Made in Houston

Houston's Onyii Brown Is Making African Fashion Modern

Re-discovering her passion for design in a time of crisis, Brown's clothes have earned the attention of Martha Stewart and New York Fashion Week.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen September 30, 2015

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The first image on the online home of Onyii & Co. is of a woman resplendent in a vibrant halter dress, the patterned fabric a swirl of pinks, yellows and blues. Seeing it, it's hard to believe that three years ago Onyii Brown, its designer, was a corporate real estate broker who wore the corporate uniform of sedate black suits. 

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Onyii Brown

Brown says that fashion has struck a chord with her from a young age, but as the child of Nigerian immigrants she was encouraged to choose a more practical career, studying robotics engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before switching to marketing. It wasn't until the real estate market cratered and her husband lost her job during the recent recession that Brown re-discovered her first passion for fashion design.

"When my husband lost his job we didn’t know what the heck we were going to do ... I was about to lose my house," says Brown. "I was lying in bed and I saw a wrap skirt in my head, so I went out to the sewing machine in the garage and made my first wrap skirt. I was texting my friends whether they would buy one, and they said yes. The next thing you know, I had an Etsy store."

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Brown specializes in garments made from traditional printed African fabrics, re-imagined in contemporary silhouettes like crop tops, reversible jackets, palazzo pants and maxi dresses accented by dramatic deep v-necks. She's also fond of playing with and re-inventing the iconic wrap dress.

"I enjoy creating wrap dresses, wrap rompers, wrap top, almost everything is wrapped. It's not the typical wrap, I'm always looking for ways to create and interpret the classic wrap dress," says Brown. "Our bodies are always changing as women and it works with you no matter what. This [new] collection has a lot of linen, it's very flowing. I think busy women want to be able to look fabulous and comfortable without thinking too hard."

Since 2013, Onyii & Co. has continued to grow and find an audience organically. When jazz singer Deborah Bond started wearing Brown's designs for her performances, she picked up orders from boutiques in Washington, D.C. After a Nigerian fashion blogger took notice of her line, Brown developed a collaboration with African-focused style site Zuvaa. From there, Brown was hand-selected to present her collection during September's New York Fashion Week runway show dedicated to showing the modern, global take on African fashion. With less than a month between her invitation and the fashion show, Brown worked around the clock to create 13 looks for her Spring/Summer 2016 line.

Now Onyii & Co. has been named a finalist in Martha Stewart's American Made competition honoring local artists, designers, chefs and other creators who are leading the maker revolution. 

Brown represents Houston alongside Julia Gabriel, who designs handbags inspired by architecture and geometry (you might remember her work from Houstonia's May 2015 issue or from our recent round-up of great fall bags). Online voting to crown the winners continues through Oct. 18. Brown says if she takes home the $10,000 prize, she'll be putting it back into her business, upgrading to an industrial sewing machine.

"Nobody would believe me if they told them what kind of machine I use—I'm still on a craft machine, but when orders are coming in you can't just stop, you have to keep pushing."

Onyii & Co. clothing is available online and at Melodrama Boutique.

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