Handmade: African prints put spin on modern styles

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Yemisi Bamisaye of Southfield is the incredible designer behind a fashion forward line of African wear patterned after modern attire as we know it here in the U.S. but made with authentic African print fabrics.  

Born and raised in Nigeria, West Africa, where she learned to sew at age 7, Bamisaye left her native country and moved to Michigan 20 years ago, opening a shop called Classic Expressions, where she sold dressy women's suits, some made with African print fabrics. After about three years, she closed the business but reopened in 2015, under a different name -- African Fashions by Classic Expressions -- located on Nine Mile in Oak Park. 

Owner Yemisi Bamisaye, wearing a maxi wrap dress, at her African Fashions by Classic Expressions store.

"My business is registered as Classic Expressions, but when I (re)opened the store, I wanted to highlight the African fashions. A lot of people knew my business as Classic Expressions from the past -- about 20 years ago when it was at Tel-Twelve Mall in Southfield. I wanted my old customers to be able to find me," she explained. The shop is now devoted entirely to African fashions and accessories.

In 2018, she moved the boutique to its current location just down the street at 10820 West Nine Mile in Oak Park. "In the old space, we didn't have a proper fitting room, and I couldn't display like I wanted to, so I started looking for a better place," she said. "Where we are right now was a retail business, so we have everything we need."

Bamisaye designs all the garments sold in the shop, including dresses, skirts, jackets, a few menswear items, and more. She designs with the "everyday person" in mind, creating garments and silhouettes familiar to, and worn by, most individuals. Women's sizes range from small to a few pieces in 5X, and items for men are sized from small-3X.

(From left) Models, Foresteen Hood, wearing a maxi wrap dress, Andrea Davis, wearing a maxi wrap dress with puffy sleeves, and Kimmy Kemet, wearing a swing jacket dress.

"Some things are lined, but it depends on the weather, like right now, you'll find clothes that are lined, but when the weather changes, we come up with light(weight) designs for summer."

While she does all the design work and some construction/sewing, she has four people sewing at the shop, and more in Nigeria. "I'm sewing and I have a lot of people sewing," she said. "I have a factory in Nigeria. I have some Africans reproducing the clothes, but when I design it, I make the first one, then I let people in Nigeria duplicate it. I also have staff here that are duplicating, but when it comes to custom making for weddings, proms or special ocassions, I make it myself here.

"We also make accessories -- headwraps, necklaces and bowties out of material because some people don't want to wear a whole African print outfit," she said. "I also have jewelry from Kenya. There's a tribe in Kenya where they make all those bold jewelry pieces. They use seed beads and put them together for a bold statement." 

Most of the fabric she designs with is from Nigeria as a way to help serve those living there. She said, "I do have a bit from Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Angola, but I use mostly things that are made in Nigeria. It's like giving back to where I come from." She, does, however buy from Ghana "because they have some material that nobody else has -- like Kente cloth." She also uses mud cloth, a handwoven and hand-dyed cotton from Mali, when designing garments for cold temperatures.

Earring made of ankara fabric are on display at the African Fashions by Classic Expressions store.

Her customer base is quite varied. "I have African Americans, I have Africans, and white people," she said. "Everybody loves this clothing because of the way we can make it. However, "most are African Americans -- men and women and people of all ages, from teenagers to seniors."

Bamisaye also sells fabric. "There are a lot of business owners across the country who use the African prints and they order from me." She sells most of her fabric on Facebook under African Prints Overload.

She regularly does pop-up shops across the country, and hopes to open a branch in several cities where she said there are either no African clothing stores, or any that offer the "western designs" they have. 

Her line of ready wear items range from $20-$150, and custom orders can go anywhere from $60 for a simple top up to $1,000 for a wedding gown.

What's the No. 1  selling item at African Fashions by Classic Expressions? It's the full-length, gathered-at-the-waist skirts  worn by women of all ages. "We can't have enough maxi skirts in the store because people can dress them up or down," she said.

Handbags made of ankara fabric are on display at the African Fashions by Classic Expressions store.

African Fashions by Classic Expressions is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Mon.-Sat. Intermediate sewing classes are sometimes offered to anyone "who can sew a staight line." Some sewing machines are available for use.

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade. 

Contact African Fashions by Classic Expressions, 10820 West Nine Mile in Oak Park, at (313) 207-6362 or on Facebook. Website: globalafricancreates.com. Email: tydfabrics@gmail.com.