Afropreneurs: Designer Berchell Egerton on Connecting Brooklyn to Africa
Afrooklyn's Berchell Egerton's overarching goal with his custom designs is to bridge the gap between Brooklyn and Africa.
For being only 25-years-old, designer-entrepreneur Berchell Egerton of Made in Afrooklyn has had many past lives, although painting and design has always been at the forefront.
Before launching his apparel company two years ago, specializing in what he dubs, “hood formal” or eclectic urban wear from custom mud cloth sneakers to trademark, wax print crowns and bucket hats that he machine-sews with fabric sourced from Senegal—Berchell made ends meet as a delivery driver for Domino's and UPS. And he once was a tattoo artist, hinted at by the clothes hanger tattoo that sits on his right cheekbone (more on that later).
Berchell tells me Made in Afrooklyn like many entrepreneurial ventures is a product of multiple iterations with hard-to-pronounce names, but it’s this one that is sticking. His signature crowns, perfect for people with locks, and custom footwear that he’s releasing this fall, are stand-outs. He’s done artist sponsorships with Brooklyn-based Afrocentric alt R&B duo Niambi Sala and Thandiwe of Oshun, which he describes as “the homies,” Chitown emcee Chelsea Reject, and has another in the works with Congolese rapper and new Roc Nation signee Young Paris.
His overarching goal with his designs? Bridging the gap between Brooklyn and Africa, which serves as his company’s tagline.
“I think Made in Afrooklyn is prospering as well as it is now because I feel like Black people as a whole [have] realized that community is important,” he tells me. “So they're looking out for their roots and where they came from, or they're looking up Black culture as well as African culture.”
When I sat down with Berchell, it was the day before his 25th birthday, which he celebrated the weekend before at Afropunk decked out in a custom Ankara and mesh hockey jersey that he sewed together in 2 hours flat the morning of. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Courtesy of Berchell Egerton
Erin C.J. Robertson for Okayafrica: Who is Berchell?
I was born and raised in Flatbush. I just moved to east New York. That's actually where I have my first gallery and store space with Renew Lots. It was a small business incubator program to not only help small businesses, but to also bring a sense of community within the Black community.
Prior to Berchell, I didn't like that name, so I told my friends, "Oh, call me Kyle." Yeah, it wasn't until that I really got involved with art and design that I'm finally going towards Berchell as my name. I realized that Kyle is kind of a very common name in America, so that's who Berchell is. [Made in Afrooklyn] is only two years new, but I've been designing for seven years. Before Made in Afrooklyn, there was Bur and Ber with another guy named Bert, so it was Berchell and Bert, like Bert and Ernie.
Where does your passion for building community among Black creatives come from? Why is that important to you?
I went to Senegal for the first time last summer, around June. Although it was only for four days, it was a great inspiration. It was a different type of community out there. One that I can't really put my finger on or even explain, but I just want that for us out here [in Brooklyn]. You see that within the small artist groups, like we all support each other as artists and things like that. That's a symbol of Black community. That's what we're going for, so that's what I'm really pushing through the brand. The supporting each other, and if someone wants to push their dream, you find a way to help them push that dream. Maybe through your brand, or maybe you can help them.
What was it like when you realized that Akon was on your flight to Senegal?
It was all real too. We got seated, and then we were about to take off. Then the pilot was like, ‘Hold on. Everybody hold on.’ Then they kicked everybody out of first class. They're like, ‘What's going on here?’ Then Akon came through with his homies and his security. I'm like, ‘Akon!’ Then it was like I'm really going to Senegal. That was a really great experience, just that alone.
Then I saw Fab 5 Freddy, and it's like a feeling that we're all going in the right direction. That we still are trying to get in touch with our roots. That's why I enjoyed the feeling, because I personally have a plan to move out to Africa. Just to see people actually going out there, whether they're in the industry or they're not, it's just a beautiful experience.
What is Made in Afrooklyn, and why did you start it?
I was homesick in [Senegal] and I was sitting in the hotel room not quite understanding the whole night life because I wanted to go out and I was in a hotel. I came up with Made in Afrooklyn, bridging the gap between Brooklyn and Africa. We get most of our fabrics from Senegal, and we mix that with the Brooklyn or urban aesthetic.
Courtesy Berchell Egerton
Can you explain your tagline “Bridging the Gap Between Brooklyn and Africa?”
I feel like they're trying to separate us away from our culture, and in turn, separate us from us. Yeah, really just trying to bridge us to us.
Before we can bridge Black Americans to Africans, we've got to work on ourselves. A lot of times Black businesses doesn't do well because sometimes the customer doesn't trust the Black business, or a lot of times the Black business isn't able to reach their Black demographic. That also could be in turn because they don't trust the Black business, so it's all about trying to build that back and forth between business, community, as well as the community trusting each other within the community. We have different reasons like we may think that the Black guy coming off the block might rob us or whatever the case may be because we've got media pushing out all types of things towards us, so it's a lot of things on top of each other that we kind of have to rebuild our community. It's just crazy. That's stressful by itself, but it's also an inspiration.
I noticed you have a clothes hanger face tattoo, which is just unique. I'm wondering if you are willing to share the significance of that, and how it ties into who you are as a designer?
The hanger represents the ‘A’ in Made in Afrooklyn. It also means 'hanging in there'—it's going to rain right now, but the sun is going to come out. I've had a lot of different situations where endurance is the only way to make it through. A lot of times mental stability is only difficult because we don't see there being an end to it, so it's really just about hanging in there, and that's what became the model for the brand.
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As a Black designer, a creative, and an artist, what are some of the challenges you face in New York, and how do you overcome those challenges?
I wouldn't say the challenges fall within like actually designing or actually being a Black designer. I would think it's maintaining the sanity outside of designing, especially in America, which is why I want to leave. Just going outside and just being still profiled as doing something other than designing is crazy to me, especially with my tattoos. A lot of times I get in trouble, to the point where I kind of forfeited my car because I was getting pulled over too much.
What are some of the most important lessons that you've learned over seven years of designing, two years of Made In Afrooklyn that you'd like to share with other African, Black creatives?
Especially if you design or make any type of clothes, I think the best thing you can do is teach it to somebody else. Not just because you're sharing the knowledge, but also you'll be surprised at how many different things you'll learn yourself just because you've got to teach it to somebody else. I've been teaching on and off, like whether design or art, for the past few years, and I'm always surprised at how much stuff I pick up just because I've got to figure out how to explain this to a group of kids or a group of people. Yeah, go out and teach. Talk to your mom about what you're doing, and try something, anything. You'd be surprised.
Courtesy of Made in Afrooklyn
What are some fashion risks or experimentation that you'd like to see more of from Black men and Black women?
My biggest thing with men, which I've taken on as a challenge, but men are less susceptible to stepping out of their aesthetic realm. They'd rather solid colors or they'd rather just stick to the trends. It's very difficult to get some Black men onto these fabrics because they're not really seeing them in the industry. Yeah, so what I would like to see is I guess suck it up. Try something new. Stop being afraid to step outside the trends. Yeah. Put it this way. A lot of men are afraid to wear pink, in simple terms.
I would love to see more women in suits. I love that. I love that look. It's just the fit, and you've got the body in the suit. Just ah. Just ah. I mean, they throw some heels on it, or they throw some nice wing tips on. It's like damn, and then they've got their hairdo. It's like damn. Girl, you got it.