Ashley McFarlane has always loved fashion. When she was younger, the clothing and accessories designer would cut up her jeans to make them into skirts. Today, the 30-year-old Torontonian specializes in African Print textiles, crystal and gemstone jewelry. With famous acts like Jidenna already rocking her pieces and customers asking for an expanded line, we’ll be seeing a lot more from Ashley’s Asikere Afana in the years ahead.
What inspired you to become a designer?
I've always loved fashion. I love shopping, not just to buy things, but to window shop and take a look at the styles and fashions of the season. My friend gave me a sewing machine a few years back, so I took a class to learn the basics and loved it so much that I ended up enrolling in a Continuing Education program at George Brown College to learn more. A few months after learning to sew I did my first fashion show.
Where did the name come from?
The name Asikere Afana came from my research on the Jamaican Maroons. I studied abroad in Jamaica during university, and my late uncle came to me and told me I was a Maroon. Maroons were enslaved Africans who ran into the hills and set up their own communities and retained a lot of their culture. My grandfather is from a Maroon community in Jamaica called Accompong, which I did a short documentary about. When I was doing my research, I found some of the words used by the Jamaican Maroons. The word asikere means sugar in Twi. Afana means machete.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far?
Showcasing at New York Fashion Week and having my clothing displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum. I would have never imagined my piece in the largest museum in Canada, but it feels good. I feel like an actual designer and artist now, like I can go to art galleries and wear fancy glasses and think about inspiration. Also, seeing my tie on recording artist Jidenna in Ebony magazine. He loves that tie and wears it everywhere. It's nice to know that such a stylish gent likes one of my pieces.
How would you characterize your style?
My style is simple boho some days, with a mix of prints on others. I like a good bodycon midi dress with a sweater and some crystal jewelry—I am always wearing some kind of crystal or gemstone. I'm inspired by the brightness of West African textiles and the simplicity of Ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern style; I like those regions specifically. Someone once told me that I look best in simple things, which I agree with, but I also like to jazz it up with a print and a nice lipstick to keep my look from getting too monotonous.
Is there anyone you look up to in your field?
I love the designer Maki Oh. She uses unconventional materials in such sartorial ways. I also love Michael Kors. His fall collection always makes me want to cry. Simple, classic, and functional. I would also say Reuben from Demestiks New York. He took African Print fashion to a new level.
Do you have a mentor?
Yes, I have a few. One is a designer, one is a painter and gallery owner, and another is a person who has been in the fashion business in Canada for over 30 years. I also have business advisors and people I turn to for advice on random things.
Do you recommend mentorship?
Definitely. There will always be people with more experience—or more specialized experience—than us, and a lot of them love to offer insight and help. They're also great links to people and resources.
Where do you see yourself or your business in the next five to ten years?
I would like to travel to international fashion weeks. I would like to have expanded my business to include other areas like housewares and children’s clothing. I would like to present in the Caribbean; that would be a treat. I'd also like to make room to start a family.
Where do you feel most creative?
In my bathtub. I'm a Pisces, so it's where I relax and dream. Also, in my bed lying down and scrolling through runway shows and Pinterest.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to pursue their dreams?
Start small, don't quit your day job right away, and find a way to fund your passion. If you love it you will keep doing it, get better, and grow. They say it takes at least five years for a business to start making money. I don't know who came up with that equation, but I think it's pretty accurate. In that time you learn about your vision, your audience and customers, and your product. You make mistakes and get the hang of it. Most people won't have the tenacity to stick through those five years—it's a long time. But if you love it, you will.
Looking back, did you expect to be where you are now?
No, not at all. I thought I would be in communications, which I studied in undergrad. I never thought I would be a fashion designer—I didn't even think it was possible to do full time. But I've always been interested in the representation of black women, so this fits. Fashion is a much more immediate way to impact black women's representation.
Do you regret any mistakes you've made?
I always buy too much fabric—it's an addiction. But it's cool because I get to rework it in other ways. Also, probably not studying fashion earlier. I've always loved fashion but didn't see it as a viable career. But then again, studying communications really helped me with online sales, so I don't really regret it.
Why do you love what you do?
Because I'm my own boss. I can make my own schedule. I like doing things with my hands. I get to shop for stationary for packaging my items. I get to help women and men feel beautiful and connected to their culture. It's always a blessing when a customer shares a picture of themselves out in one of my pieces and they are glowing. It's nice to know that something I created helped make them feel that way.
Who (or what) is your motivation to keep going?
My bills, first and foremost! I also like to satisfy customers’ desires. People are always asking me when I'll be making more pieces for men, for kids, or when I'll be making jumpers—it's endless! They give me so many ideas. Also, the fabrics; I see a new print and I know I just have to have it and what design I have to make it into.
If you had the opportunity to work or collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?
I think it would be Tory Burch. She is a designer who really appreciates print. She went to my university as well. I met her once and she's really nice. I also appreciate that she does a lot of work to help women entrepreneurs. I think I would learn a lot from her.
What is the one thing you can't leave the house without? (Other than your cell phone!)
Water or tea. Got to stay hydrated!