Ghanaian Designer Ruby Buah on Bringing African Prints to American Cities
“After COVID[-19], I felt like I was missing face-to-face interactions with my clients, especially my US clients. So I thought that if we can go back to those times before the pandemic, that would be great,” Ruby Buah says on a phone call with OkayAfrica. Sh was explaining the reason for embarking on a five-city pop-up tour in the US.
The tour started in late June and despite the surging heat, the Ghanaian designer has already traveled to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, and D.C. She will soon wrap her tour in New York on July 30th, at the African Chophouse at Teranga in Harlem.
Her brand, KUA Designs, is a stellar mix of identity and functionality. What started as a hobby in jewelry-making in 2007 has now ushered her into the sphere of taking fashion as a serious business. By 2009, she would leave her job as a financial analyst for Coca-Cola, leaving Atlanta and returning to Accra, Ghana to open a storefront in Labone.
With a jewelry line that uses beads, the brand has stacked on other product categories like womenswear and clutch bags. The presence of African print fabrics and motifs on these products are more than just sartorial charms, they speak to Buah’s heritage as a Ghanaian. Further, it’s an invitation into her culture as she shuffles between two continents. As far as clients goes, the brand has been a favorite of popular American actress Erika Alexander and rapper Cardi B.
For this tour in the US, Buah is presenting a limited collection featuring the coveted clutch bags, beaded jewelry, clothes, bracelets, and so on. With this pop-up, she’s hoping to further support her humanitarian vertical Kua Cares, an initiative that trains and provides jobs for visually impaired women in jewelry-making.
With her tour wrapping up, Ruby Buah spoke with OkayAfrica about being an entrepreneur, the African fashion industry, and more.
Why did you start with jewelry making in the beginning?
I was working in the corporate field and I took a random class in stringing up a necklace and I became hooked to the craft. I wore the piece I made and people would stop me and give compliments. I was getting great feedback and that was when I said to myself that I can actually start selling them. Initially, I thought it was just going to be a healthy hobby. I didn’t think it was going to be a serious business. And I used to jokingly say that my African mindset did not give me the liberty to explore the creative side of me. Growing up, you were prepared to be a doctor or an accountant. Making necklaces made me decide to take things seriously.
What made you expand into making other products like clothes and bags?
It was from the compliments. This was also the time when there was so much love and appreciation for African prints. I hadn’t completely left my corporate job then. Initially, I wasn’t donning African prints from head to toe. But I made sure to put a touch of it on my clutch bag, which was my accent piece. It’s always a conversation starter.
Is there any skillset from your previous corporate job that you now apply in running your fashion brand?
I would say management skills. I do notice some things come easier to me though, in terms of forecasting which I did a lot of when I was at Coca-Cola. Being able to look at trends and even just deciding that that’s not for me, and just sticking with what I’m good at and with what I know. Making that decision alone, I realized that I lean back on some of the skills I did learn. Being able to delegate is also one of them, knowing that this team does that and this other team does this, so that I’m not the one doing everything.
When I compare myself to other entrepreneurs or business owners on the continent, we are used to doing everything on our own. Rather, with my corporate job, we work in teams. It’s not one person doing everything. Working as a team is definitely a skill I have applied to my business.
Do you think African print fabrics will ever go out of style?
I don’t think so. I know that things have the risk of going out of style when they become really popular. But we on the continent have worn African prints since forever, and we’ve been versatile with it in the sense that we are finding new ways to wear it — bags, hats, shoes, etc. It’s part of our identity.
Are you thinking of physically expanding?
I already have a boutique in Accra because I want to be closer to production. The service industry has been unstable since COVID but I would like to set up shop in the US. I’m still doing my research to know the best cities to expand in. This pop-up tour is actually going to help me see where I can find the majority of my core clientele.
What opinions do you have about the current state of the African fashion industry?
As much as I love and use African prints in my designs, I don’t like how the world tries to pigeonhole African designers. When a designer doesn’t use African prints and textiles in their work, people try to interrogate if they are really an African designer. I have also realized the world isn’t going to treat us with soft gloves just because we are African. We have to do a lot more by ourselves to push our narratives to our audience.
Pivoting to fashion must have been a bold choice. How did you know you were ready?
You will never feel ready. A time comes when you have to take the plunge. I told myself that even if fashion brought half of what I made in the corporate world, I’ll take it. And I will keep growing it. But I also tell people not to take the plunge too quickly. If you leave your job too quickly and start having financial problems and being unable to pay your bills, you will end up hating your passion. I’m a big believer in taking your time. I’m also fortunate to know that I still have my financial background to fall back on.
What business advice do you have on starting and sustaining a fashion business?
I always say stay true to who you are, and what you want out of it. You can’t look at what someone else is doing and say you are just going to do that. You will only continue to be a follower. You aren’t being authentic or true to yourself. For me, I see my brand as telling the African story through fashion. We also have the division where we give back through empowerment and opportunities by employing visually impaired women in bracelet making and this makes feel good, etc. I do it because I enjoy doing it. This is true and authentic to me.
Set goals and objectives and try to achieve them. Be realistic and know that you won’t achieve every goal you set. Not every decision you make would be the best but as long as you are focused on your goals, you would see yourself evolving.