Today, however, her clothing seems almost luminous compared to fellow New Yorkers wearing neutrals amidst grey concrete. Her apparel has a slight 1950s influence, and her hair is pulled up in one of the head wraps she makes from Ghanaian fabrics to reflect her heritage. The hues of red, orange, blue and green captures the attention of onlookers. The Belkis Whythe who runs Beriqisu, a fashion line eponymous with her full Ghanaian name, is a far cry from the Belkis Whyte of 2007.
“When I decided to work independently, I began wearing my hair naturally,” she explains. “As soon as I tapped into my Ghanaian roots the brand and mission came to fruition.”
Born in Ghana’s capital, Accra, Whyte lived there with her grandmother until the age of eight before moving to the United States to join her mother and sister. The move took a toll. The lifestyle in Wooster, Mass., was the antithesis of the hot, arid, communal life that was part of the cultural fabric in Accra.“I had over 20 family members back in Accra,” Whyte says. “Then I was moving to a new place, where interactions were more formal. I was seen by my classmates as a black girl. They thought the food my mother made me was weird. My accent was thick. I was an outsider in the beginning.”
When Whyte first arrived in the United States the abundance of food in the fridge was unfathomable– she once ate a dozen eggs in a day, worried that there would be a shortage. As time went on she acclimated to the New England way of life, but with her father and most of her family back in Ghana, the pull across the Atlantic Ocean was strong.
But Whyte was excited to be reunited with her mother, who from an early age was her fashion inspiration. “My mother is extremely elegant,” says Whyte. “She was also impeccably dressed and showed me how clothing was an extension of the self. She showed me you could be sensual without showing a lot of skin. If you wear something tailored, something that extenuates the shape of your body, people will be drawn to you.”
The tailored look is evident in Whyte’s most popular pieces: The Doris Gingham pleated skirt is fitted in at the waist and flares out to below the knee. The crop tops are fitted to provide an hour-glass look.
The clothing– sold at Artists and Fleas in Williamsburg some Saturdays– is made to order, and custom fittings are part of the practice. Whyte says the pricing reflects the quality, which can’t be matched in chain stores. Skirts start at $125, crop tops range from $85 to $125,and headbands are $30. More recently, home decor has been added to brand, with pillow cases starting at $45.
Emily Tavis, a friend and customer of Whyte’s, says she feels beautiful in the clothing. “I have a petite frame and the clothing just fits me so well. It’s a worthwhile investment to feel this way.”From a young age Whyte was making clothing for her dolls. “I knew she’d be fantastic at this,” says Lois Nickens, Whyte’s sister. “My mom would buy her fabric to make for the dolls. She knitted hats and scarves, made quilts; I mean, this was in her blood.”
When Whyte discovered Framingham State University had a fashion design program, suddenly she realized that fashion could be a viable career option. This time provided her with an understanding that any high-quality piece of clothing needs to be tailored; the work is in the detail, every stitch must be impeccable – every item was made by hand. The work ethic taught her the tradition of couture fashion.
Nevertheless, Whyte was ripe for the opportunity and eventually landed a job at Smart Apparel, a menswear line that worked for Burberry– with clients like Ralph Lauren. She was building her network and being introduced to the world of young fashion. It was during this time she met Maureen Saturne, a fellow woman of color, who viewed fashion in a similar way.
Saturne has seen Whyte’s evolution as a designer and businessman. “She’s much more confident now,” says Saturne. “I’ve known her for almost a decade now. She started off being more unsure of herself and now she’s a businesswoman.”
In 2012, Smart Apparel was bought out by a larger corporation and staff was cut. With that, Whyte, who was then 27, was jobless and had to figure out her next career move.
“I began selling head wraps and vintage clothes on Etsy,” says Whyte. “I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing, but I felt freer making my own schedule.” There is a pause before a smile creeps underneath her perfect bone structure. “Even without insurance.”
Gradually, the idea dawned on her to make a clothing line with classic tailoring using fabrics from Ghana.
First called Dreams of Fash in 2012, the business, Whyte hoped, would combine her American and Ghanaian identities. The crop top is inspired by a design in Ghana, called kaba – essentially an elaborate peplum style which adds a piece of fabric along the waistline to accentuate the hourglass shape.Oftentimes, the large clothing brands like Zara, Urban Outfitters and Louis Vuitton have been accused of cultural appropriation, taking designs from other cultures without credit. Whyte believes in cultural sharing, and many of her clients are of various races and ethnicities. “If a white person wants to wear my clothing, I have nothing against that,” Whyte says. “It’s important to share different cultures with each other. But the industry is full of cultural exploitation. I see it all the time.”
Not only does Beriqisu’s fashion represent cross-cultural designs, but it’s truly emblematic of the fashion ideal Whyte wishes to see more of in the industry– an aspect her business partner Elaine Kubik is helping to create more fully in the brand.
“What sets her apart is her story,” says Kubik. “How do you bring that story from her roots and the beginning of the supply chain all the way to the end user? We’re going to have facts and anecdotes on the clothing tags and really show how we’re giving back to the Ghanaian community.”
For the past few years, Whyte has begun traveling to Ghana every year for a few months to collect fabrics in Accra. “I spend hours at the market,” Whyte says. “As soon as I see those colors and patterns I get inspired.” Going back home has made her conscious of the process of outsourcing and ethical practices in the industry. Approximately 15 percent of Beriqisu’s profits are given back to the Ghanaian community. They provide school supplies for young students and cloth-making classes for young women.
If there is one main goal for the Beriqisu brand, it’s to create an inclusive fashion community that is transparent from start to finish. One day, Whyte hopes to have an international clothing line. But for now, she will continue to keep building the business at home in New York and at home in Accra.