Oakland Clothing Designer Sources Textiles from Africa
How an Oakland clothing designer Ade Dehye is challenging fashion industry norms, sourcing directly from Africa with his 100% Black-owned and operated brand, “Tunde” Ahmad is merging textiles from Ghana with urban streetwear designs.
East Oakland’s Akintunde “Tunde” Ahmad had long wanted to visit the African continent and reconnect with his ancestry. When he arrived at the University of Ghana in Accra in 2016, taking a semester off from Yale to study abroad, he was captivated by everything about the bustling city.
“I was fortunate to be able to go for an entire semester and have a deeper and longer connection out there, learning African history from an African perspective, rather than Eurocentric or American perspective,” he said. “I was able to dispel a lot of myths and stereotypes that are negative, overwhelmingly, and put into our heads about the continent.”
One of the most stunning revelations to Ahmad was how prosperous Ghana’s fashion industry is but not in the fast-fashion, the mass-produced way we’re accustomed to in America. In Accra, you’ll see a lot of people in completely custom outfits, rather than something you’d find at a chain store.
The reason: It’s extremely easy to access affordable tailors, along with endless unique fabrics, from bògòlanfini (traditionally dyed with fermented mud) to woven kente (a handwoven cloth with strips of silk and cotton).
“Even every dorm on campus had a tailor,” he said. Ahmad started getting garments made and visiting different fabric markets. “The tailors get your measurements and can make different custom pieces.”
These experiences laid the groundwork for what is now Ahmad’s successful clothing brand in Oakland, called Ade Dehye, which uses custom West African textiles sourced directly from Ghana to create urban streetwear designs. It’s all operated under an ethical business model that aims to respect, rather than exploit, African culture and workers.
“It was a very natural progression,” he said. “I never really had a huge interest in fashion. But once you actually get to try stuff and see how it looks on yourself, that is how I caught the fashion bug.”
Now, his 100% Black-owned and operated brand works with a dozen tailors in Accra to create around 250-300 pieces at a time. Ade Dehye is known for its fusion of intricate prints stylized as streetwear, bomber jackets, lined trench coats, and two-piece outfits that you can mix and match. The pieces are then shipped to Oakland and sold online or through pop-ups. The timeframe from Ahmad selecting the fabrics and designs to receiving the garments can take anywhere between 10 weeks to five months.
“There needs to be more investment in Ghana, in the continent as a whole,” Ahmad said. “And not just in the clothing industry, but in industrializing the country as a whole, and getting West Africa more up to speed and competitive with the rest of the world in every sector.”
Although Ahmad wasn’t always interested in fashion, he was familiar with West African textiles. His mom often wears clothing made out of West African prints, so Ahmad was exposed early on to textiles like Kente cloth, Ankara, and mud cloths. “I was no stranger to these fabrics. But I’d never been able to get stuff tailor-made to me,” he said.
Ahmad’s path to fashion wasn’t always clear, but he always had a goal to make a difference. When he graduated from Oakland Tech High School in 2014 he was praised on national television for his achievement as a senior who was accepted into some of the most elite Ivy League universities. Ahmad received his bachelor’s in sociology from Yale in 2018, and his master’s in journalism and documentary film from Columbia Journalism School in 2019.
“I got a lot of attention for [my college acceptances], and I always wanted to return the favor to come full circle and actually get into education,” he said of his goal to return home and pay it forward like he watched his mom do as being an educator with the Oakland Unified School District for three decades.
While he wanted to make his way home eventually, he decided to stay in New York to work as a journalist and filmmaker in Harlem after graduating from Columbia. But when COVID-19 hit, he and his partner, Elena, traveled back home to Oakland for what was supposed to be no more than a 10-day shelter in place. They ultimately canceled their return flight to New York and stayed in the Bay Area.
When he came home, he got the opportunity to teach at OUSD’s African American Male Achievement program, designed to improve academic and life outcomes for male students. At the same time, he took part in the prestigious Ida B. Wells fellowship in investigative reporting. While Ahmad was forging a budding journalism career, he never stopped thinking about the time he spent in Ghana. He started dreaming up creating a 100 percent Black-owned brand solely sourced and produced out of Ghana.
Having no fashion knowledge other than what he learned during his time abroad as a college student, he reached out to the people in the fashion industry he had met during his stay back in 2016. One of them was local Ghana fashion designer Awurama Mankatah, owner of the Threaded Tribes clothing brand.
So far, Ahmad has self-funded the entire project, and money generated from pieces sold is reinvested into the brand.
Because tailors in Ghana specialize in making a limited number of custom-made pieces at a time, one of the biggest challenges was recruiting them to be involved. He leaned on Mankatah for guidance on finding the right tailors, as well as learning how long certain handmade fabrics take to make, and the different types of stitching and patterns. The roughly dozen tailors that work for Mankatah also work for Ahmad, and the entire manufacturing operates out of Accra.
For the most part, Ahmad has worked remotely to bring his vision to life, but he was able to travel to Ghana this past February.
From the beginning, Ahmad wanted to ensure his brand helped the African workers he partnered with financially and didn’t become an exploitative source as is the case in so many industries operating on the continent. Cacao is one of the most obvious examples of how Western countries take advantage of West Africa’s natural resources with little benefit to locals. While Ghana is currently one of the largest exporters of cacao, Western Europe and the United States have the highest number of chocolate manufacturers reaping profits.
“You see all of these folks from other places coming in and running things, and you understand this is a raw resource grab,” he said.
Ahmad knew he was taking a risk with his ethical vision for how to run Ade Adehye given how much easier and more lucrative it would be to run the brand out of China’s mass production infrastructure. “I purposefully chose not to do that,” he said.
So far, Ahmad has hosted two pop-ups, one in Alameda in May and one in downtown Oakland in August. During the Oakland pop-up inside Dish Boutique on 23rd Street, friends and visitors got the chance to mingle with Ahmad, ask questions about the pieces, and walk away with shopping bags filled with unique garments priced at $80-$250, which Ahmad says is a reasonable price for the handwoven items given the labor-intensive hours that go into making the garments.
Ahmad’s ultimate goal is to help other Black entrepreneurs follow the blueprint that he created with the help of other people in the fashion industry like Mankatah of Threaded Tribes to show how it is possible to run an ethically and sustainable company that’s successful.
For now, he’s getting ready to travel to Ghana for the second time to start working on what new pieces he will add to the Ade Dehye collection. In the end, he is keeping accessibility and his hometown in mind as he rolls out designs.
“I want to see my folks wearing my stuff. I come from East Oakland, I come from Oakland public schools, folks aren’t going to be paying $800, $900 for a trenchcoat,” he said. “I want the pieces to be accessible to my folks. It’s more about brand integrity, having morals and values that I’m trying to stick to.”
Content courtesy of The Oakland Side & Nairobi fashion hub