When I met Roosevelt Pratt, the owner of Fashion Afrique, a Springfield ethnic fashion boutique, this Liberian-born entrepreneur had high energy and a beaming smile on his face. Greeting his customers at the door in his dashiki, he makes them feel good about the day.
Fashion Afrique, 318 E. Monroe St. in downtown Springfield, opened in 2006. This African boutique specializes in authentic African clothing, handbags, jewelry, drums, paintings, masques and hand-woven wicker baskets from Central and West Africa. This is a one-stop shop for African cultural treasures.
“Opening and operating the store is a small extension of what I am doing,” Pratt explained. “I believe in promoting African culture, and the store is a creative forum to do so.” Pratt, who also teaches African drumming classes on the side for children and adults at his store, believes that creating music on the D’jembe drums helps channel energy into positive music making, and into the connection of creative souls.
Pratt moved to the United States from Ivory Coast in 2004 after the civil war broke out in 2002. At the time, he had been teaching English to children at a language institution. Even though he misses working with his students, he thinks Fashion Afrique has given him opportunities to help demystify Africa and market diverse African skills by selling African goods made mainly in West and Central Africa.
Even though Pratt left Africa seven years ago, he still lives by his African values. “In Liberia people believe that if you’re up, you have to raise others up,” Pratt added. As a result, Pratt has been helping his other African friends in Springfield by teaching them business development skills that they can use to empower themselves.
It seems that in Pratt’s world there is always room for more – especially when it comes to advocating for a cause. Most items that he sells at his store are designed to raise understanding about varied political and socioeconomic issues facing Africans today. “Rwandan peace baskets that I sell are symbols of national unity and empowerment of Rwandan women.” Pratt purchases these directly from Rwanda with hope that he is helping Rwandan women to get their lives back on track.
Pratt hopes someday to expand his store into surrounding cities and devote his time and resources to help African fashion gain some recognition in central Illinois. He believes that there is a mainstream market for African-inspired fashion. After all, with brands such as L.A.M.B, and Missoni interpreting African-inspired looks into their Spring 2011 runway collection, there is no denial that African fashion is slowly entering into the mainstream fashion arena. And, who says African fashion has to look traditional and can only be worn in mainland Africa? Today, African fashion is about colorful fabrics and African flamboyance put together in a contemporary style which is being highly popularized by African Diaspora – Africans living all across the western hemispheres.
Whether Pratt is facilitating the transfer of African culture through his store, teaching French language and African drumming or simply commercializing the skills of other Africans by selling products made in various parts of Africa, at the end, he is still spreading awareness about his African culture and increasing market share for African goods.
Pratt, who is also getting recertified for his teaching degree at the University of Illinois Springfield, wishes to teach elementary education someday. He hopes to continue to become a part of this community and turn his vision into one of those “American Dream” stories. And, at the moment, he seems to be advancing confidently in the direction of his dreams.
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Megha Kauffman of Springfield is a freelance writer and a fashion blogger (www.styleinvention.blogspot.com). Originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, she is married to her college sweetheart from Joliet.