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North Bay artist-turned-designer co-launches luxury clothing line

Black fashion designer Andrew Akufo would be the first to say he’s color blind at the suggestion he would create a clothing line for one race.

On the contrary, his Gapelii brand is a new style designed for anyone who wants to appear luxurious yet comfortable. He shudders at the notion consumers would expect his style to mean “street wear.”

The 32-year-old chief operating officer of Gapelii co-launched his fashion line in August with a focus on handcrafted designs with a hint of luxury.

“We’re trying and want to break the stereotype,” the Santa Rosa man said.

Beyond going for luxury, Akufo has designed the clothing line to be comfy.

“That’s the major component of our branding, and we have considered the remote work as a part of it. These are different circumstances in our world today,” said Akufo, who originally hails from Oklahoma City, which is quite the departure from the streets of fashion capitals like Milan or New York.

The Santa Rosa designer also balks at the notion that luxury fashion resembles garments on models off the runway.

“It’s not the kind of fashion either,” he said.

While forming the company, he tapped into his experience working with textiles. From there, he secured a Los Angeles manufacturer to develop a unique, sustainable style of men’s, women’s and children’s clothes. The lineup includes T-shirts, hats, shoes, sweatshirts, leggings, shorts, tank tops, pants and other loungewear as well as accessories such as sunglasses, watches and masks. Prices range from $20 to $200, and the company’s target audience is 25- to 40-year-olds. Gapelii has also kicked off a winter collection.

When asked whether this is a risky time to start a company during the COVID-19 crisis, Akufo referred to the pandemic age as “the best time to start a business.” And why not? Many entrepreneurs are utilizing their own skills now to start their own businesses instead of relying on the corporate world.

And the Gapelii chief has an advantage of offering goods online at a time when more and more shoppers are stuck mostly at home.

“It was just meant to be,” he said.

Operating on a shoestring, Akufo has taken in about $15,000 in sales within the first five months from more than 200 customers. His goal for 2021 aims to rake in at least $25,000 in sales.

His eventual goal is to find investors and open a store in Healdsburg. For now, Akufo is building the business while doing contractor work. His background is in art administration, which is how he met his business partner, CEO Toja Hodge, in Hobbs, New Mexico, where Akufo was running the arts center. Hodge, 31, is music producer.

The two men came up with the Gapelii name, which stands for growth, ambition, properity, elevate, lifestyle, influence and innovation — “seven qualities that embody the new fashion brand.”

The Gapelii Brand was created “to inspire youth and other young entrepreneurs to pursue their goals, dreams and passions,” in addition to proving that “a small-town, Black-owned business” can evolve into a way to have “impact on our fashion industry and the world,” the duo’s mission reads.

For instance, Akufo is working on designating proceeds to worthy causes such as donating 10% of their funds to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In the meantime, the designer wants to rise to the financial challenge of getting a startup off the ground.

“I’m always interested in what he comes up with. I really feel like that brand has great potential,” said Greg Brooks, a repeat customer and friend of Akufo’s.

Brooks, who has bought a jacket and hats, believes Gapelii may excel at filling a niche in garment luxury and comfort — especially during a pandemic that has made remote work blossom.

“I think a lot of people want to be comfortable and doing their business, especially if your job doesn’t require you to be there,” he said.

Like Akufo, Brooks is also enamored with the idea of comfort with style —without falling into old preconceived notions that a Black fashion company caters exclusively to a certain race.

“It’s so hard to break those stereotypes,” he said, echoing a sentiment shared by Akufo.

Agreed, said Carla Nelson, president of the Black Fashion World Foundation, the New York City startup formed in February with the aim of supporting other Black-owned businesses in the fashion industry. In the last 10 months, Nelson has donated $7,000 to those companies.

Is there such a thing as Black fashion?

“No, we don’t design for black people. We, like anyone else, design for our culture,” Nelson said, making a specific distinction between targeting a certain demographic and using one’s environmental influences.

Still, buying power has increased in recent years among Blacks for businesses targeting the population. According to a recent Nielsen study, Blacks comprised $1.9 million in buying power for consumer goods.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy street for Black-owned businesses like Gapelii to get a running start. Nelson insists lending practices fall short of providing Black entrepreneurs a leg up to advance their business ideas.

Loans have been difficult to secure for many Black entrepreneurs.

“If they’re turned down, they just want to know why,” she said. “Even with the (Paycheck Protection Program), I’ve heard a lot of them have had a tremendous amount of problems securing enough funding. It’s hard for these people to start a business.”

The U.S. Small Business Administration, which manages the federal PPP program, released new guidance Jan. 7 on accessing capital specifically for minority, underserved businesses. There, the SBA pledges to “give full and prompt consideration to (minority) applications” including in cases where lenders “do not meet all of the requirements listed on the updated SBA Form 3507.”

Already on the books, the federal government also addresses fair lending practices in its Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which “prohibits discrimination in any aspect of a credit transaction — commercial as well as consumer credit” on the bases of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age and marital status.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production and transportation as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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