Color pops from every corner of Lola’s African Apparel shop in West Berkeley — pinks so bright they almost jump off the fabric, rich blues and blazing reds, a palette that is everyday wear for people in the proprietor’s native Nigeria.
“In Nigeria, it’s not unusual to see someone dressed in pink from head to toe,” said Ifafunke Lola Oladigbolu.
After moving to the U.S. in 1991 at the age of eight, a 2010 visit to her homeland so moved Oladigbolu that she “wanted to share Africa with people through clothes,” she said.
That was the original motive for what has now, eight years later, become a full-fledged shop with clothing including dashikis, headbands, wraps, gowns, tops, skirts and children’s wear.
Oladigbolu, who has a master’s degree in sociology, for years worked a full-time job auditing group homes for the state, selling clothing at flea markets on weekends while she got the business rolling. In 2017, she opened her first shop a few doors down from the present store, opened in July, at 2703 Seventh St., near Carleton Street.
Ever since the beginning, every one of the garments stocked at the store has been made by an independent Nigerian seamstress or tailor. Oladigbolu employs 10 such entrepreneurs.
“Over the years, they have been able to put their children through school, to buy houses,” said Oladigbolu. One seamstress, Iya Beji – the first to sew for Oladigbolu – reinvested her earnings in a fabric-buying business.
Beji has apprentices who now have their own shops – an example of how an arrangement like Lola’s can benefit entire communities.
Opening a brick-and-mortar store might not seem like the best business move, considering what is commonly described as the Retail Apocalypse of 2017, when major retailers such as Sears, Kmart, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Gymboree closed more than a total of 5,000 stores. In addition, independent stores, including in Berkeley, seem to fail on a weekly basis, felled by online competition — Amazon Prime had 90 million U.S. members as of September 2017, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners — as well as rising rents.
However, there are factors that figure in Oladigbolu’s favor.
“Small business retailers have a competitive advantage that none of these bigger, better-capitalized and techno-powered retailers have: their personal touch,” said Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a Pennsylvania marketing company. “It is realized not just through the personal service that specialty retailers offer, but by being vital members of the local community.”
Oladigbolu has lived in Berkeley for 10 years and much of her business is repeat customers, she said. “I’ve learned over the years how to design for their bodies,” said the entrepreneur, who taught herself how to design clothes.
Another factor: bright hues, also described as paintbox colors, happen to be the latest trend in fashion this year.
“Simple, colorful fabrics are popular with young people these days,” said Theresa Rainbow, proprietor of African Rainbow Fashions, a clothing and gift shop that has been in the same location on 55th Street in Oakland for 25 years.
With that in mind, “African apparel is seeing a resurgence in popularity,” said Rainbow.
Showing off a robin’s-egg-blue, floor-length gown in her shop, Oladigbolu said, “I see it as a service to the community to provide African-American people with clothes that connect them with their heritage. If you wear bright colors, people are sure to notice you. They’ll be smiling when they see you.”