So much of fashion is about bringing people joy — both for the creator of the designs and the people who wear them.
“Nobody really needs another dress," says Erika Dalya Massaquoi, who recently relocated her design business, The OULA Company, to Denver. "We buy clothing because it lifts us and makes us feel a certain way."
Mostly one-size dresses and tunics in bold, bright prints, OULA pieces often evoke a smile. Massaquoi took the inspiration for her designs from her own vintage clothing from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and the clothing her mother used to wear.
“I grew up in an African-American Muslim household, and there was a lot about modest dress, and Black is beautiful, and celebrating your culture and history," Massaquoi recalls. "My mom used to wear dresses and tunics and head wraps morning to night, and that clothing just made sense for a working mom. You can throw it over jeans or whatever and just feel finished."
With OULA, what stands out are the prints. Massaquoi uses Ankara African wax-print fabric with delightfully bold and colorful designs. “I started collecting it because it’s so beautiful,” she says. “I really want to create an organic piece of clothing that lives on. Because of the dynamic prints, you never really get tired of them. It’s also season-less, because you can wear it with anything. Prints really can be a neutral.”
It was important to Massaquoi for the brand to reflect her cultural heritage. Historically, wax prints were used as a source of storytelling and communication in the African community, and have been embraced as a way to commemorate the culture.
“I want to honor Black iconography and create more images of Black joy for all to celebrate, regardless of your race, color or creed," she says as she prepares for a trunk show and in-person appearance to mark Juneteenth at A Line Boutique in Cherry Creek. "It really changes the pre-conceived notions of what Blackness is. You can wear this, and it makes everyone happy."
The sustainability of the high-quality, heavy cotton cloth is another part of the story that Massaquoi wants to weave with OULA.
“I’ve always thought about sustainability and creating a garment that’s not going to go into a landfill," she explains. "It will last a lifetime. ... If someone sees OULA in a vintage store thirty years from now, I want them to be able to take it off the rack and wear it.”
The choice to make the garments one size also makes those garments long-lasting: They're less likely to be returned after purchase because they don't fit, and they accommodate women whose sizes may fluctuate over the years. It also allows for the piece to be worn in multiple ways, and likely more often.
“My ‘Convertible Dress’ can be worn as a top or a dress,” Massaquoi explains. “You can wear it with the belt or take that belt off and wear it as a scarf. That gives the consumer more opportunity to be creative with the garment, so they become the artist, as well.”
Massaquoi, who holds a Ph.D. in cinema studies from New York University and has worked as an educator and art curator, started OULA in Seattle in 2015 on a whim. “A friend encouraged me to start a company," she says. "Everybody in Seattle has a side hustle. So I just did it.” She named the company after her great-grandmother, Lula, bought the fabric, then started reaching out to all the sewers and manufacturers in Seattle. “There is a huge manufacturing industry there because they create a lot of sportswear," she explains. "I did a small collection, and friends would host shows for me.”
Being a fashion entrepreneur was a perfect fit for her as a mom. “I wanted something of my own that I could do while raising my daughter,“ she says, noting that the flexibility was a blessing. “I can be present for my family and have the privilege of being involved in art and design and creating beautiful things. You can’t ask for more!”
At the beginning of the year, her indie, small-batch brand side hustle hit the big-time through a deal with Nordstrom department stores. “I’m excited about working with Nordstrom, because more people will get to see OULA, and I can help Nordstrom with their efforts to be more diverse," she says. "In turn, they’re helping emerging designers of color find their footing in commercial production. “
She admits that the expansion comes with some growing pains. “It’s no longer just me creating a collection and selling it off,” she points out. That means adhering to the traditional fashion calendar of developing spring, summer, fall and winter/resort wear collections. “So now I have to think ahead,” she says, adding that she wants to put more money into more textiles, which are a crucial part of the brand.
The fabrics come from a variety of sources — from the Ankara that she purchases on travels to Africa to deadstock fabrics she receives through a partnership with Liberty London. She's also branching out into designing her own prints.
“I’m just so excited about doing our own designs,” she exclaims. “Then we don’t have to depend on what’s in the marketplace, which can be challenging with African wax print fabric when you have to do nine to twelve prints with each collection — although I’ll still buy from whoever is creating beautiful fabric. Part of the fun is sourcing!”
OULA's goal, Massaquoi says, is to create garments that people love and want to keep wearing: “I think if somebody walks into a store and sees something really beautiful they want to bring into their life and it celebrates Black joy at the same time, that’s just perfection for me!”
Erika Dalya Massaquoi presents The OULA Company from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 19, at A Line Boutique, 3050 East Third Avenue.
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