Coffee with Supermum

Erel speaking at the South London Press- Shell 'Our Heroes' Awards

Erel speaking at the South London Press- Shell 'Our Heroes' Awards

Erel Onojobi is one of those people who’s both fantastically inspiring and so completely down to earth you immediately feel at home in her presence. She’s an ex-colleague and a good friend. A serial social entrepreneur whose goal in life is to get positive portraits of young black Londoners into the public mind. This in the face of a government and press that seem intent on scapegoating  urban youth for every possible societal ill. Erel is also charming, honest, generous and possessed of the most infectious giggle I know.

We meet in outside a station in West London and head to a cafe for a catch up and to talk dream and projects. It’s been over a year since I’ve seen her and she has her little boy, just turned one, in a buggy. He is, of course, an adorable bundle of round eyes and chubby little cheeks. Even though he’s got a spring snuffle, the sight of him standing on the cafe seat holding onto his mum’s shoulder makes me as broody as anything.

“His dad taught him to climb the stairs.” says Erel shaking her head, “Bad idea. He’s gonna fall down them.” I remember my mum telling me stories about how I learnt to climb up stairs before I learnt to get down. How she used to spend all day racing to the top to bring me back, only to have me determinedly set off again. It suddenly comes home to me how much energy that would take up. I dunk a biscuit in my cappuccino and consider that maybe broodiness is one thing but having a baby is quite another.

I ask her about her work projects, Ministry of Thrift and Set Fashion Free. Ministry of Thrift is a consultancy specialising in creating tools to help people, particularly young people, manage their money better. It has funky retro branding and a focus on social media. This is of course awesome, but today we’re here to talk about her other project. The one that connects with my deep, deep love and fabrics and design.

Set Fashion Free is a charity that bring young Londoners together to learn to design and make clothes using African textiles and then showcase them in a judged catwalk competition. The young people visit museums and learn about African imagery and crafts as well as meeting designers and fashion industry insiders to learn about real world of the ragtrade.

“Well, everything has to fit around him,” she gestures at her son, “And I’m supposed to be winding down Set Fashion Free and handing it over but somehow we’ve ended up doing an e-commerce site.”

This is news! Surprising but somehow not so surprising. Erel wind down? Seems unlikely. And Set Fashion Free has been a successful and growing organisation since 2008, working with high profile partners like the V&A and Goldsmiths University as well as garnering awards for Erel and exciting opportunities for the young people. Not to mention that African inspired looks are smoking hot this season.

“Afrikouture is a shop selling designers who make clothes in African textiles. We want the young people to have somewhere to go with this. Not just to make the clothes in a bubble but actually to be able to sell things. We want to sell them to white people too. I’ve had people ask if they can wear the clothes and I say ‘Yeah, of course, this isn’t just an African thing!’ ”

I tell her I’m relieved because I’ve seen some beautiful pieces made in African fabrics, but I always feel like I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes by wearing them.

She laughs at the idea. “Nah man, it’s good. Wear what you like! We want our clothes to be for everyone.”

Afrikouture is still in development but the signs  are very promising. Erel has a gift for bringing people on board and in her words “Doing a lot with nothing.” A skill we all need nowadays. Somehow I find myself asking if there’s anything I can do.

“The crafting community are very supportive of independent design.” I muse. “Maybe I can put the word out and see what comes back.”

“That would be great!” She says.

Her little boy sneezes and as she wipes his nose I think of all the women in the craft world who are doing the same thing: taking care of their baby with one hand, their business with the other.

It would be great, wouldn’t it? I think.

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