Words by Aliyah Hasinah
It is a warm afternoon in August, I’m in Bedstuy. This is my first time in New York and I am in awe of the energy this city has to offer. It feels comfy, I am surprised by the familiarity. I immediately feel at home . The infrastructure is different here. Bare people own their shit, there are black owned businesses and spaces everywhere. I do not know if it is the different history, or the romanticism of the tourist talking – but the fact remains, New York feels distinctly different from my own experiences in Babylon Britain.
Scrolling through instagram I come across @blackownedbrooklyn and a recent feature they have on a fashion store called BYAS & LEON. Intrigued by the way they present art and create gallery space for Black artists in their boutique, in addition to their fair trade and sustainable manufacturing of clothing and intentionally curated vintage stock from all across the world, I decide to reach out with a quick DM slide.
They reply to my interview request and I arrange to meet up with one of the owners, Harvey. I make my way down to 404 Tompkins Avenue, passing a Burna Boy ATM on the way. I’m smiling at the impact Black art has worldwide, it’s 2019 and Burna Boy is the guy. As I walk in, Harvey is closing up shop and I’m greeted by a Boutique full of art and iconic fashion pieces.
We sit down to chat and immediately cackle over our Caribbean commonalities. The Island’s impact is heavily present in New York, it seems crazy to us both, but makes complete sense that Gineps are being sold on the roadside by men in Flatbush.. I explain a bit about the ‘Decolonising the Curatorial Research’ I’m undertaking and ask Harvey ‘’What have you guys been up to with Byas & Leon, tell me wagwarn?’’[Harvey] Before the shop it was just Byas & Leon. It was a fairtrade company that my brother, Rony Byas, and myself Harvey Leon founded – that’s where the name comes from. We’re not physical brothers but we might as well be, we’ve been best friends for 20 years and 6 years ago, we started the company. We had an interest in fashion but it was also a big deal to us to contribute to the betterment of our people and country economically.
I ask which country and what people he means? Harvey mentions that both him and Rony are Haitian.
Harvey:I spent a significant part of my childhood in Haiti…So we understand that from our lens, what Haitians need the most is opportunity, because the government is so crappy and corrupt, like there’s so many Haitian people who just don’t have anything to do, they want to work. And again, this is a story that has manifested in many supposed ‘third world’ countries. Poverty begets violence and that’s worldwide. That has been since the dawn of humankind.
We get to talking about the important role Haiti plays in the store’s vision and politics. Harvey tells me about a recent trip the duo took to Haiti whilst in the process of manufacturing their own line of clothing.
Harvey: So we went to Haiti and we’re like, okay, forget all this charity shit. We’re just gonna go to Haiti and actually give, we’re going to concentrate on apparel for now and we’re going to reach out, grassroots level stuff I’m talking walking the streets… We’re going to find tailors. And we’re going to strike business deals with them. When you shake their hands and form relationships then we’re going to get them the fabric, the buttons and the materials that they need and we’re going to pay them more than they’ve ever seen for this kind of work because we are big believers in economic empowerment. We made it a point to pay them what we like to call a thriving wage.
It’s the first time I’ve ever heard the term thriving wage. I ask what the thought process was behind that decision and exactly what it means.
Harvey: It’s not enough to pay just enough money for you to exist. We have to pay more than that. So you can do things, so you are empowered to invest, maybe on businesses, expand your operations, put your kids in better schools.
Haiti’s largest industry has traditionally been clothing manufacturing and continues to be 90% of the country’s exports. The decision to pay Haitian tailors a thriving wage isn’t just economic for BYAS & LEON, it’s one steeped in Haiti’s history and the impact that it has on the island’s mobility and expert craftsmanship today.
Harvey: They say that there’s two ways to enslave a country. One way is by the sword, the other is by debt… Haiti had to pay reparations to not be invaded by France.
Aliyah: Sorry. How?
Harvey: When Haiti gained its independence through [the work of] Dessalines, Toussaint L’Ouverture – all our Heroes. Not only did we gain our independence, but we [Haiti} sent troops all around South America and to the rest of the Caribbean to help liberate the Black people there. So we paid, and it took us, like what, a hundred something years to pay that. We finished paying that in the 60s, 70s.
I look at it like this, countries like the US or UK, you owe me this education.
We never got our 40 acres and a mule here. We never got that. You [colonisers] desecrated our countries. You’ve robbed us of everything. You robbed us of our culture, our heritage. You robbed us of everything. And you still continue to desecrate our country because it’s not like colonialism ever stopped.
I agree wholeheartedly with Harvey on this and share my perspective on how we still see this in Britain today.
Aliyah: So in the UK, we have a similar story. The reparations that were paid to Slave Masters & Traders for ”the loss of their property” [enslaved people] after the 1833 Abolition Act, was only paid off by the public via British taxpayer taxes in 2015. So the Windrush generation came and paid for their ancestors’ slavers and subsequent generations through their taxes.
Aliyah: My parents paid taxes towards ‘property’ reparations for slave owners. My mum always used to say when we were little: “I wish Black people would just stop working for one day and watch this country crumble.”
Aliyah: 100 percent collapse! But then you have no job security. And also statistically we’re in some of the lowest paying jobs so you have to work or somebody else is gonna.
Harvey: Because somebody is going to be like, listen, man, I’m all for the revolution. But like, I’ve got to feed my kid.
We get back to the fact that the shop is located in New York and how this city shaped the purpose of this store and influenced the implementation of BYAS & LEON’s thriving wage. This space has become a community gem in Bed Stuy, as we talk people are constantly walking past and waving. A couple conversations are sparked with Harvey always showing time and love for anyone who passes by. It feels like a community I haven’t seen since the early noughties, issa vibe. Everyone feels like a neighbour here.
Harvey: The spiritual purpose of this place, I guess, is to cater to the African diaspora. We have a lot of events here, we do art showcases. We’ve had live jazz. We’ve had wine tastings. And it’s always Black people making these things. Black musicians, Black artists. It’s a Black woman who makes that [points to painting on wall],a Black woman makes all those [points to rail of clothing] you know, so we cater.
The possibilities of what a fashion boutique can be for a community, a country and its tailors are all exemplified in BYAS & LEON’s model and it’s an incredible thing to be able to witness. I ask what plans are moving forward and how they intend to keep connecting to the diaspora worldwide.
Harvey: Our vision long term is to open up more spaces like this. So we’re thinking of different cities, we would like to open one in Atlanta. We’d like to open one maybe New Orleans and then overseas; Paris and London.
What I learn from the conversation with Harvey is the possibility in making something you believe in and structuring it intentionally. When we take time and are dedicated to our beliefs and visions – anything can happen. The thriving wage shouldn’t feel so maverick or important, it should just be, but in the action of being what they say their about, Byas and Leon are able to make reality of their long term visions.
With up to 95% of the textiles that are landfilled each year able to be recycled and over 70% of the world’s population using second hand clothes, it seems the climate for BYAS & Leon to thrive nationally and internationally is not just possible but necessary. This isn’t just fashion with a conscience, it’s fashion rooted in community, culture and a ‘For Us, By Us’ environmentally friendly philosophy. It’s implemented in everyday practice, not just a hashtag so Byas & Leon’s footprint could be a strategy employed worldwide.
Find out more about BYAS and Leon here.
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