Archel Bernard Making Bold Moves in Africa Fashion Industry
“I’m sort of from everywhere.”
That was Archel Bernard’s response when asked where she’s from. The journey of life sometimes takes unexpected detours.
Born in Liberia, as a child Bernard came to Georgia with her family, refugees of war. “We were the only Black family in the neighborhood, the only African family, the only refugees. We were the only.”
She attended high school in Metro Atlanta and then enrolled at Georgia Tech. “It was the first school I was admitted to that my mother was really excited about. My grandparents never thought anyone in my family could go to school like Georgia Tech,” Bernard said.
She was very active on campus, including working at the Georgia Tech Cable Network reporting on stories about life at Tech.
After earning her degree in history, technology, and society from the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts in 2011, Bernard decided to try her hand at returning to Liberia and continuing to hone her television skills. “I wanted to be the West African Oprah Winfrey.”
She thought she’d work for a year or two in Liberia and return to the U.S. to work in the entertainment industry. But something changed. “I started getting more calls about what I was wearing on television than calls for TV gigs,” she said.
Because shopping options were limited in Liberia’s developing economy, Bernard made her own clothes. She couldn’t afford the wardrobe she wanted to wear, so she developed her own custom dresses from bold African fabrics.
Many African garments are made from rigid fabrics and require large zippers because they are form-fitting. Bernard’s designs buck that trend. “They focus on comfort. Casual, but with contemporary appeal,” Bernard said.
She seized the opportunity and launched her own business in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. She helped teach women to sew her designs and opened a small factory. Her staff is made up of women earning salaries for the first time in their lives and includes Ebola survivors, victims of sexual abuse, and women with hearing impairments.
Together they opened a small boutique.
“Every time I’d sell one dress, I’d reinvest and make two more,” Bernard said. She called the operation “Bombchel” a play on Archel’s name.
“Georgia Tech stretched my mind in terms of what I thought I could accomplish. So many of my peers started businesses and were doing big things. Thinking about that made me feel like I was capable too.”
The internet and social media helped Bernard expand her designs. After posting pictures and photos on Instagram and developing a website, her customer base grew and the relationships she built at Tech also helped the business grow.
“Many of my first customers were my friends from Georgia Tech,” she said. “The most invaluable thing has been all the connections I made. Now I’m able to lead in my community.”
Disheartened by a shortage of Black-owned businesses, she reached out to Ponce City Market. They responded and asked how they could do better. After sending her proposal, she now has her own storefront.
“Some of my first customers here were people from Georgia Tech who supported me all along the way,” she said.
The journey has come full circle for Bernard in so many ways.
As a child, Bernard remembered feeling embarrassed when her mother would dress in traditional African garments to pick her up from school. Now, she’s empowered by those colorful patterns and making people feel special wearing them. “It’s important that we see African fashion on everybody,” she said. “We need people to know their purchases matter, and that you can make an impact when you choose to spend money.“
The purchases from Bombchel will continue to support women in Liberia. Each garment has a tag to identify who crafted the custom, handmade item.
“We are making tangible change in the lives of women who work for us.“ It’s change inspired by Bernard’s journey and all the people who have been part of it. Her grandmother, after fleeing Liberia, worked long hours in retail at a J.C. Penney until she couldn’t work anymore. She was at the grand opening of Bombchel.
“Now I own the place. I work for myself in a building that my grandmother once couldn’t shop in,” Bernard said. “It’s my legacy and my family’s legacy.”