Fashion brand House of Aama is relatively new, but its creators, the mother and daughter duo of Rebecca Henry and Akua Shabaka reach deep into their roots to find inspiration. Their brand began in 2015 as an Etsy shop devoted to “upcycling” vintage finds, but over the past three years has transitioned into an independently run fashion line with original designs, run bicoastally in New York City — where Akua studies at Parsons — and Los Angeles — where Rebecca practices law and simultaneously oversees the brand’s manufacturing.
Transitioning from refurbishing apparel to crafting original designs came naturally as Akua’s social media presence gained momentum. The 20-year-old uses her platform to publicize her early designs and celebrate her blackness, and, with time, learned what truly peaked her audience’s interest. “I started to get a little bigger following on Instagram and paying attention to what others were into in regards to me and my mother — [which were] our personal stories and our aesthetics,” she remembers. Shabaka’s interest in fashion is undeniably linked to her heritage — her mother recalls that every woman in her family was expected to have a craft, most commonly sewing, while growing up in the South.
In February, House of Aama presented its latest collection, “Bloodroot,” its first to be presented at New York Fashion Week. A clear manifestation of the mother and daughter’s family traditions, the collection features gorgeous high-neck frocks and blouses, as well as classic A-line skirt silhouettes that are, in their combination of soulfulness and spiciness, beautifully referential to creole culture and the postbellum south. Amidst all of the NYFW chaos in Manhattan, it was quite fitting that House of Aama’s presentation took place at the cozy Bushwick coffee shop and bar Cafe Erzulie. Laden with incense, candles, petite cafe tables, decorative fans, and parasols to set the mood, the calmer setting encapsulated the leisurely pace of southern life.
In the days following their presentation, The FADER caught up with the mother-daughter duo over a three-way phone call, and discussed their beginnings and what it’s like to be an independent fashion brand today, how Southern culture permeates throughout their own lives and brand, and the magic of social media.
What is House of Aama’s namesake?
AKUA SHABAKA: I have a long name, but one of my middle names is Aama and it’s from Egypt. It means the benevolent one, one of kindness. We knew we wanted a name [for the brand] that was representative of us and had a connection to us.
REBECCA HENRY: Aama is also an aspect of an Egyptian goddess Het-Heru, one of the oldest goddesses in their pantheon, which is similar to Venus or Oshun — she has that type of energy: love, fertility, sensuality. House of Aama has a goddess energy-type vibe. We’re goddesses.
What role did fashion play in your respective upbringings?
REBECCA: I was raised in a traditional Southern family where everybody has a craft, all the women have a craft. My mom sews, my sister sews and does needlework and does quilts, my older sisters sews. So when Akua developed an interest in upcycling clothes in junior high school, I had a machine sitting on the table. It became somewhat of a collaborative thing, with me contributing my sewing skills and design ideas.
I had an interest in design when I was young, around Akua’s age, but I didn’t understand that you could go into a career with that. So I never pursued it beyond being interested in it as a hobby. When Akua developed an interest in clothing and design, and turning it into something viable — I was already self-employed as a lawyer — I knew that, “Yeah. You can be an entrepreneur, this is something I can assist you with and we can work together.”
How did the idea of creating a clothing line come about?
AKUA: When I was in middle school, I piggybacked from my mom, doing different crafts and making different pieces. I would take vintage clothes and re-do and refurbish them. This was right when Instagram started, so I would post what I would make and people were interested. Then I was like, “Okay, let me just make a store.”
I made a store on Etsy, and that’s how we started House of Aama. [The store] was refurbished, upscale vintage clothes and a couple custom designs. From there, right before I turned 16, I was like, “Oh, I actually want this to be something with deeper meaning, for it to relate to me and culture and how I identify myself.” So we came out with our first capsule collection “Urban Nomads,” which was inspired by West African fabrics and North African symbols and motifs. We were playing on the idea of making African clothes modern. From there, we did some humanitarian work in Senegal and did a collaboration with artisans. Then, we vended at Afropunk with this screenprinting artist [Tony B Conscious] and something just sparked in me.
I started to get a little bigger following on Instagram and paying attention to what others were into in regards to me and my mother — [which were] our personal stories and our aesthetics. We really brainstormed and wanted to rebrand where we were going. We knew we wanted to be culturally inspired, but we also knew we wanted to add our own personal stories to [our clothes] in a niche way. That’s how we began to brainstorm for the collection Bloodroot.
What role do you think social media has played in House of Aama’s success?
AKUA: Social media gives you the type of platform where you can reach people beyond your immediate reach. Especially after we rebranded, considering the elements we’re working with, we started to get a lot of traction from people from places all of the world. One place in particular is Brazil. [In our clothes], we’re dealing with African spirituality that they also identify with — like with Candomblé — so they have gravitated towards us. [For House of Aama,] social media has played the role of getting our voice out there. As a millenial, it’s hard to think of a time without social media and the effects of it. Clearly, people who were designers before me were able to get their stuff out there [somehow], but reach [today] is a lot more difficult — especially when you’re dealing with topics that are unconventional.
Heritage and spirituality seem to be two of your greatest inspirations, can you speak to how those manifested in your most recent collection, Bloodroot?
REBECCA: My mom’s family is from Louisiana. My dad’s family is from South Carolina. Definitely on that Louisiana side, there’s a creole culture. I have lived in Louisiana before as a child and when I wasn’t living there, I went every single summer. My grandparents had a farm. I feel that that whole southern culture and way of life has really informed and defined who I am as a person. Even when we weren’t living in the south, everything was so southern in our house — from the food to the dialect. Our whole way of being.
In terms of the name of the collection, Bloodroot, that was actually an herb that my grandmother in Louisiana would give us at the end of the day during the summer. It was kind of like a castor oil, a liquid thing we took at the end of the day. I didn’t think too much more about it until I was an adult and researched. I connected that with other things I had seen in my childhood that were straight up voodoo, hoodoo culture and it gave me more of an understanding of my bloodline, who my folks are, who I am, and who Akua is, as my descendant.
Akua and I really consider ourselves folklorists. These clothes are providing us with the medium to tell the folk stories we wanted to tell. Bloodroot happened to be the story we decided to tell, but we have a lot of other stories in us.
What was the manufacturing process like for Bloodroot?
REBECCA: It’s been very DIY. I initially started making the original samples because I had the sewing capability. Once we got back quotes on some of the items, I was like, “Let me revisit some of what I said I could not do. Let me see what’s possible in the impossible.” I had the ability, I had the machine, so I could cut down cost. We were so fortunate towards the end of the the sample making process to find a sample maker and pattern maker — they’re in downtown Los Angeles and are a part of our team now. They work with us in manufacturing the orders that are placed.
When you’re self-funded, you have no debt. I decided since I work as a lawyer — I’m not an LA lawyer, or a Beverly Hills lawyer — I could try to self-fund this. We decided that we would utilize the skills that we collectively have instead of going into debt paying people to do things outside of our budget. We decided to try to tackle as much as we could for as long as could.
How did you approach the planning and execution of House of Aama’s first NYFW presentation? How did it feel to see it come to life?
AKUA: We launched at the end of the November, and I felt that in order for people to really grasp the collection, it needed to have a [physical] space, more than just being online. The video, to the actual lookbook, to the release — it all needed to come together as one. In terms of coming up with the concepts, I took on a lot of the creative direction for it. We considered all five senses: how it smells, how it looks, the beads and the candles that we used —it all plays a part.
When we picked the place, I knew it was a Haitian cafe — it made sense, Haiti was colonized by France, Louisiana has french culture. There were so many elements in there without us even adding to it that felt right. Our key statement that we always say is, “This is story [about] a root worker, a bluesman, and a southern lady.” That’s what we wanted to show: a glimpse at the life or feeling of Bloodroot and the people in it. It’s ultimately a real story, but we’re taking it on in this modern time.
We were really hoping that 30-40 people would show up, but when we got the RSVPs, we were like, “Wow, this is crazy. So many people want to see this in the flesh.” I mostly tried to stay in the back and pay attention to how people were taking it [in]. For a lot of people, it really touches them and tells a story they felt needed to be told. It was cool to be a bystander and hear what people thought of it. Knowing that I’m creating the voice for people that felt they needed representation.