Another Africa caught up with Emeka Alams, an art director, designer, and the creative visionary behind the brand Gold Coast Trading Co. Apart from building GCTC, Emeka spends his days photographing life in Abidjan, collaborating on various projects with musicians, artists, and brands, and travelling. Incredibly down-to-earth, genuine and passionate, Emeka shared his thoughts about growing up in America, moving to Cote D’Ivoire, fashion, and his creative process.
You are American, born to Nigerian parents and raised in Seattle. Tell us about your relationship to Africa.
Emeka Alams | It was strange to be brought up in America but not have that be my complete culture. When I was young, I looked at Africa with a distant curiosity, yet it was still more familiar at times than American culture. I always felt like there were two very contrasting images of Africa, being raised in America the images of home were normally of war, sickness and poverty. The continent is presented in a very one-dimensional way, which is so far from the truth. By contrast, being the first generation in America meant that I knew from how my parents lived, what life was really like back home in Nigeria. At that point, we were American kids raised by African parents. To be “African” was a means of discipline. If I acted up in school, my mother would say, “You’d better stop or I’m sending you back to Africa.” So I wasn’t into it, but when I finally made the decision to go, everything just clicked. I felt like I finally understood. And now that I’ve lived here, I have a complete picture.
When did you first visit the continent?
EA | In 2001, a good family friend came to Seattle to visit his mother, and he invited me to come to Cote D’Ivoire. He had been living there for about 30 years, and the way he described it – no one has ever described it like that. Not even my parents. He spoke about the quality of life, the culture, the natural beauty – he was going on and on about how I just had to come and experience it. He told me “when you get there, you’ll love and it and you’ll never want to leave.” I was really impressed by the way he described Africa! It sounded like a spiritual and physical paradise. So a few weeks later I had my ticket, and by the end of the year, I was in Abidjan.
How have your parents influenced your work and perspective?
EA | My mom was the perfect example of putting the needs of others before your own, so that’s what I strive for in all areas of my life including whatever I do for money. Any little money I ever made went straight back into volunteering and supporting Liberian refugees in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Now as the brand begins to grow, I’m looking into ways to continue to support Africa in practical ways through local production and sourcing with fair wages.
Faith and determination are hallmarks of family and business… sometimes to a default. Growing up, my mom worked three jobs in addition to raising four kids. She did that knowing it would lay a solid foundation for us. She taught us how to work for what we wanted and not to be reliant on a broken system. So when times are difficult, I reflect back on her example. As a child, she helped to rebuild her family business after surviving the Biafra war. This has given me the ability to prioritize what I do, with a proper perspective on life and business. My mom had faith that though life is not easy, with a bit of hard work we can endure anything and come out stronger.
What inspired you to begin Gold Coast Trading Co? Where does the name come from?
EA | After spending a couple of years on and off in Africa (mostly in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana), I wanted to create some way to capture what I had seen here and bring it back to the States. When I left my first brand and design company to start GCTC, I wanted a name that was more connected to a certain time and place. So I spent a couple of weeks researching a name that would encompass that, in addition to the geographical area of West Africa where I’ve spent years living. “Gold Coast Trading” reflected that. At one point in time during the British rule, “Gold Coast” referred to the area of land from western Ivory Coast to the eastern tip of Nigeria. That general area also served as the main export of slaves to America and Europe. Though that trade was horrendous, it brought with it culture, food, language and music which continue to define and influence not just Western culture but the world.
How has the brand grown?
EA | I’ve always done what was realistic for the times. We started with t-shirts, and now we have full range of cut-and-sew pieces, including shoes. As I get older, I’m really trying to deconstruct crazy ideas by breaking them apart and using part of an idea or pattern, and letting that grow into its own concept.
Since I’ve been back here in Africa, I have seen the need to fine tune what I’m doing, not only design-wise but in the overall concept and execution. So I’ve started to expand how the brand can communicate and the various avenues in which I can do that.
How do you feel, being back in Abidjan now?
EA | When I first came, I was volunteering with Liberian refugees. Those times really formed me, but I wasn’t looking for anything. I came here this time because I needed to be here. After several years of not being in Africa, I needed to take a long break to focus on the brand. It was getting to the point that if I didn’t come back, I was going to pass out on my desk and that would be it. I came back to work on myself, take care of my health, and re-evaluate.
I’m so inspired again. I’ve been taking road trips across the country, from Abidjan to the border of Liberia. Seeing all these little villages was pretty amazing – we would stop, greet the chief, sometimes sit and eat with families along the way. This is also the first time I’ve seen some of my friends since the first civil war in 2002. Hearing their stories has been absolutely mind blowing. This trip has been very unique, maybe because with age comes maturity, but I want to add more dignity to the line overall, to the attitude of the line. I want to add more realism to what I’m doing.
What inspired your latest collection, S/S 2012 “Winds from the North”?
EA | The season in West Africa called Harmattan, where sand blows down from the Sahara and turns the sky all kinds of amazing hues, so I tried to reflect that in the palette and the tones of the pieces and get a bit of the dusty feel with washed out colours. Harmattan is one of the few times in West Africa where there is sun but it’s still on the cooler side.
When it came to shooting the lookbook, I wanted something simple, clean and cool in tone. It was also a great opportunity for me to finally work with good friends. I’ve been trying to shoot Adesuwa for years now, and she was great to shoot. Her pictures came out perfect, in spite of the fact that we had to shoot in a freezing cold industrial space. It was also the first time I worked with Bo Streeter since launching GCTC, and his lighting and perspective always makes for beautiful photographs.
Your work was recently featured in Helen Jenning’s book “New African Fashion”. What does that term, “African fashion”, mean to you?
EA | I guess “African fashion” can be defined as fashion that comes from Africa, or by designers with African origins. I think the goal of many African designers, especially those based in Africa, was to achieve their much-deserved recognition on an international level, like many Europeans or American designers get, and there is now a growing opportunity for that, and many of them can take advantage of this time to grow and capitalise on the spotlight. Yet while some really unique things can and are being done with fashion in Africa, it is really hard to slap a label on an entire continent of designers.
The whole “Africa thing” has become very fashionable. I don’t want to be defined as just an “African designer” or my design work to be distilled to something “African inspired”. Major labels are doing that, capitalising on its current popularity; but to them it’s a wave of fashion. But, at some point, it’s not going to be so cool. So I’m not overly interested in being linked to that – I just want to be a designer and whatever comes out of that is what I’ll work my way through.
What is your vision for your work and GCTC?
EA | In the short term, I’d like to move production to Africa and then release a few non-fashion projects and collaborations for the brand. Long term, I just want to let it grow into whatever it will become while keeping the right perspective and original objectives in mind.
The notion that you can be the change you want to see and it can affect a small group, that’s all the change we need. It’s not about coming back and preaching about how Africa needs to do this or be that. It’s not that simple, and it’s a much bigger picture. I want to make sure I’m continuing to be responsible with how I portray Africa, even with something like my choice of textiles. I want to work harder to create something that I feel is more representational of what I see on the ground everyday, what is going on right now, and also respect its history. That’s the story clothes can tell, the story I can share as a designer.
Africa is a powerhouse. There’s so much to be discovered, and to be inspired by. And I want to treat it with a high level of dignity and truth, in everything that I do, whether it be in photography, books, design, creative collaborations – and it can’t be glossy or shiny all the time. That’s not the reality of any culture.