave.
“When we landed you could have fried an egg on the runway because there was nothing. It was just a stretch of huts and then you approach the city and there are more concrete structures, but it’s still not America,” says Bernard.
She says the government offers few incentives for young educated Liberians to return, but chooses to stay because she wants to help change Liberia, and transform from a chronic charity case to a ‘place to be’ in Africa.
Now a Liberian returnee, self-described “third world socialite”, designer and government worker, Bernard has capitalized on her social networks, family connections and sense of style to build up her business in a climate that is challenging for entrepreneurs and where a fashion scene is fledgling. Three fashion weeks have been held within the past five years, with the most recent being Monrovia Fashion Week that was held in December, and only five designers have boutiques throughout the city.
“I still kind of feel like a fraud in this; I never went to fashion school,” says Bernard.
Most of the local designers haven’t studied fashion and draw on West African lapas and traditional fabrics and the flamboyant Liberian style as inspiration.
“Liberians really like to dress, they always want to have the nicest thing on,” she says.
Bernard’s main buyers are expatriates; she wishes she had more Liberian customers, but a strong bargaining culture coupled with a lack of respect for intellectual property make things difficult.
Like many Liberians who lived in exile with their families in the US during the war, Bernard returned to her family’s homeland in search of opportunity. With only one subject left to complete of her Science Technology and Culture degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bernard decided to head home to Liberia to work in the local media. She harbored dreams of being Liberia’s Oprah and wanted to create a lifestyle series that focused on the more positive side of the nation that would air on local television stations.
Liberia wasn’t quite ready for a ‘queen of talk’, so instead Bernard worked for Monrovia’s controversial former mayor Mary Broh, and presented updates about the Monrovia City Corporation’s work through short broadcasts, and dressed up in African-inspired fashion. One day, Bernard went to her tailor to pick up a dress she had designed for a show and found the designer both wearing it and stitching it together for another customer. She decided to go out on her own and founded her label ‘It’s Archel’.
While Bernard says Liberia has offered her great opportunities that wouldn’t be available in America, she must juggle the business and a full-time job and has found it impossible to export her clothes due to the high shipping costs. Expanding her business beyond Liberia’s shores still poses a major challenge as it does for most Liberian businesses.
“We can’t be global if it costs so much. People are not going to see the point in paying so much for a little piece from Liberia. We used to make cigarettes, we used to make cans for the goods we made here. We are so small scale here,” she says.
Chid Liberty, the founder of Liberty and Justice, Africa’s first fair-trade-certified apparel manufacturer says that although the business climate is improving, lack of access to finance and the presence of “small manufacturers that can produce international quality” remain ongoing challenges for Liberian designers and the expansion of clothing manufacturing.
“I’m actually quite proud of the job Liberia is doing to make things better but we have a long way to go,” says Liberty.
Liberia’s economy is a concession-based economy with natural resources such as rubber and iron ore making up the majority of its GDP. Critics argue the government has done little to move the nation’s economy from the old plantation style model that has dominated throughout its history.
While signs of change are visible in Monrovia, new shops and office complexes have been constructed, roads repaired, the city is a shadow of the one Bernard’s parents grew up in. Access to steady electricity and running water comes at a high price and many buildings stand in a state of disrepair.
The Wealth of Liberia, a short film shot in the 1970s during the rule of President William R. Tolbert, depicted an image of modern Monrovia and industrial development – factories manufacturing paint, cigarettes, soap, windows and cement – a place where tourists flocked and the Liberia in which her parents grew up. While Bernard acknowledges the major developmental challenges ahead for one of the world’s poorest nations and is concerned about the capacity of her business to expand beyond Liberia’s borders, she is confident she can play a role in changing the image of the small nation and first independent republic in Africa.
Inspired by Louis Vuitton’s partnership with iconic alcohol brands Moët Hennessy, Bernard hopes to create a small sewing shop and African cane juice bar in the room next door.
She also has aspirations of going global and sending Mango Rags stores to Brooklyn, Cape Town and even Maui and develop a range for Swedish multinational retail giant H&M and take Liberia to the world.
“We’re still dreamin’ and working,” she says.