Throughout Africa, clothing is a visual dialect conveying the mores of society: the prestige of the wearer, religion, marital status, age or gender. In Yoruba culture, etu is a rich blue aso oke hand-loom woven cloth. Carrying the name of this father of all cloths,Â it is no wonder that Etu Evans, 34 year old design wunderkind, fulfilled the promise of his prescient naming. As head designer of an eponymous luxury footwear and accessories company that grossed more than $800,000 in sales last year, the Orangeburg, South Carolina native has established himself in the New York and Paris fashion milieus. Evans sat down with The AFRican at his Harlem design studio to talk about his success and his transition to philanthropy to fashion a better world.
The electric yellow and purple walls of his 127th Street studio's parlor backdrop stately African sculptures, a collection of Harlem Americana, and an equally eclectic and colorful mix of shoes. A flouncy white feather bouquet is paired with a copper iron kitchen sponge to adorn a corkscrew wedge. Lounging atop a beautiful upright piano, a Karung snake strap-heeled sandal is garnished with a Tyra knot, awaiting pickup by its namesake supermodel Banks. She is part of an elite client roster that includes Beyonce, Halle Berry, and Erykah Badu. Celebrities and fashionistas who can afford the $2,500-a-boot price tags of this 'Harlem Blahnik' are pampered with caviar and foot massages as the soothing strains of classical music float about.
Despite this heady lifestyle, the designer stays grounded through an early morning regimen of prayer and reflection. He has yet to realize his dream of traveling to Africa, yet feels a sense of connection through his network of African friends in Paris and Harlem. He fosters that bond by giving of his time and money to the continent from whence his name came. Evans explained his global sense of community.
Just as Harlem is a village, Africa is a village, and when you think in terms of people of the Diaspora, people of color, of people having soul, there are two direct places. People think Harlem- the Mecca of black culture. People think of Africa as the mother who has the cradle of civilization. In both places, we have the talent but some times we don't have the resources to put our best foot forward.Â
The shoe-laden window of his Solesville shoe repair shop on Harlem's 137th Street gives hardly an inkling that it is the nerve center of a global initiative to save the soles of children and youth one step at a time.Â It is a small space, replete with the small implements of the grand cobbling tradition and the owner's big ideas. Inside, visitors find wall to wall shoes in various states of repair: built-up wooden molds, rubber half -soles, and bags upon bags of over 500 donated shoes await restoration and distribution to Africa, the Pacific, and the Caribbean. This international outreach program, Sole Out, is run by the Solesville Foundation that Evans started in 1998. Sole Out has provided footwear and ultimately a leg up to young people in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Uganda.
Evans was lauded by senator Hillary Clinton for the efforts of another Solesville project, Sole Tap, which assisted victims of Hurricane Katrina through its Heelin' Katrina shoe drive. Another initiative, E2 Survivor, sponsors a walkathon for an HIV/AIDS cure with contributions going towards research, education and provision of medication for children who are at risk or HIV positive in Harlem and South Africa. A legion of volunteers assist in shoe drives, collecting footwear that are deserted, not disastersÂ to refurbish and distribute to those in need. But even the disasters are utilized for fund-raising after their transformation into sculptures and African masks by members of the Sole Brothers and Sisters inner-city youth apprenticeship program. The project teaches the shoe-making craft to a new generation of artisans.
Youth mentorship is important to Evans. Youth represent the barometer of the future. So whatever the youth are doing that's what history will be doing. And that's who the elders will be protected by. It's really important to invest in them because eventually they will have to sow into us and what we put into them is what we get,Â he says.
Overcoming the adversity of a childhood learning disability, Evans went on to graduate with honors from Columbia University with a masters in Applied Behavioral Psychology before studying design and marketing at both FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and Parsons School of Design. He credits the influence of mentors for his success. He calls his mother Rosa, an educator, one of the undiscovered geniuses of the worldÂ who gave him his eye for color and texture. His Grandmother Queen Esther, who at 78 still wears her tangerine hot pants and stilettos, prodded his love of fashion. He recalls fondly sitting on her high canopy bed watching her choose her shoes, handbags and perfume with care. She also made sure his shoes were shined and speeches practiced before school. Later in life master cobbler ËœPops' Edson Murray taught him the fundamentals of cobbling.
He credits his mother for teaching him that if you want something, (go for it): nobody owes you anything in life you have to go and get it for your self.Â His business, built with his own start-up capital when detractors told him black people don't do high-end,Â is based on his focused creative vision and backed by a solid business plan. He oversees every aspect of his product line, from the Italian manufacturers to the fashion runways and high-end boutiques. Self-determination is his mantra that he readily imparts.
He conceived of Solesville while counseling youth as assistant director for the non-profit organization Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship and noting that many of his Timberland-sporting mentees lacked appropriate footwear for the workplace and interviews.
We were teaching them self-sufficiency through entrepreneurship, marketing, product design and finance but our kids weren't prepared aesthetically. A lot of times people don't judge you or have the opportunity to hear what's in your head-they first see and they automatically make presumptions.Â
His goal became helping these would-be CEOs look the part. He has spread that mission worldwideâ€with certain adjustments. In developing nations, he notes that lack of a basic pair of shoes not only hampers opportunity but can pose health problems. Realizing that impoverished youths in Africa may be more susceptible to illness due to cracks in the skin, he consults with a podiatrist for insight into foot care. Despite these daunting issues, Evans and Solesville believe in Africa's potential. As Evans puts it:
Africa is the richest continent of all. All the gold you want, all the oilÂ¦ You can't miss it because the rays that strike off the diamonds let you know you've found the world's treasure.Â