Bringing Ghana to Rochester. Meet Nita Brown of MansaWear

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Photography by Arielle Ferraro of Arielle Ferraro Photography

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
My name is Nita Brown. I was born in Ghana, had some elementary schooling there and left for her first overseas trip at the age of seven, traveling to the Czech Republic. I completed my secondary schooling in Ghana, received a B.A. in History from Columbia University and an M.B.A. in International Management from Georgetown University.  Eastman Kodak recruited in 2000 to come to Rochester to work in their International Treasury Department. I left Kodak in 2004 and stayed in Rochester, because it’s really an awesome place.

I grew up surrounded by the constant interactions and discussions of my mother and her couturiers about fabric choices and styles au courant. My mother’s innate eye for color, quality fabrics and tailored looks influenced MansaWear’s structured pieces, bold colors and varied fabric prints.     

I’m the owner and designer for MansaWear, a custom-made clothing company that creatively and skillfully uses the classic Ghanaian outfit, a skirt and top known as Kaba ne Slit, as the base of its design platform. I design limited edition high-quality clothes from select pattern fabrics, using classic African and Ghanaian prints as well as modern-themed fabrics. I source my fabrics primarily from Ghana and many of my fabric selection are based on the final product that I wish to design. The exclusivity of the clothing line is derived from how I creatively arrange the designs in each fabric for the custom-made and unique look as well as styling consultations. By providing styling and wardrobe consultation, customers learn to style with bold patterns and vibrant colored fabrics, making it possible to create endless outfits to suit every occasion.

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What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to work for a large company but had no idea what company or what product line. I believe that I got all those ideas from the Mills and Boone novels that I used to read as a child.  My siblings and I spent countless hours every Saturday reading at the Ashanti Regional Library in Kumasi, Ghana.

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How did you get started? What were some of the difficulties you faced?
When I relocated to Rochester, I was constantly asked where I got my clothing from as people like the mash-ups I did of my Ghanaian inspired pieces and US wear. An acquaintance who has become a very good friend, mentor and my muse, Theresa Mazzullo, encouraged me to turn the way I dress into a business. This become a reality after Mary Chao of the D&C wrote an article about me and my business in November 2010.

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Difficulties include monetizing the incredible exposure and publicity; and the arduousness of building a brand, which is painstakingly challenging. MansaWear’s vision is to make Ghanaian clothing a part of the American wardrobe. Like Chinese food is Americanized and can be found in any small town in the US. And/or guacamole and salsa have become part of American cuisine. 

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In moments of self-doubt, hardships or failure, how do you build yourself back up? 
I pray, meditate and say the rosary. I believe in God and was raised that we are on earth for a purpose. I was born and raised a Catholic and I’m a practicing Catholic. My friends call me “church lady.” I try to get to the Abbey of the Genesee once a few for a private retreat. Also, I have an incredible network of friends, family and neighbors who ALWAYS have my back.

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What is your best advice to someone just starting out? What advice do you wish someone had said to you?
Finance and the viability of the product/service. Money, money, money and a source of cheap or inexpensive financing. If you can afford it, try to use your own money or funds from family, friends and relatives where the NEED TO REPAY LOAN or debt is not extremely pressing. To paraphrase what Mitt Romney said about starting a business during the 2012 campaign: “ask your father for money,” which I translated as get “free money” on as much lenient terms you can possibly get. I also got the advice that it will take longer than you think and you might need to change course... those pieces of advice have proven true.

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Kelsey Schmid of Kelsey Schmid Art

What inspires you? 
My grandmother, Nana Mansa, inspires me. MansaWear is named after her and the line’s clean and simple silhouette is influenced by my grandmother’s philosophy of simplicity, tradition and forward thinking perspective on life. Mansa means “of three”, a derivative of the number three, a birth order name. That is, the 3rd consecutive girl born to the same woman is a Mansa. Three is “miensa” in Akan or Ashanti Twi, one of the predominant language in Ghana.

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What is your favorite part of what you do? 
Creation: transforming fabrics into new styles or into a standard outfit with a twist
Styling: mashing up MansaWear pieces with items already existing in a client’s wardrobe and observing the client’s delight.

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What do you find most challenging? 
Working with people is the most challenging and fulfilling of all. 

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Name some local creatives that you really admire.? 
Christine Knoblauch, sculpture and functional artist
Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez of Borinquen Dance Theatre. 

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