In 2012, Chelsea Paris designer Theresa Ebagua resigned from her tech job and leapt wholeheartedly into the footwear world. Her shoes reflect a fusion of African artistry, international influence, timeless design, and European craftsmanship.
“Designing shoes is an art form for me, and I love seeing my pieces come to life and going on that creative journey,” Ebagua tells Bustle. “But I have experienced some incidents of discrimination over the years, which made finding and maintaining a space in fashion challenging.”
Consultants and investors told her on several occasions that buyers loved her collections but were “wary” about supporting a luxury footwear brand run by a Black Nigerian woman. Some even suggested she use a white woman as the “face of the brand” to help eliminate concerns.
“I was pretty shocked and pushed back,” she recalls. “If they felt that way, they didn’t need to work with me, but of course, this was difficult to hear and made me feel insecure about my place in the industry.”
Ultimately, Ebagua was able to persevere despite those incidents, and now she's using her platform to help the country she loves so dearly.
"I believe it’s my duty as a designer to spread awareness about the atrocities currently occurring across Nigeria," she says, referencing the #EndSars movement to combat the abuse of power by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police. "I’ve received countless accounts of incessant police brutality and youth profiling from my younger family members there, so for me, the outcry is personal."
Ahead, Ebagua opens up about the evolving state of diversity in fashion, the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, and why the style industry needs to rally behind this social justice issue.
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How would you describe the state of Black representation in fashion right now?
I have recognized a shift over the past decade that has encouraged diversity within the fashion industry. Incredible Black designers have helped pave the way for others in recent years, such as Duro Olowu, Pyer Moss, Telfar, Cushnie (still very sad the brand has dissolved), Brother Vellies, and more. There is such talent in the Black global fashion community, which is finally being properly recognized.
What’s it like being a Black woman designer-entrepreneur?
With each launch, I feel more grounded in my identity as an African designer. I find moments throughout my collection to celebrate that heritage. My favorite design from the Fall 2020 collection, the KELS sandal in sun yellow, is inspired by snakes in Nigeria. It’s adorned by a bright snake print and exudes a retro vibe, complemented by a stunning pyramid heel.
Can you talk a bit about your personal connection to the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria?
Along with celebrating my culture, I believe it’s my duty to use my platform as a designer to spread awareness about the atrocities currently occurring across Nigeria. I’ve received countless accounts of incessant police brutality and youth profiling from my younger family members there, so for me, this outcry is personal.
What do you want people to know about what’s happening in Nigeria?
A monumental movement is sweeping across Nigeria. Nigerian youths have expressed outrage, exhaustion, and fear, and are now calling for an end to injustice. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) has abused power since its inception in 1992, harassing and endangering the citizens they were tasked to protect. While #EndSARS amassed global awareness via social media and SARS was disbanded on October 11, the work is far from over.
How can the fashion industry specifically support the movement?
Every action truly counts, from informed donations to conscious designs. Chelsea Paris is donating 10% of net proceeds from online orders now through the end of this year to the Feminist Coalition, which is directly helping those who have been impacted by SARS during this critical time by providing humanitarian assistance like food, shelter, legal aid, and medical care.
I embolden all of us in the fashion industry to use our collective voice, influence, and creativity to amplify awareness and challenge incidents of systemic injustice. Our business is a powerful community, and we can really make a difference with proper visibility and amplification.
We must continue to lend our voices and resources to this issue. We need to talk about it, write about it, and help the organizations who are on the ground fighting. There is a lot going on in the world right now, but injustice is never something we should tolerate as a society.