Fashion, Style, and the Deaf

It is no secret that I’m obsessed with Ghanaian fabric, fashion, and style. It is hands down my favorite part of the culture. I’ve become more observant and aware of Ghanaian fashion trends and how Western influences are playing a part in shaping Ghanaian style. Since being in Ghana I’ve been able to track how trends have changed. And I absolutely love it. I wish I could sit outside in the shade on the street in Osu, East Legon, or Kumasi and just watch the fashionistas pass by. Snap photos of their amazing style. I’ve been inspired by Ghanaian women’s attitudes towards color, boldness, and fearless use of crazy fabrics.

I feel like a major part of my service has been focused on goal two and three of the Peace Corps mission – helping Americans better understand Ghanaians and vice versa (goal two is the vice versa). And I think I’ve accomplished this through fashion. Bringing Western styles and influences to my tailors, helping them to create new designs that challenge their defined skill sets. I know that my tailor used to share my designs with her fellow tailors, teaching them new styles to expand their offerings. I would have dialogues with my sisters and tailor about how Western designs are influenced, why we are so daring to reveal our thighs and our shoulders.

I hope that my pictures and blog posts over the past year and a half of helped to tell the story of Ghana’s fashion culture and helping my fellow Americans to better understand Ghanaian culture. For instance, Ghanaians rarely show their thighs and tend to cover most of their shoulders. Why? Ghanaian culture is conservative and some Muslim principles have an influence on daily life. During my service I’ve also talked about kente cloth, batik, and adinkra symbols. I want to research the influence of the Dutch on wax print here as well.

Last week I had the pleasure of being a visiting artist/business consultant for another Peace Corps Volunteer’s project – Our Talking Hands. It was a great way for me to marry all the Peace Corps goals and it was incredibly fulfilling.

Our Talking Hands is unique in that it works with deaf students to create beautiful accessories, home items, and designs. The project is based in the Volta region which, like the Ashanti region, is known for its beautiful kente cloth. The Ewe tribe has different influences than the Akan, so the kente is slightly different. The PCV working with this project, Scott, has been working with his students to teach new ways to weave kente that combines the traditional skills and designs with influences from the Northern regions (and their smock fabrics) and Western aesthetics.

Working with the students was incredible, they are truly talented. I even picked up some sign language! And I can’t express to you how wonderful it was to be in a place that was so quiet.

When I first got there, I met the students and learned about each of their unique talents. I explored the workshop and learned about the available resources. Then working with Scott and his Ghanaian counterpart Promise, we came up with some ideas for new designs.

There are a few things that are hard to find here in Ghana or they are less than ideal quality wise. I’ve become fairly good at analyzing demand and supply for accessories and clothing in Ghana. I keep a notebook with drawings of ideas for products, including magazine cutouts. We picked up a few of my ideas and decided to make prototypes during the week.

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It was wonderful picking out fabrics, tweaking the structural details, and working with the students. You think you know what a language barrier is. Then you remove language all together and you see just how important communication is. I didn’t know sign language. They couldn’t heard me. I didn’t know Ewe either. But the amazing thing was discovering how to communicate using no language at all and realizing that I could understand what they wanted to say without knowing what they were signing. Body language is universal and I used it as my Rosetta Stone.

During the course of the week, I not only helped with designing products, but with the business side as well. Including, cost analysis, inventory controls, break even analysis, and figuring out ways to minimize expenses while increasing profits. Helping Scott and Promise with these business principles was fulfilling in a way that I never thought possible. Do you know how happy I am when I stay up all night doing spreadsheets and tweaking the numbers? Figuring out how to convince Ghanaians about not only the importance, but the necessity of keeping books is another one of my favorite activities. Throughout the course of the week, we analyzed how to manage supply and demand, how to adjust prices, and anticipate seasonal swings. This is my bread and butter. This is my element, combining business accounting principles with production practices and marketing principles to turn a good business into a great one. I also helped Scott to streamline his ordering process, making his life much easier.

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On Saturday, we arranged a photo shoot to help Scott advertise his products better. Working with the photographer – a fellow PCV, I helped to pick out the products, do storyboarding, and decide on a general feel for the campaign. It reminded me of being back at the ad agency! Working with the client to streamline and refine their campaign, working with creative to come up with the best ideas for making the products stand out, supervising the actual shoot, and then helping with post production editing. It was like stepping back into my favorite shoes.

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This is Jennifer a junior high student who helped me to create braided headbands. I’m adjusting her styling.

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One of the most popular products, the piecey piecey backpack.

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Setting up the next shot.

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The batik queen size duvet cover, which doubles as a picnic blanket.

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Two things I designed and helped create – the braided batik headband and fabric adinkra earrings.

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The clutch in three fabulous sizes, tiny, just right, and gigantic.

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The yoga bag.

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The batik messenger bag.

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And the bun in the oven apron with oven mitts and oven squares.

A few days later, at our All Volunteer Conference I helped Scott with inventory tracking and sales analysis. So for two weeks I was in complete heaven, doing everything I love with a group that is simply fantastic. Working with each of the students was amazing, they are talented, motivated, driven, and an inspiration. A lot of them went from being kicked out of their schools and communities, to being welcomed with open arms into a caring environment, which is teaching them useful skills.

Check out Our Talking Hands website and Etsy page to learn more and order some of the products! You can special order items too.

http://ourtalkinghands.com/

http://www.etsy.com/shop/OurTalkingHands

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