Amsale Aspire: A look back at the iconic career and legacy of Amsale Aberra | Arts


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Over 30 years ago, a young man attempted to approach a young woman he had met at a party at the Back Bay train station. However, the woman was unimpressed – the two had already met countless times as she served him at the Science Center cafe during her study breaks at Harvard Law and Business School. That man was Clarence O’Neil “Neil” Brown III ’74 and the wife, Amsale Aberra. She would not only become his wife, but also a famous fashion designer who is credited with creating the “modern wedding dress”.

In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Brown discussed her relationship with Aberra and the arc of her career as a political refugee and college dropout following Haile Selassie’s deposition at her home in Ethiopia, to the owner of a great fashion brand.

“Amsale, the company, is probably the oldest black-owned fashion company to achieve any kind of international recognition,” he said.

Brown described how, when Aberra was first living alone in America, she was incredibly introverted and struggled to meet the expectations placed on her in customer-facing roles. “Her first job was at a Jack in the Box where she was fired because she was too shy and quiet,” Brown said.

Nonetheless, Aberra’s skills were clear: her ability to create beautifully unique garments was second to none. “Her friends, including me, always admired the clothes she made herself — then out of necessity,” Brown said.

When the couple married in 1985, Aberra designed and created her own wedding dress. Brown said it started because she was so disappointed in the styles of the time. Rather, she was looking for dresses that were “there to complement and accentuate the beauty of the wearer,” not to compete with them.

She recognized this need in other women, realizing that current styles lacked a timeless, understated quality.

“She made her own dress and then she said, ‘Look, I can’t be the only one who wants something tasteful and refined and more fashionable, so I’m sure there are others girls here who have similar tastes, so that’s what I want to do,” Brown said.

When asked if there was a moment in particular that convinced him Aberra would make it in the fashion world, Brown referenced the day before their own wedding. Aberra was already designing and making her own dress, so her sister had agreed to make the bridesmaids’ dresses. When rehearsal day arrived, the couple discovered that her sister had ended up getting store-bought dresses for the bridesmaids – dresses that fit a very specific 80s look.

“Do you remember the Pointer Sisters? They were dresses that looked like the Pointer Sisters and in my head I was like, ‘I’m so excited,'” Brown said, referencing one of the band’s signature songs.

Rather than complain or throw a tantrum, Aberra simply sat down and sewed each dress herself the day before her own wedding, doing what needed to be done herself.

“It told me,” Brown said. “That the night before the wedding, when she’s supposed to relax and enjoy being the center of attention, she focused on doing something that needed to be done and not giving a shit about it. complain.”

Aberra first tried to place an ad as a bespoke clothing designer, but was rejected after rejection. Finally, it was a black executive from Modern Bride Magazine who was so impressed with Aberra’s work as a black woman that she convinced her white superiors to print her list.

For his part, Brown had the business expertise — and a full-time job — to support Aberra as his own business began to take off.

“The interesting thing about small businesses is that you have all the problems of a big business, you just don’t have the resources, but you have to figure out how to deal with them,” he said. .

Amsale’s first big client came from meeting Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter of Kleinfeld Bridal, or “Miss Hedda” as she was more affectionately known. Brown described the scene of utter awe that encompassed the entire store when the Kleinfeld model stepped out in Aberra’s iconic A101 dress.

“The dummy came out and all of a sudden the store was quiet. You literally could have heard a pin drop,” Brown said.

Kleinfeld collected the collection on site.

What continued to define Aberra’s career was her sheer humility. When she was interviewed for her potential debut magazine at Brides Magazine, the couple’s daughter, Rachel Amsale Brown ’10, was just a baby girl. Brown recalls how she started crying in the other room as Aberra tried to conduct her interview. “She’s like, look, I already missed this interview, I might as well have at least one happy baby,” Brown said. “She goes to get the baby, pulls Rachel out, holds her and continues to chat with the editor with the baby in her arms and this turned out to be her first editorial.”

After a breathtaking career that spanned more than three decades, Amsale passed away in April 2018. The news came as a shock to all but her family and closest friends, as Aberra didn’t want to “burden someone with ‘other with her challenge and she didn’t”. wants to be treated differently just because she was sick.

Brown recalled the time he had to tell their staff that Aberra had died; he was full of fear of what was to follow. How could he continue the business without his namesake? Should he continue to sell it?

Instead, Brown has found unwavering support among her employees, especially with a show for Amsale’s latest collection slated to take place next week. “What I witnessed was an incredible commitment to carrying on the legacy of Amsale,” he said.

One employee in particular seemed particularly upset by the news, so Brown approached him and asked if he was okay.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to need a bigger room.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he says, “This show is going to be the best show ever.”

The show continued and at the end an Ethiopian model walked down the runway in complete silence as the screen behind her came to life and showed Amsale herself, saying goodbye. The model wore the original A101 dress that launched Aberra’s career so many years ago.

In the wake of summer 2020 and in honor of Amsale’s memory as a pioneering black woman and immigrant in fashion, Brown worked with the Fashion Institute of Technology, from which Aberra holds a degree, to create Amsale Aspire, “an initiative dedicated to overcoming systemic racism in the fashion industry by creating resilient pathways for Black students to develop transformative entrepreneurial skills to build successful businesses and distinguished careers.

Brown said “three images” in particular made him feel like action needed to be taken. First, the stark juxtaposition between white privilege displayed in video of Amy Cooper’s interaction with police and the police-directed killing of George Floyd. This disillusionment was later compounded when Brown learned of the wide disparity between the average wealth of black and white families. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2019, “the median and average wealth of black families is less than 15% of that of white families.”

Having seen atrocities committed against black people before in his life and having seen the same fire for change dissipate among activists, Brown said he felt “blasé”. However, his daughter Rachel convinced him that this time had to be different, that “we have to act. We have to do something.”

Amsale was someone “who used education, talent and the support of a network to build a really powerful business,” Brown said. With her as their inspiration, the family set out to correct “the disparity between the impact that African Americans have on fashion culture” and their representation within the industry itself.

“You can’t deny that the essence of popular fashion culture was now derived from African-American style,” Brown said.

Today, Amsale Aspire aims to work with children interested in fashion and design as early as high school, understanding that the path to success begins long before students are even allowed to enter exclusive institutions such as FIT.

“The real goal now is to build a partnership with industry to help open those doors, and provide that mentorship, and help provide that wisdom,” Brown said.

“Anyone who has taken on a challenge and had a dream can be inspired by the story of Amsale,” Brown said.

Through the lives she has touched and will continue to shape through Amsale Aspire, Aberra remains an unwavering inspiration in the world of fashion and beyond.

—Editor Ella L. Jones can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ejones8100.


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