Santa Rosa resident helps launch Black luxury fashion brand
When Santa Rosa resident Andrew Akufo lost his job as executive director of the Healdsburg Center for the Arts, and found himself with a lot more time on his hands, he turned his attention to a new mission: building Black wealth.
Akufo, who was laid off as the Healdsburg nonprofit sought to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, reconnected with Toja Hodge, an artist, singer and music producer he met at his previous job leading an arts center in Hobbs, New Mexico.
Hodge, whose dream of launching a Black-owned luxury fashion brand grew into a budding business, reached out to Akufo over Instagram, and the two reconnected long distance. Akufo soon found himself in a business partnership, putting his social media, branding and marketing skills to use to promote Hodge’s Gapelii Brand.
Akufo and Hodge, both 31-year old college-educated, Christian Black men, are building Gapelii up at a time when America faces a national reckoning over issues of police brutality and racial equality.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, and subsequent calls for changing long-standing racist policies in the United States, make now the perfect time to focus on creating Black wealth, Akufo said, not just for him, but for so many other people.
He recalled learning about how an angry mob of white racists killed hundreds of Black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, leveling what was known as Black Wall Street.
“We didn’t learn about those in school, not even when we lived in the same state it happened,” said Akufo, who grew up in Oklahoma City. “I had to educate myself about the history.”
He said he believes the best way to racial equality is financial equity.
Hodge, who came up with the concept for Gapelii, always liked fashion, he said in a telephone interview from Hobbs, New Mexico. But instead of being able to wear the names and styles he wanted to in high school, like Gucci or Prada, he wore Wal-Mart clothing because it was all his family could afford.
Gapelii is an acronym for growth, ambition, prosperity, lifestyle, innovation and influence. Hodge said. The name came to him after he prayed for the right name for a business that would propel him into the stars.
Their garments include tees, tanks and long-sleeved tees, zipped hoodies, Italian-made shoes both unisex and men's and women's sizes, onesies for babies, as well as children’s T-shirts.
Gapelii’s website includes photos from photo shoots in Alameda and Oklahoma City. Soon to join those apparel photos, will be photos from around Sonoma County, including some Healdsburg wineries, Akufo said. He also said he’s open to ideas and suggestions from the general public about where they would like to see the shoots take place, as well as invitations from local vintners to use the outdoor settings of their wineries.
They’ve vetted “tech packs” of materials to choose the weight and feel of the fabrics they use, and while they don’t intend to raise prices disproportionately over time, they do intend to gradually increase the quality of their fabrics.
What makes a product luxury or high-end is its durability and its ability to make the wearer feel so comfortable in the garment that they don’t want to take it off. They source their fabric from Guatemala through an association with Bella Canvas, which handles the cutting and stitching of the garments. Their second manufacturing partner, which also cuts, sews and stitches, is Apliiq, based in Los Angeles. Apliiq also handles the orders and shipping, Hodge said.
Akufo handles marketing, branding and customer service as well as customer relations.
A tenet of the business is their dedication to give 10% of their net profits back to the communities they serve. It has meant that they have already made donations via the United Way. Their contributions have supported people impacted by COVID-19 and underserved communities in both Hobbs and Oklahoma City. While their donations are not yet large, they still choose to donate as frequently as they can to the causes that are important to them.
“We’re living the American Dream,” said Akufo. “We’re determined to give back, as well as to receive. To do that we need the support of allies, as well as other Black people, for our business.”
To the end, both men are hoping to build connections and coalitions as their business becomes more established. For Akufo, the big dream is a brick-and-mortar business in Healdsburg and Black-owned Gapelii businesses in Healdsburg, San Francisco, Hobbs, and Oklahoma City.
“As wonderful and accepting as the Healdsburg community is, we have noticed the lack of Black residents and Black-owned businesses,” Akufo said in an email. “Toja and I would love to be among the first African Americans to open a Black-owned luxury brand fashion store in Healdsburg, and help add a little more color to the community.”
He went on to say he was heartened by the demonstrations of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly those in Healdsburg.
Akufo said he also sees a dearth of Black-owned businesses in Santa Rosa, too, even while the population includes more Black residents.
While they currently see themselves in the middle of the luxury pack, they hope to “one day stand on the same stage as other major luxury brands like Versace, Gucci, Burberry and Louis Vuitton,” as Akufo wrote.