Bed Stuy’s The Narativ Provides a Platform for African Artisans to Tell Their Stories

Farai Simoyi photographed at The Narativ. Photo by Susan De Vries

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When Farai Simoyi first started designing her own eponymous clothing range, Farai, she found it difficult to get into stores, or at least even find out what to do to get into stores. The designer had worked at fashion houses like Beyoncé’s House of Deréon and on Nicki Minaj’s Kmart collection, but branching out on her own brought its own challenges.

“I would get a lot of ‘no, no, no,’ ” she says. So she created The Narativ, a concept store on Tompkins Avenue in Bed Stuy. Simoyi, originally from Zimbabwe, would often get compliments on the items she’d bring back from trips home, so she decided to create a platform to showcase African artisans in the U.S. — and provide them with the guidance she lacked when she first started out on her own.

hats at The Narativ

the narativ

“The whole reason The Narativ came about was, being a designer, I understood the struggles of wanting to get into a retail store, wanting buyers to see your work, creating look books, doing photoshoots and not seeing the return on it,” she says. “It’s so hard for buyers to give you feedback. Granted they’re busy, and there are a lot of factors involved.” Initially, Simoyi wanted to just bring global brands together in one space, but she realized she could help even more.

“A lot of the products from back home don’t necessarily translate into [the U.S.] market so what we’ve had to do is help brands alter things to really do well once they come here. If I take on a brand and they don’t do well, what’s the point?” she says. “We added a creative director, and once a brand applies to be in the store, she will take a look at the entire collection and give advice. So there is this whole back end of artist and designer support. This is really a place to grow and cultivate for them to become the best brand they possibly could be,” she adds.

storefront the narativ

the narativ

The store specializes in sharing the stories — hence the store’s name, The Narativ — behind the brands stocked, whether it’s the Ugandan label Gwavah, which makes bags out of tree bark and cowhide, or Mary Jean Jewelry, a South African line of handmade jewelry inspired by symbols found throughout the African continent. Many items are sustainable, such as a zero-waste color-blocked leather wallet by Ikwetta that was so popular it sold out, and all are artisan made, including a line of ceramic mugs individually decorated by South African street artist Alfa.

The Narativ has become so popular, Simoyi has a waitlist of brands wanting to be part of it. “It’s not just an average store,” she says. “It’s for artists, designers, creators — it’s a home, just a space to be. Sometimes people will just come by to say hello. I’ve met some of the coolest people that live in Brooklyn just sitting in my store, so I’m really thankful and grateful for that.”

Her own creative spark is still alight. Simoyi was selected to take part in the Netflix reality show, Next in Fashion, which debuted in January 2020, in which she and 17 other designers competed for $250,000 and the chance to become the ‘next big thing’ in fashion.

“Doing the show really put me back in my element, in terms of designing and wanting to create, and not just being the person behind the designers,” she says. She created a capsule collection with some of The Narativ’s artisan partners in Nigeria and Benin that will be at the store in future seasons. “I’m a designer and a creative person. Everything stems from that. Had I not been interested in that, The Narativ wouldn’t have ever come about.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Brownstoner magazine. It was completed before the pandemic.

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