From US, she lives her dream in Africa

Fashion designer Aprelle Duany. photo | courtesy
Fashion designer Aprelle Duany. photo | courtesy 

In case you are wondering what kind of name Aprelle Duany is, well it is actually from the word April. It is a black American way of going creative with names.

She is black American, married to Duany who is South Sudanese.

Three years ago she founded Aprelleduany, a contemporary luxury brand that uses leather to tell the story of an empowered African woman. Her work currently consists mainly of handcrafted handbags and accessories.

Born in Maryland, she studied Information Technology, then design, married and moved from Harlem to South Sudan. Aprelle now finds herself in Kenya (she was the CEO of KikoRomeo for a year) and pretty much settled in Africa for close to a decade.

She met JACKSON BIKO at her residence to talk about heritage, design and everything in between.


From Harlem to South Sudan, how was that?

When my husband —who had moved from his country when he was barely five years old due to war — said he wanted to go back home I said, “what are you talking about?”
I had just graduated from fashion school, the first in my class. I was getting offers. I asked him what was happening in South Sudan and he said I’m not sure what is happening but I’m not sure exactly this is where I want to be.

He was actually a professional basketball player at the time. It was a really long discussion. I felt like the way he grew up, he never felt at home. So we came to Africa, and it was difficult at so many different levels. One, because I was a new wife. We got married in August and moved to South Sudan in December. My oldest daughter was like six months old at the time.

So, new, mum, new wife. I’d never — this is gonna sound bad — I never wanted to come to Africa. It was never on my list. Never my thing. I’m not adventurous. Even though being a black person in America, what we see of Africa is so horrible. It’s just like Save the Children commercial, poverty…

The change must have been shocking?

When we got to Juba I was like, “wow, okay the marketing was right.” Mud huts. No roads or grocery stores or hospitals. It was a challenge. On top of that, English is not very prominently spoken in South Sudan.

So I had to learn Arabic, I had to learn Nuer. But after that first year, and kinda settled in, I found my way around, there was something that was so strong that I felt from South Sudanese who had not come back from the diaspora, it was their heritage, their culture, it just drew them to really start from scratch. So I never knew that going home story. I never knew that passion that you can have for home.

What did you learn at Kiko Romeo?

Wow. That this fashion thing is a grind. People think it is so glamorous when you’re on the catwalk, but that’s only one per cent of the business. The back end is crazy and it’s hard. I learnt a lot in terms of how to build a brand.

I think Anne (Ann McCreath of KikoRomeo) has been really great about what she wants to offer that doesn’t look like what everyone else is offering. I also learnt how to network in this space.

So having been here for all these years, what would you say is at the heart of the African fashion?

Wow. I think it’s just our story. Being able to authentically tell your story, our story, because I’m now South Sudanese, plus I’ve been in Africa for nearly 10 years. (Laughs).

This story should not come from anywhere else but here. I think African fashion is very vibrant, I think it’s disruptive, it’s definitely a challenge in terms of consistency, but I do think it’s here to stay and I think as we can help more brands from the continent, people who are inspired by Africa to actually build brands and businesses, it’ll actually become more mainstream.

Being an African -American were there certain revelations about the continent and the people?

You know when I first came from New York to Juba, I think I was in shock at very any different levels. I was not even thinking about that ancestry story. So it wasn’t like, “oh my gosh, I’m in Africa.” Also it is amazing how when in South Sudan everybody knew their history, their lineage, they could trace it. My husband could name all his people.

A lot of black people don’t have the opportunity to come here and really know what Africa is really like away from “save the children commercial”. I needed to know my roots after coming here so I consulted a US based company and I sent my DNA samples to them and my ancestry was traced back to Namibia. I was like “what!” (Laughter). I’m planning to go in February.

Coming to Africa, do you feel any sort of kinship, a connection?

I think…(Pause)...I always felt welcomed. I never felt like I was an outsider. I expected that feeling of “our sister has come” but I didn’t always feel that. I think that sometimes people are like, “okay, you’re from the US, why are you in Africa? Why are you here?” So I think it’s also interesting that people think… I don’t know… I think it’s the whole thing of the grass being greener. It’s an interesting dynamic because people have a lot opinion of what’s happening in America that’s not really the reality. {Laughs}

Are you ever going back?

I don’t have any plans to. I mean home is always a flight away. So I do travel for work, I go and see my family like once a year. But I don’t have that pull that I have to be in the US. I love being in Kenya. Like when people are complaining about Nairobi and I’m like, “well, have you travelled around the region?” (Laughs)

If someone put you on a plane and said, “okay, you’re gonna go back for good.” What’s the one thing you’ll go with from Africa?

Wow. (sighs) I think there’s such a power in knowing the truth about Africa. Because I think in knowing the truth about Africa, then we know the truth about ourselves. And that’s something that I could never have read in a book, it’s something I could never have gotten in the museum, that’s something that I could never have taught my daughters.

This for me is just the dignity and knowing where I come from, and seeing the truth about how that looks like. I’d carry that precious gift of experiencing and seeing the true experience of Africa.