Creating women’s work wear that speaks to one’s cultural roots involves a unique insight and vision, especially for a first-time fashion entrepreneur. Sure, African prints are notable for bold colors and designs but for the corporate American women’s work wear—Adam Sallah’s vision is to create fashion that multicultural women can wear and feel confident in while still representing.
Sallah’s vision for incorporating African prints in American women’s fashion is to normalize the access to bold prints in western culture. The vision is clear for Sallah but the journey as a first-time designer and entrepreneur hasn’t been easy. Originally from Gambia, West Africa, Adam Sallah learned how to make and design clothing from her mother Aji Ida Sallah. To honor her mother’s dying wish, which was for her fashion business to thrive, Sallah is determined to uphold her legacy in fashion. “My mother was a force to be reckoned and unfortunately the business closed when she passed away,” she says. “I watched her career in fashion grow tremendously and when I graduated high school, I was working diligently alongside her by assisting in her shop and watching her creative process which led to beautiful garments,” Sallah remembers that experience and says the experience sealed her fate which put her on a path to pursue a career in fashion design. Sallah enrolled at Palomar College in San Marcos, California to pursue her passion and had to drop out to relocate to Maryland due to life circumstances.
When Sallah moved to Maryland, she was compelled to figure out a way to reignite Yeli Bana (her fashion brand). There were excuses not to pursue her dreams, she says, but she just couldn’t brush it off because It felt like a calling. In 2018, she was laid off and out of work for several months and that’s when she started sketching designs she was imagining. “I kept tapping into my creative side and decided to create my own ready-to-wear brand,” she says. “I started the research in 2019 and realized that there are lots of amazing African clothing brands.
Still, I didn’t see that diversity reflected in ‘Corporate America’ so I thought this would be a ‘cultural merging’ of some sort to celebrate style while promoting individuality. Bright colors are rarely seen in the workplace, so I found a way to incorporate solids with African/Bold prints to add life to these garments.”
This Gambian-American is redefining African fashion for professional women in America! “The core belief of Yeli Bana is Elegant Simplicity which correlates to High Fashion Luxury,” she says. “The brand name originates from the phrase, Lamtoro Yelibana, which is used to honor andpraise someone with a Sallah last name in Senegambia, and it was also the name of my late mother’s fashion boutique.” Yeli Bana’s collection of fashions will celebrate Sallah’s African roots while providing women the tailored fits and contemporary styles. The collection focuses on modern designs for professional women in their thirties to fifties seeking outfits that can easily transition from work to a night in the city. Yeli Bana’s fashions specifically appeal to that sophisticated modern and ambitious woman that loves and appreciate bold prints with a luxury finish.
In describing the process of getting her first collection off the ground as a fashion entrepreneur, Sallah sketches her creative designs and sends them to a digital fashion design illustrator to convert her sketches into technical drawings that can be used to create the patterns. She says,“the technical drawing is typically called a ‘tech pack’ which is sent to the manufacturer to create the sample of the design. Once the design is created and meets my approval, we then scale the patterns to various sizes (XS-XL) for mass production.” A long process, she admits takes several months to get to mass production.
Given this is her first collection, Sallah described the fabric sourcing and selection process as the most intricate part. The fabrics for her brand, she says must possess unique qualities that have a balanced combination of stretchability, little to no wrinkling, machine washable, and posh look and feel. “I want the pieces to offer the convenience of stretchy/flexible fabrics that makes for less ironing and dry cleaning. Life can be hectic so putting on clothes should be an effortless process,” says Sallah. Resuming normalcy from a pandemic, Sallah intentionally selected styles she thought would make sense after a year of sweatpants and loungewear. “I thought America was heading into a post-COVID-19 pandemic fashion resurgence. Women, especially, were ready to add colorful, innovative, and exciting new outfits to their wardrobes. So, I picked seven pieces out of the collection that I thought would fit in best with the transitioning American.
For example, I selected the wide-leg pants instead of the slim-fitted pants for comfort; the peplum top can be very flattering on women that gained a bit of weight around the mid area like I did; wrap dresses can be very forgiving and flattering as well.”
Sallah’s pieces in her first collection were designed for women to feel powerful and confident returning to work. On this journey of fashion entrepreneurship and as a businesswoman in the U.S African diaspora community, Sallah says her most prominent supporters have been friends, family, and members of the community. She also alludes some of her sales growth to the “Buy Black” movement that has been a result of the African American fight for social and economic justice risen from the“Black Lives Matter” racial conversations. Starting a clothing brand with a strong mission is extremely expensive. For Sallah who invested everything she had into Yeli Bana Fashions, she’s yet to get the return anticipated but she’s determined to persevere and keep pushing, she says.
Her definition of success in this business is “to earn a substantial return on investment, experience sustainable growth with loyal customers, and ultimately be a household brand in theAmerican fashion industry.” “Little things like seeing someone look confident wearing Yeli Bana is success to me,” she says. “The garments we choose to wear tell a story about each of us, so anyone I help tell their story is success to me.”