House of Aama: The Gen X and Gen Z of Building a Business

Social/Cultural/Political Fabric and the House of Aama. An Interview.

House of Aama

Mother and daughter team, Rebecca Henry and Akua Shabaka, are the designers and founders of House of Aama, a fashion brand that conflates personal and political, art and commerce. We asked them to talk about building a brand for Gen Z and what happens when Gen X and Gen Z put their heads (and hearts) together.

Why don’t you two start by telling us a bit about yourselves.

REBECCA: I’m the mother of the duo and a lawyer for the past twenty-four years. I come from a family that sews and does crafts and I had an interest when I was younger in those sorts of things but I didn’t understand that you could turn them into a job, so I followed a traditional route and became a lawyer. When Akua was in middle school she developed an interest in fashion and we started customizing vintage clothes for her. People that she went to school with liked the clothes and so we started making things for other people. In high school, it turned into a business. We put out a youth line which was called ‘Urban Nomad’ and then we decided to rebrand and put out something much more personal and reflective of our background and who we are as people, which resulted in the ‘House of Aama’ collection that we have out now.

So is the dream to stop being a lawyer and do this full-time?

R: Haha, hope so. I would hope to not be in the courthouse four times a week.

Wow, ok, I feel lazy! Akua, you’re up…

AKUA: Well, I am Akua and I am the daughter and also a design student in New York. I primarily handle the social part in the design concept and the business aspect and negotiations.

Since our report is on influence, tell me a bit about how you two work together and what sort of impact you have on each other.

R: It is interesting because we both have strong personalities but Akua is definitely an in-your-face type. I am a bit more mellow in my approach. We, of course, butt heads but usually what ends up coming out of that is positive. You know what they say — “Pressure makes diamonds.” It’s that kind of pressure that results in something good for us. However, we definitely fight — and I mean, fight hard. But we’re not going to be broken by it, we’re actually going to use that energy to get the outcome that we want. Even though it might be pushing and pulling and screaming all along the way.

As far as impact, it is interesting because you know I’m thirty years older than Akua so I sort of lead this double life. One as a 50-year-old lawyer and then this other one where, through working with my daughter, I am exposed to all of these new things. As she explores her identity, she makes me aware of things that I’m just not that aware of because I’m older and I don’t have my finger on all of the different points that she does as a young person in the digital age.

But definitely Akua has impacted my perspective and awareness of possibilities — the broadening of my horizons as to what’s possible. And not just in fashion but life in general.

A: I definitely see an impact of me on my mom. Like even when my mother’s out, or if we’re out and it’s her, me and older people; and there is something going on that’s more my generation whether it’s music or identity issues or anything of that nature, the way she talks about it, you can feel that she has an influence in her life that’s this next generation. Even if it’s a song, she will say to her friends, “You guys don’t know that? You are so old.” It’s funny and really interesting to see how I have affected her.

House of AamaPhoto by Jordan Tiberio

And what about her impact on you?

A: Oh right! Well, I’m very hard in terms of my personality and she’s very warm, and that has impacted my ability to work with others in a sensitive way. I’ve also been impacted in terms of the ability to not only look at things from my generation’s point of view but also look at things from the older generation’s point of view. That taught me a lot in terms of communicating with all sorts of people in my life and in terms of how I do business. Overall, how I treat others.

I know that my fundamental view on things has shifted because of my immersion and my proximity to your generation but at the same time there are definitely moments when I think, “I don’t know what you’re talking about at all.” Do either of you ever feel that way?

R: I don’t think it is a matter of not understanding, but Akua’s generation definitely has so much more tolerance than mine. And a much more expansive way of thinking. But I don’t think it is an issue of speaking different languages, it is more that because I am around a person of this generation, I’m aware that there’s another language out there and other ways that people are stretching themselves. So the opportunity is for me to learn that language too.

One hundred percent. That’s exactly my experience. So your designs are clearly informed by your dynamic as mother and daughter as well as business partners, but how do your personal and family biographies, or politics, inform the collections and company?

R: Well, when we’re starting to make our pieces, we think about how they’re a vehicle for today as well as for the past, how they can address historical and current issues. Looking at history and art history, but also social context and cultural inspirations — so that the pieces become art more than traditional fashion, things that tell a story if they were hung on a wall, a hanger or a person.

A: We consider that our clothes have stories to tell and so we start with what story do we want to tell and how can we tell that story through clothes. We really look at the clothes as a paintbrush. We very much view ourselves as artists first. Our medium for expressing our artistic vision happens to be clothes and our artistic vision just so happens to be rooted in themes and experiences of African people and our family history. My mom’s parents’ side is from the south, so the story of these clothes has a very southern presence, which then drives things like design detail and whatnot. Because that is the story that we felt we wanted to tell with the collection. Also, bringing me into the collection — like, I’m a black person and what that means for me. That combination of personal and cultural is where I want and need to go with our collections.

OK, so as you are making something that comes from a very personal place and also originates as a piece of “art,” how do you handle when your art transfers into being a commodity, something on the market for anyone to purchase. Particularly if that anyone does not embody or reflect your politics or point of view? Like art sold at auction, the artist loses control of the narrative as a work is recontextualized.

R: You know, I’ve actually thought about that a lot with our collection ‘Urban Nomad’ because we do have a particular perspective and origin story, but I have to decide to let it go in terms of being able to control that all the way down to the point of sale. After the item is in the marketplace, it’s a purchasable item and it is out of our control. But I would hope that the energy that we’ve imparted, the stories that we’re telling in these clothes, have an effect on the purchaser and maybe make them think. However, if there’s somebody that purchased the shirt because they just think it’s a beautiful shirt, I have decided that I have to let go of my attachment to the shirt. Because I can’t control who purchases the items.

A: Yeah I’ve thought about that too in terms of controlling the narrative, especially when it is personal and tied to larger social issues. However, I’ve also learnt that sometimes it is really interesting to put your pieces into different contexts. So like, we might use the item one way and we have a specific story that we’re trying to tell and, through marketing, we push that story so much that people know the story — but then sometimes that story transforms in a way we did not expect, simply by somebody else’s wearing the clothes. It can be good or bad, but so far, it’s been for the good. It gives another life to the clothing and makes a new story. But because we pay so much attention to the design elements as well, there’s still a part of the story that goes on, regardless of the how somebody else wears them or even who wears them.

So, when you’re thinking about growing your company, are things like being environmentally responsible and creating a brand that contributes to our social/cultural/political fabric in a positive way a priority?

R: It is a priority for us. With the previous collection, we had collaborations — and one of the collaborations that we had was with a Senegalese artist, which was significant for me because I would like to do work that expands our reach to artists in developing countries. So we can have some sort of impact and that the funds that we’re deriving from the collaborations can help the people that are in the village. I think that I can speak for both of us when I say that: we’re not just interested in business for the sake of being in business. We want to be involved in business in a way that’s responsible, ethical and also impactful — acting in a positive way and helping to improve somebody else’s life.

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The Irregular Report by Irregular Labs

The Irregular Report by Irregular Labs

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Irregular Labs connects the ideas, opinions and insights of girl and gender nonconforming Gen Zs to the world.