August 8, 2023
Inspired by the lush, multicultural neighborhoods of Miami and her global travels, Erika Dalya Massaquoi launched The OULA Company, with her brightly patterned dresses and tops made of African wax fabric. Her journey as an entrepreneur has taught her to advocate for herself, trust her gut, and made her an advocate for other Black women fashion designers. Read on to learn more about the important women influences in her life and how growing up in the 70’s helped to shape her fashion aesthetic.
You can wear OULA to meetings, to run errands or to the beach. OULA combines ease, glamor and craftmanship. It's modern, yet timeless, a lovely hybrid.
Why did you start your business? What motivated or inspired you?
I’ve been an artist my entire life and have a background in theater, cinema, television and contemporary art—but fashion was my first love and designing garments comes very naturally to me. It’s delightfully effortless and fulfilling. A close friend suggested I turn my idea for OULA into a company with silhouettes based on classic American sportswear and employ African wax fabric, so I just did it. I was confident it would resonate.
My art and design journey has been heavily inspired by growing up in Miami and absorbing its diversity. It has been hugely influential. Color is everywhere: the architecture, the food, the multicultural neighborhoods: Little Havana, Little Haiti, Coconut Grove, Overtown (where my mom grew up) and Liberty City (where I grew up). When you look at OULA you see this. That lushness of these colorful neighborhoods but with a refined, wearable, urban edge. You can wear OULA to meetings, to run errands or to the beach. OULA combines ease, glamor and craftmanship. It's modern, yet timeless, a lovely hybrid. My travels to Africa and beyond also influence my designs. My husband is from Sierra Leone and we’ve traveled there and I’ve been to Ghana, Tanzania, and South Africa. I’ve studied textiles in Central America as well as Asia.
What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you started your business?
To not be afraid to advocate for myself and my business. Now I never settle for less than the terms I’m comfortable with in any negotiation.
What has been the most challenging thing about getting your business up and running?
Access to capital and finding long term partners. We are a very lean company. Thus far, I have boot-strapped OULA on my own. Starting in 2023, the business is focusing on fundraising and brand awareness. Black designers need and deserve retail and financial support to grow our companies. The Black experience in fashion is unique. For me it is service-oriented and inextricably linked to my life as a Black woman working to realize my full potential. It is imperative that the fashion industry work to advance racial equity and economic empowerment by supporting our businesses. There must be parity in opportunities and income in exchange for the dollars we spend and the cultural influence we provide to the industry.
What has been the most exciting or rewarding part of owning your own business?
Being totally committed and present in my craft. I’ve been creative all my life, but once I fully committed to being a working artist, everything came together for me with tremendous clarity. And I realize that I likely would have embraced entrepreneurship earlier. I am fully devoted to the art of dress-making and it brings me tremendous satisfaction and joy.
Can you identify a moment in your business that was pivotal in your success? Have you had an “AHA!” moment(s)?
That would be trusting my gut. It never steers me wrong. Anytime I question myself I unnecessarily falter. My internal sense of self and individual experience as a woman fundamentally informs my work because OULA is a direct reflection of my lived experience. I truly believe this is why the brand resonates with customers. Being able to express your emotions through art is a gateway to connection. For me, creating garments for women is an intimate endeavor. I try to create moments of pride, joy and celebration. People want to feel understood and women delight in feeling beautiful. If my practice of OULA elevates someone’s life and brings them happiness then I have been successful in my work.
The Black experience in fashion is unique. For me it is service-oriented and inextricably linked to my life as a Black woman working to realize my full potential. It is imperative that the fashion industry work to advance racial equity and economic empowerment by supporting our businesses. There must be parity in opportunities and income in exchange for the dollars we spend and the cultural influence we provide to the industry.
Do you have a mentor, formal or informal? What role have they played for you?
That would be my close friend and fashion entrepreneur Audrey Smaltz. She is a true grande dame and has taught me a lot by the example of a life fully lived. Audrey is legendary and perhaps best known for being the commentator of the Ebony Fashion Fair: the longest running worldwide traveling fashion show. She is also a genius entrepreneur and founded the first backstage dressing company, The Ground Crew. She started her business mid-life, just like I’ve started OULA in middle age.
Audrey has taught me to have full confidence in my talents because as you age you can use your experience to execute successfully. It’s all about self belief and perseverance. The fashion business is tough and while moments of it are supremely glamorous, it’s important not to get caught up in the hype. It will just distract you from the real work. I listen to Audrey. She is the voice in my head. I cannot stress enough the importance of listening to your elders. They have much wisdom to share and one can avoid missteps and heartbreak if you just listen.
Do you have items, photos or mementos on your desk that inspire you each day? What are they?
My mother has been my biggest inspiration and there is a photo of her and I in my studio that I look at all the time. Dorothy Najla Muhammad was very creative. I grew up in the 70s and came of age in the 80s so I’m hugely inspired by the popular culture of that time and the graphic touch points that my mom embraced. She was very cool. I remember when she sponge painted our powder room with red and black paint; when everyone else had carpet, she chose to expose our terrazzo floors; she shunned her crockpot and would make us shrimp fried rice for dinner; her record collection was unparalleled. She wore Opium perfume and her aunt’s vintage jewelry. My mother had a feel for what was groovy and knew how to live.
Do you have any advice for other women who are getting started in business?
Be sure to take care of yourself! Personal energy management is key. Make self-care a priority and try not to feel guilty about that. When I’m compassionate and gentle with myself, I can operate at a higher creative frequency and there is freedom in that.
If a journalist were to write a headline about you/your business, what would it be?
Actually WWD’s West Coast Executive Editor wrote it and she was spot on: “ Erika Dalya Massaquoi has gone from curating and teaching fashion, as the former assistant dean of the School of Art and Design at FIT New York, to living it as the founder of The OULA Company.”
Is there a non-profit or other social/mission-oriented business that your business supports? Can you tell us about this?
Our social purpose and contribution to the community is informed by the practice of having all our garments handcrafted and Made in the USA in an effort to support American-made fashion and design practitioners locally. OULA is committed to art being used as a catalyst for economic development and it also adds visual and cultural diversity to what “American heritage” style means. Domestic manufacturing and using deadstock materials also reduce our environmental impact. OULA also designs for circularity. I view the products as pieces of art and I want them to live in your closet for a very long time—it’s all about product longevity. Because we import the fabrics that we use, my team and I are working on a carbon emissions partnership where OULA plants one tree for each dress sold.
Thank you, Erika Dalya Massaquoi, for sharing your advice and journey with the WMarketplace!
SHOP THE OULA COMPANY
Launched in 2020, TheWMarketplace is a nationwide e-commerce marketplace for women-owned businesses to sell their products and professional and personal services. Offering favorable terms to its sellers, it also is a supportive community of women entrepreneurs that have access to learning opportunities through the trademarked HER-Commerce™ programs. With over 500 women-owned businesses selling 4000+ products and services ranging from home goods to coaching, in over 35 states, TheWMarketplace empowers shoppers with a new way to find the communities they want to support, including Black-woman owned, Latina-owned, AAPI-owned, Veteran woman-owned, and more. The Her Story Q&A is one benefit ThWMarketplace provides to sellers.