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Fashion Designer Charlene Dunbar Talks Atlanta and African-Inspired Style

Suakoko Betty's Charlene Dunbar explains the origins of African-inspired fashion and how the vibrant print made its way to mainstream American runways.

At age 11, Charlene Dunbar and her family fled from Liberia abruptly while the country battled through a civil war. “I really didn’t know what I had until I lost it,” recalled Dunbar of her early years in America. It wasn’t until high school that Dunbar’s African pride began to develop fully, as she saw just how misrepresented her home was in mainstream American media.

“For me, [ankara] became my connection with home,” said Dunbar, who in 2006 established her own clothing line, Suakoko Betty, which combines the vibrancy and vigor of African textiles, known as ankara, with modern and refined silhouettes like pencil skirts, blazers and sheath dresses.

Suakoko Betty, Atlanta, GA
Charlene Dunbar (Courtesy Suakoko Betty)

What is ankara?

It’s a printed fabric that’s inspired by West African culture. It started with folks out of India trying to copy batik prints that are produced in West African countries and Japan. You lay the wax down [and then] put the dye in. They produced it on a machine. It didn’t do so well in Europe, so some of the European traders ended up taking it to Africa and it kind of took off from there.

[An ankara designer’s] job is to pay attention to what’s going on in African culture, whether it’s the rise of cell phone use or different proverbs. They interpret those proverbs, those aspects of everyday African life into these great designs. Some of them are classic and show up every year, maybe in a different color story, and some of them have to do with the sign of the times, so you’ll have one [print that has] a cell phone and a purse and a high heel—it’s this story of what’s happening in West African culture. It’s steeped with a lot of meaning.


Suakoko Betty, Atlanta, GA
Off-the-shoulder dress from Suakoko Betty's Spring 2017 collection (Courtesy Suakoko Betty)

How do you think ankara made it into mainstream American fashion?

Seeing a lot of celebrities wear [ankara] was really a tipping point. Seeing ankara show up on red carpets and on different celebrity Instagrams—it was already growing and rising amongst a lot of black women and I think, maybe two years ago, it really exploded. It’s an exciting time to be in African fashion.

It’s been a blessing how far I’ve been able to go with it—being in Essence and going to New York Fashion Week and partnering with different brands and really build a following. I’m really grateful the idea resonates with so many people. African fashion is not just one note. There’s the sexy African fashion lane, the glamazon African fashion lane. I’d like to think I’m more the modern, clean line take on it. [Suakoko Betty is] more for the girl who’s not trying too hard. She’s artsy, she’s interesting and she’s more laid back with it. It all goes back to celebrating African design, African culture.

Suakoko Betty, Atlanta, GA
Crop top and pencil skirt from Suakoko Betty's Spring 2017 collection (Courtesy Suakoko Betty)

How do you recommend styling ankara?

One of the most popular is a midi skirt. Those can take you 100 miles and back—you can wear them as a solid top, a blazer. I’ve seen people get a lot of mileage from clutches. Not everyone is an allover print all the time kind of girl, so the print clutch is a great way to bring in that splash of color and print without committing to it all the way.

I’m seeing blazers gain popularity, whether you want to wear them at work or with jeans for a night with the girls. The blazers are really cool because they can take you from work day all the way to the weekend. Crop tops can go a lot of different directions. For an evening event, you can pair it with a pencil skirt. For a more casual look, throw on a pair of jeans with it. And you can winterize it by putting a button-down shirt underneath it.

Suakoko Betty, Atlanta, GA
Blazer from Suakoko Betty's Spring 2017 collection (Courtesy Suakoko Betty)

All About Atlanta: See the City Like Dunbar

What does a perfect day off look like for you?

A perfect day off would involve breakfast at Atlanta Breakfast Club (get the chicken and waffles). Then, I would head down to Piedmont Park and bike down the Beltline to take in the art and people-watch. Grab a snack at Krog Street Market and then head to the High Museum to catch up on a few contemporary artists. Head to Iwi Fresh Spa for a massage and mani-pedi. And wrap up the night with friends at The Optimist!

Where do you find design inspiration?

Little Five Points, people-watching and Fine Fabrics

Where do you personally shop for clothes?

Anthropologie, Loft, The Beehive and Pink Sky Boutique

What are some of your favorite restaurants?

The Optimist, Desta, Cakes and Ale and Spoon

What are some of your favorite museums or attractions?

High Museum of Art, Hammond House Museum and Spelman College Museum of Fine Art