By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
Bokwey Burnley wants to make every woman feel beautiful.
The burgeoning designer from Cameroon came to Dunkirk with her husband, their five children and a dream of finding success in fashion. “Beauty for Ashes” is what she entitled the collection that she debuted at a recent fashion show, as it was “born out of the ashes” of a very trying time she and her family are now emerging from.
“America is where dreams come true,” Bokwey said as she sat surrounded by her gowns in her makeshift studio space, housed in an alcove in her home near the shores of Lake Erie. “It has opportunities, but you have to want to take advantage of those opportunities.”
The Burnleys had lived comfortably in Africa, with both husband and wife coming from well-to-do families. Bokwey’s husband, Victor, a pharmacist, had studied in Nigeria and upon arrival to the United States, he had to become recertified by the Board of Pharmacy which would require time and studies. During their first years here, the family of seven struggled to make ends meet on a cashier’s salary.
“When you get here, it’s like a level playing field, and you prove yourself,” she explained. “I had done so much in my country, I had more recognition, but you can’t carry those things with you. You just come as you are. The good thing about America is that you get the opportunity to prove yourself again.”
Bokwey now considers the strife they’ve experienced a blessing, as it taught her children, ages 10 to 17, the value of hard work and an education. It also was a source of inspiration for her work: creating something impressive from limited resources.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
As a teenager growing up in Cameroon, Bokwey was compelled to learn to sew on her mother’s new sewing machine perhaps because she was told not to.
“She said, ‘Don’t you ever touch this machine,’ and with children, it translates, ‘Make sure you touch it,'” she said with a laugh. “But unfortunately for me, growing up in Africa, it gets really dusty. What I always forgot was that I would leave fingerprints on the machine because of the dust that had settled.”
Bokwey began making dresses for herself and then started to design clothing for her friends as well. Her parents considered it a hobby, not a profession. To placate them, she began her studies at law school in the United Kingdom, but her heart wasn’t in it. She would look forward to the time spent at her job in a clothing store, working with customers and doing alterations.
One day, her boss’s wife asked her what she was studying. When Bokwey replied that it was law, she suggested she was in the wrong profession. This encouragement led her to pursue her passion, leaving law school in her final year. Bokwey’s parents were not pleased; it was a disagreement that took years to mend.
She enrolled in a fashion program at the Paris Academy School of Fashion, then located on Oxford Street in London. There, she learned the basics of dressmaking and design. Beyond the foundation established during her two-year course of study in London, Bokwey is self-taught.
“Since then, I have pushed myself beyond the limits,” she said. “I respect a formal education and it’s very good if you are able to do it I didn’t have the resources because I didn’t have the full support of my parents. But still, if you really believe in something, you can pass those barriers.”
Following her studies, Bokwey had the opportunity to represent her country twice at apparel and textile exhibitions in the United States, a tremendous learning experience about the industry for her. Sponsored by USAID, Bokwey was one of five chosen to attend, receiving training on the American market, learning what buyers and customers sought, meeting with manufacturers and acquiring new skills.
Bokwey’s trip to her first exhibition in Las Vegas was her introduction to America and what an introduction it was.
“My first impression was wow intimidation,” she surmised. “First, I got off the plane, get into the airport, go to the restroom and the first thing I saw were slot machines.”
When the Burnleys made their move to the States, they resided in Baltimore, Md., for about 18 months. Victor was advised that New York state would afford him better opportunities as a foreign pharmacist seeking his license, and they decided to relocate again. Bokwey remembered being filled with trepidation at the initial suggestion that the family move to New York, recalling a past trip to New York City Times Square, the crowds, the costs. How would they be able to raise their young children there?
“I decided to pray, which is something I always do,” Bokwey said. “I ask him, ‘God, you’ve got to tell me where are we going to find a house and make enough?’ And one of those times, God clearly spoke to me and told me Dunkirk.”
Victor credits his wife for getting the family through the trying times they had during their first years in America.
“My wife is very talented, and she is the one who has made all of the sacrifices,” he said. “It’s tough when you know that someone has potential and drive, and can achieve so much, and they put all of that in the background because they are rooting for you. That’s what my wife did for us, staying with the kids all these years … any support I can give (her), I should give more.”
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
To showcase her work, find clients and start her business, Bokwey needed to create samples but buying fabric and other materials was an expense she couldn’t afford. She began making doll-sized dresses of her designs since the cost was comparatively very small. While the clothing was cute, it still did not tell her potential clients what her designs would look like on a real woman.
An idea suddenly struck Bokwey: instead of buying new materials, why not redesign and reconstruct the clothing she already had, as well as frocks she found from the Goodwill and Salvation Army?
“(I thought) that way you and your family will always have new outfits, you will be saving money, looking good; people will see your ability, you will be recycling, and so you too will be doing something good for the planet,” Bokwey recalled. “The journey began for me.”
Bokwey was presented a divine opportunity in 2012. In addition to designing, Bokwey is a minister and travels often to help people with prayer. In fact, Bokwey just received recognition as a chaplain with a United Nations appointment, and the badge she is to receive in two months will allow her to go anywhere in the world to preach the word of God.
It was at a prayer conference she attended in Michigan that she met an event planner working for Mary Kay in the midst of organizing a 50th anniversary training seminar. Since fashion and beauty go hand-in-hand, Bokwey suggested that they have a fashion show during their event. The event planner was familiar with Bokwey’s designs and loved the idea.
Months of preparation and many, many hours of painstaking work went into Bokwey’s Beauty for Ashes collection, which displayed both everyday looks and bridal wear. The 18 pieces were shown to about 250 women at the Mary Kay event in Lansing, Mich., this January. She described it as “designed to give beauty, comfort, gladness and praise,” containing a marriage of Afrocentric fabrics and earth tones, as well as Western style.
Some of the looks, such as the more casual ensembles, were started from scratch. Inspired by her upbringing in an African fishing town, one pair of pants contains a take on “netting” that Bokwey made by weaving ribbons together. She hand-dyes her fabrics and creates some of her own patterns as well.
The wedding dresses were samples originally from the 1970s and 1980s that have been redesigned and reconstructed into fashionable, unique gowns for a modern bride.
“People brought (in) clothing with great sentimental value, like those given to them by loved ones who have passed on, but unfortunately they were unable to enjoy these precious gifts until I worked with them,” Bokwey said.
FASHION AND FUNCTION
As Bokwey tries to develop her business, she works out of her home studio, making new dresses, modernizing older ones brought in by brides and doing alterations. Recognizing the market and the fraught economy, she knows that many are looking for ways to be more cost-effective.
“Now, everybody is trying to work with less,” Bokwey said. “Times are hard now and people want to dress well and look good. So if they have an older dress, it cuts their cost by about one-third, and sometimes even half.”
One of Bokwey’s neighbors brought in a silk dress from the 1920s left to her by her mother-in-law. Tattered, with beading amiss, no one had been able to wear it. Bokwey made two dresses for her from that gown.
“People want something that is very functional. Everybody likes a little bit of dream and fairy tale, but the way life is now, quickly you are pulled back to reality.”
To help her brides get their money’s worth, Bokwey has created convertible styles, such as a detachable skirt so that a bride can remove it after the ceremony and have a party dress to wear for the reception that’s perfect for dancing.
“Modern-day women are very practical,” she explained. “They’re dynamic, they want something that is smart and easy to handle. With all of that in mind, I (consider) how to make a dress easier to wear. They might want some fullness but not something so big that it’s difficult to walk around and sit down, and struggle too much.”
First and foremost, Bokwey wants her client to feel that she looks her best, especially for a special moment like her wedding day.
“If we have the right mentoring and the right advice, we can all really look beautiful,” Bokwey said. “When I’m talking with my client, I’m trying to understand who they are, their personality, what they feel comfortable with and what they do not feel comfortable with.”
To get her fledgling business up and running, Bokwey has been receiving guidance from Chautauqua Opportunities, including Business Development Specialist Carol Ford, as well as Herb Rice at the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jamestown Community College; Greg Krauza, director of member development at Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce; and Benson Argbortogo of Kingdom Embassy. She has considered their advice invaluable, and her mentors only had rave reviews for the budding designer.
“Bowkey’s just a wonderful individual,” Ford said. “When I first met with her, she’s very devoted and very energetic about her business. She’s obviously very knowledgeable about fashion, and what it can do for people and why it’s important in everyone’s life, which is something I never knew before. It was really interesting to see this woman who was so driven to succeed and to provide this service that she saw that everyone needed.”
Bokwey’s determination, her faith, and her family’s love and support are what propel her.
“You take the challenge or not,” she said. “We decided to take the challenge and we are trusting God that it’s going to work out.”
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