Empowerment. Reclaim. Pan-African. Revolutionary
These are just some words from founder, designer, and visionary Rita Bunatal to describe her fashion brand, Malaika Apparel. “Malaika”, meaning “angel” in Swahili, encompasses the story of children of the diaspora.
On November 11th, 2015 I grabbed my bag and raincoat and walked out of my 1 o’clock class early to Free Speech Rock on the Ithaca College main quad. Over 1,000 other IC students did the same. It was on that day the People of Color at Ithaca College Club (or POC at IC) had planned a massive walk-out protest against college President Tom Rochon, and in solidarity with other colleges across the nation who were also experiencing problems with racism on campus.
Chants of “Tom Rochon, No Confidence” rang off the academic buildings, as a multitude of racially charged events in the prior months came to a climax that afternoon. Standing in the rain, the air was heavy with the body heat of hundreds of other students packed in around me, all of us listening. The POC at IC club members stood on the bricks of Free Speech Rock addressing their concerns with the racial climate on campus, the speakers adorned Rita Bunatal’s black and gold Fist of Solidarity t-shirt, the first in the clothing line that would be Malaika Apparel.
Rita is now an alumna of Ithaca College, having graduated in the spring of 2016, a semester after these protests on campus which resulted in President Rochon’s resignation.
Malaika Apparel has since grown to be an emblem of a new kind of fashion revolution, one that doesn’t turn its eyes from injustice and appropriation, but rather reclaims African roots, empowers the black diaspora, embraces identity unapologetically, and looks damn good while doing it too.
The brand has been featured on BuzzFeed’s “40 Magnificent Products That Scream ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’” with 3 different products being showcased, it won the 3rd Annual Business Plan Competition through the Ithaca College School of Business, leaving with over $20,000 in grand prize money, and this is just scratching the surface.
I spoke with Rita, the self-described “social entrepreneur” behind Malaika Apparel, about her brand, the message she wants to convey through her clothing, and everything that inspired her from personal experiences to nationwide events. This is what she said:
Brenna O’Donnell: You are the original designer, and I see you take photographs for the website as well, what else do you do for Malaika Apparel?
Rita Bunatal: When I first started, I did everything. I made the designs, photography, creative direct... Now, there's an amazing team of folks who are passionate about the brand and about what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re all incredibly passionate about putting out so much creativity and messages of empowerment.
B: [When I asked about those messages of empowerment, Rita explained that each piece of clothing has a specific and differing message;]
R: For Black Royalty [products], we come from royalty and we don’t know that, we’ve been stripped of understanding and embracing that, after so much trauma and erasure. The Fist of Solidarity is a classic symbol, the gold symbolizes the richness we come from, and reclaiming beauty, that’s not by European standard, regardless of where we’ve gone.
B: Were the root ideals behind Malaika like black pride, fearlessness, and individuality, a big part of your own upbringing?
R: Well I grew up in Texas, born in Texas, moved to the Virgin Islands, came back to Texas and was staying in a predominantly white area trying to obtain the American Dream, you know? It was hard to going to school, I wanted my hair to be a certain way, I was almost ashamed of who I was, I didn’t like the skin I was in. My family made the decision to move Ghana in 2008, which was amazing because I was in a place where everybody looked like me, embraced the natural hair, spoke the same languages as my mother. Staying there for four years I wanted to learn more about my heritage and where I came from.
When I moved back to Texas, I was very influenced by what I saw in the media; misrepresentation, appropriation, exploiting black pain (such as donation programs using black bodies as a sob story without giving cultural context), bastardizing people, it feeds into people’s minds, it fed into my mind, and it did influence my self-hate. Representation was missing for me, which was why I helped create the “Africa is Not a Country” Campaign spelling out the stereotypes of Africa while I worked with the African Students Association my sophomore year of college.
B: Malaika Apparel lies at a crossroads of cultural pride (in this case black) and fashion, have these topics always been front and center in your life? Or was there a specific event or experience you can attribute to launching your interest?
R: My experiences, being black, identifying as a woman, growing up in the United States, I grew up understanding myself as black American. In my house I celebrated my culture, but as soon as I left my house I was identified as a black American. Coming back to the United States after staying in Ghana and weaving together those experiences, it goes deeper than where you are and where you’re from, it goes deeper than that, to your experiences. I love showing that in a visual for folks who need it. This is something I never saw myself doing, people didn’t see me as someone to start my own business. My passion lies in creating those messages in minimalist ways without saying too much but saying just enough, whether than be just symbols or phrases.
“Mike Brown & protests in Ferguson, and knowing that people were executed in their safe space -- a church, in Charleston, that triggered something in me made me say what can I do?”
B: Are there any people, or any media in general that you found inspiring or igniting of Malaika Apparel?
R: There are many things that inspired and ignited the start of the brand. One that I cannot go without saying are the videos of black folks getting murdered, Mike Brown & protests in Ferguson, and knowing that people were executed in their safe space -- a church, in Charleston, that triggered something in me made me say what can I do? You get into this spot where you don’t want to look on, you don’t even want to go on Facebook or Twitter and every day there was a new face, a new person murdered, it took a toll on me mentally. Creating the designs became a form of self care, and reignited the spark that I needed to shake things up a bit.
B: On your site, the idea of “revolution” is stressed, what does that mean to you?
R:People who are moving to challenge the system, understanding the system wasn’t built for them we weren’t meant to survive in this system. Are you down to challenge the system? It can look different to different people, it can mean protesting, giving back to community, building a community, it could also mean just surviving by any means.
B: Also a big idea behind the brand seems to be “diaspora”, what does that mean to you?
R: [There are] multiple definitions specifically pertaining to the African diaspora, black diaspora realizing that Africa is the motherland and people have been dispersed whether it was by choice or by force.
B: Going back to the solidarity protests, how did it feel to see your Malaika Apparel Shirts on the POC at IC members and the speakers at the event?
R: Yeah, it’s wild because they were my first customers, they were my first supporters. It was a beautiful moment for me to see everyone wearing my shirt and the individuals in it and how much they embodied that vision I had when I created the design.
B: When you think about your clothing, who do you envision wearing it? (this can be physical or characteristic)
R: Honestly anybody that relates to the message, black folks wearing the black royalty, POC wearing the reclaim. ANYBODY wearing the black fist of solidarity who understands the message, and also anybody who gets pissed off when hearing people refer to Africa as a country.
B: When you think of your brand, what do you envision for it? What do you want it to be?
R: I want it to be a household name, not just a regular household name, like people seek us for information, for empowerment and creativity, events and creative space for accurate representation about who we are as people. All models [for Malaika Apparel] are people of color because we need that, because why not? Because representation. I want this to be more than a clothing brand.
Rita also says that she’s working on her business right now, marketing, and trying to make a dream come true.
Malaika Apparel is now based in Brooklyn, NY