Erika Dalya Massaquoi has been an artist for all of her life. She moved to Seattle, Washington in 2008 where she went on to found her fashion house, The OULA Company. Featuring handmade face masks and dresses made with vibrant and colorful Ankara African Wax Fabric, OULA pieces are destined to stand out while simultaneously fitting in with popular fashion trends. This past year, the company has exploded and Massaquoi recently moved to Denver in search of master sewers to foster OULA’s growth. As a result, Massaquoi and the brand are bringing a unique edge to the Denver fashion scene.
The Evolution of OULA
Before moving to Seattle, Massaquoi called New York City home for 20 years. There, her career was focused in academia where she worked as a professor, a curator and as the Assistant Dean of the School of Art Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
While her career pivoted following the move to Seattle, Massaquoi was eager to transform her new life on the West Coast by creating a brand. “I feel like fashion was really, you know, my first love in terms of my involvement in art and design,” she said. OULA emerged when Massaquoi spent some time traveling through the continent of Africa with her husband. There, she was buying textiles, specifically Ankara African Wax Fabric.
“It reminded me of a moment in time, particularly in the ’70s, where my mom used to wear Ankara prints and African tunics,” she said. While Ankara was popular in cities considered fashion capitals of the world like London and New York City, Massaquoi was determined to bring the style and culture to Seattle and eventually everywhere.
Fostering that sense of culture proved to be easy as her academic career was focused on art and design along with African culture. “I wanted to find a way to celebrate Black Culture and also create specifically more images of Black Joy. So changing the iconography in media around what Blackness meant,” Massaquoi said. “I wanted to do that in a really commercial way, in a huge way through clothing.”
The name of the brand, OULA, is a derivation of Massaquoi’s great grandmother’s name, Loula, which means “will and determination.” As the vision of the brand and its impact on customers expands, the meaning behind OULA takes form. OULA hones in on style from the ’60s and ’70s. Colorful, bright tunics and dresses take current and past trends to a new level.
“When I see these fierce women online you know, with that will and determination the way that they’re presenting themselves, it feels like we’ve come full circle and in terms of our brand impulse and our branding of really being collective with the customer. Because sometimes I feel like you go shopping and there’s a disconnect. But this feels organic,” Massaquoi explained.
From Face Masks to Nordstrom
Massaquoi bootstrapped OULA herself. She began to market her brand by taking pieces to trunk shows. However in early March 2020 when the threat of COVID-19 developed, she pivoted to begin making handmade face masks. The durability and stylish prints of the masks were extremely appealing, and OULA blew up in the process. At that point, Massaquoi was selling thousands of masks.
“I started getting press and then literally I had the opportunity with Nordstrom through a woman’s group I’m in,” Massaquoi said. “The CFO was on the line and she was like, ‘can I connect you with the buyers there?’ and they just loved the idea behind the line, and they picked it up. And we fulfilled our first order in January/February and are in the process of fulfilling our second order now.”
Now, OULA dresses are offered in Nordstrom stores and online nationwide. A majority of the orders that Massaquoi fulfilled sold out quickly. She is excited to continue to work with the accredited department store chain and expects a bright future for OULA at Nordstrom.
OULA’s popularity at Nordstrom corresponds with how customers are learning that OULA garments are not only unique, but they’re long-lasting. Each piece is made out of 100% cotton and prioritizes fit. A majority of the pieces are one size which allows customers to make it their own. “That’s just simply because I think in this world, it’s easier for people to take a garment and then add their own to it,” Massaquoi said. Additionally, many OULA pieces are offered in a variety of patterns. If a customer loves a specific fit, they can expand their wardrobe by buying the piece in a different color.
“The idea was for me to create a garment that you could wear for a lifetime … that wouldn’t end up in a landfill and that was wearable art – a piece of art that’s also celebrating Black history, Black culture because I feel like it’s permeated our world in so many ways, you know, with the transformation that’s happening in our culture right now I think people are getting to a place where they want to celebrate the contributions of Black Americans and so you’re able to do that through your dress,” Massaquoi said.
To Massaquoi, OULA pieces are both staple garments as well as dynamic ones. Her dresses can serve a variety of purposes depending on the occasion and the season. Accessorizing accordingly allows customers to wear OULA year-round. This is an important aspect to the brand’s mission because “it can be troubling to have a lot of pretty dresses sitting in your closet but you just don’t have the opportunity to wear them,” Massaquoi said.
“And so that’s been a huge win with Nordstrom because I feel like the customer understands our aesthetic and understands what we’re trying to do and we’ve been really excited about it,” she explained.
Massaquoi is especially grateful for her partnership with Nordstrom because OULA is bringing life to women’s wardrobes. In places like New York City, often wearing an entirely black outfit is considered high fashion. However, “then you get to a certain place in your career and I think also, the culture has changed, right? People are more comfortable being themselves, particularly bringing their full selves to the workplace,” she said. “Apart from giving them just like confidence, there’s a cultural confidence that comes as well.”
For Massaquoi, selling OULA in Nordstrom was a huge milestone. “Until Nordstrom right, I hadn’t seen OULA around other pieces like in a big store and so it’s great, you know, to walk into the New York Nordstrom and to see the garments holding their own.”
OULA’s versatility is a pivotal aspect of the brand. These dresses can be worn for any occasion and “it really brings out that inner confidence in who you are. Regardless of their race or ethnicity, you know, really feeling empowered by the clothing. So, that feels awesome to me,” Massaquoi said.
Relocating to Denver
Massaquoi moved to Denver in early January to launch OULA in the Mile High City. Currently, she is searching for master sewers in the Denver area to help foster her brand to reach its full potential.
Massaquoi’s experience in Denver thus far has been quite rewarding. The city boasts a large art and design community full of entrepreneurs eager to transform the Denver fashion scene. “I feel like I have comrades … in those who have similar goals of trying to create a sustainable fashion industry in Denver because I feel like fashion is changing, you know, out of the distractions in the spotlights of a big city, you can create something organic that feels you know, good to you as a community,” she said.
“Part of the ethos of OULA was to be global, you know we source our Ankara globally from the continent, from India, from Europe and I even source some here in the U.S. but also to be made locally,” she said.
In alignment with Massaquoi’s academic background, she hopes to help others learn through OULA. During her time in New York City, Massaquoi often observed how difficult it was for young people to gain experience in fashion design. There are few opportunities to work with high couture fashion designers. Therefore, “my idea in terms of the growth of OULA is to find a master sewer and students who can apprentice under those master sewers, you know so that we’re creating more jobs in the pipeline of fashion production,” she said.
At OULA, every piece is hand-cut and sewn. At most three people will touch the garment before it lands in a customer’s shopping bag. As the company continues to grow, Massaquoi will begin creating her own fabrics. Hand craftsmanship and dedication to the product are extremely important to her, regardless of continued growth. “It’s a label of love, you know? But I feel like it’s worth it if you’re going to have like a beautiful quality dress and I think people feel that when they get it too,” she said.
While growth is a wonderful thing for a small business, Massaquoi is determined to scale responsibly. She values sustainability and understands how important it is for a business owner to only promise what can be delivered.
“Part of our ethos is that we’re small batch to begin with, you know? Once it’s gone it’s gone. And there’s always going to be, I promise you, some other beautiful piece of fabric around,” she said.
The result is meaningful because OULA customers are unique. Rather than running into people wearing the same dress, they are one out of 50 or 100 people with a dress. That feeling is priceless.
When it comes to fashion, it’s difficult to find pieces that check every box. While OULA pieces celebrate culture, emphasize sustainability, offer a sense of confidence and boast a sense of uniqueness, the fabric itself makes a difference for the wearer.
“People aren’t used to having a quality fabric on their bodies anymore. You know, but they realize when they wear it, that there’s an elegance you know that comes with the way the fabric even falls on your body,” Massaquoi said. “So I think people will hold on to those pieces in their closets.”
Consequently, “it’s just a garment that just makes sense … If it doesn’t make sense, I’m not going to make it,” she said.
Celebrating Black Joy
In today’s day and age, the representation of different cultures in the media can be positive. However, lack of representation is a huge problem in this society where different cultures may be appropriated or ignored. OULA is a means for Massaquoi to address this problem by focusing on Black culture in a celebratory way.
“For me to contribute to like, you know, positive, celebratory iconography around Black life, that feels like my life’s work,” she said. “To be able to, you know, legitimize and historicize the contribution of Black creativity is really a privilege and I’ve been able to do that throughout my entire career and now to be able to do that with OULA as an artist … I feel that’s the gift that keeps giving.”
OULA pieces define these moments of celebration for people of all races and ethnicities. Wearing Ankara prints and seeing them in a store establishes conversations. As a result, OULA is teaching customers about the culture.
“I think that Black Joy is infectious. Be it like music, art, food, culture. It’s infectious. People want to be near it, they want to celebrate it, they want to be a part of it. So, that to me has just been everything, like I can’t even tell you,” Massaquoi said. “To have like all types of people celebrate it, that’s been really great.”
The Story Continues
OULA and Massaquoi are learning to love Denver for all that it has to offer. The revolution of celebration and embracing fashion wholeheartedly that OULA has initiated has only just begun.
As a business owner, Massaquoi has learned the importance of providing quality pieces for her customers. She also understands that fashion is a transformative experience. Therefore, customers feel a personal connection to what they’re wearing. This form of expression represents their personality.
So, next time you visit the local Nordstrom or feel inclined to add an addition to your wardrobe that can serve any purpose, keep OULA in mind. Massaquoi says it best: “Even if it’s not your style, just to see it. That representation. It means something, it’s valuable.”