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Meet Wilhelmina Cooper, the Designer Inspired by Liberia’s Unique Cultural Heritage

By Robin Dopoe, Jr. Guest writer.

It is actually rare to see a handbag blended with art. But emerging fashion designer Wilhelmina Myeonway Cooper is doing just that with her upcoming handbag designs titled ‘wearable art collection.’

Using acrylic paint, the artist cum designer paints a visual image (either picture of yourself or anything you like), that enhances and personalizes the handbag making it quite singular and distinctive.

Acrylic paint is a fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion, which are water-soluble, but becomes water-resistant when dry.

Wilhemina Myeonway Cooper's 'wearable art' handbags

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Wilhelmina Cooper founded Myeonway Designs in April 2013. The company, is an affordable-luxury ethnic fashion brand that features collections beautifully combined with exceptional style, quality and elegance inspired by urban living and African craftsmanship.

“I love art and fashion. And being a creative person, I’m inspired by art, mainly renaissance or contemporary painting. I also get inspiration from things around me. My inspiration is so weird to the extent when walking and sees a cloth or an object, I instantly know or see in my head what that piece of object can be transformed into.

“Most importantly, I am inspired by home, people, culture and Liberia’s traditional heritage. We are a unique set of people and I strive to highlight and celebrate that through what I create and that it should be very dynamic and strong,” Wilhelmina Cooper talks about the creation behind her designs.

But Wilhelmina Cooper, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Management from the African Methodist Episcopal University and a certificate in fashion design from Ghana, did not just jumpstart her career right away after high school.

She went to work at the Freeport of Monrovia and later college to pursue higher education.

However, while in college she looked over her decision and decided to go into fashion and design for the long haul.

“I have always been fascinated by fashion and always wanted to start a brand that exudes confidence, elegance, and craftsmanship. I saw fashion as a way to express my uniqueness.

“But I was always discouraged from the start and was told that I could not make it as a fashion designer. Nevertheless, during the years, the skills and passion were still burning,” she said. “So when I was in college, I decided to give this burning feeling a try, and that’s how I returned to fashion.”

After three months of hard-work behind the scenes sketching clothes and handbags, Wilhelmina came out of her comfort zone by taking sketch patterns to tailors, who turned them into beautiful dresses and suits.

“This was a breakthrough for me. I was now out of my conform zone doing what I love best. After a while, I started sketching clothes for friends, whom they turned into beautiful dresses and suits.

“My friends tease me all the time; they say I hold on to stuff too long. I do because they are sentimental – beautiful reminders of where I came from and the dream that lives in my heart,” she continued.

Starting the business

After college, Wilhelmina launched her company, Myeonway Designs, with an initial capital of US$125 that enabled her to make three handbags and started selling them on the streets.

“I started my company because I sought to create and to fulfill my dream and live a happy, fulfilled life. I was not going to be happy if I had not brought my dream to life. Dream is creation, and creation is execution,” she said.

From the first initial sales, she made US$175, profit of US$50. And after a period of time, she generated a total profit of US$1050, which she reinvested in the business.

Today, the business annually generates an annual turnover of between US$8,000 & 10,000, but after overhead deductions on production costs and other expenses, the company is left with a profit of more or less US$3,000.

However, Myeonway Designs, which she operates from home at Airfield, a suburb in Monrovia, and stalls at places like Royal Grand Hotel, is one of the fastest-growing startup fashion businesses in Liberia.

“I’m proud of my company’s growth in the last few years and working hard to expand the business. Frankly speaking, the start was not that easy. I went through a lot to reach this far. But determination and passion for what I do keep me going,” she said smiling while sketching designs patterns for her upcoming handbags.

Despite the growth in the business, there remains a serious financial challenge for a company with four employees, as they have not been able to get bank loans to facilitate the company’s expansion due to the high-interest rates from banks, ranging from 7-18% and upwards.

Another challenge is getting materials, which are mostly outside of Liberia, to fix the bags since they have to be purchased in US dollars, which is at the high exchange rate of LD$131 to US$1 (the rate changes every day). This depreciation in the Liberian currency has put a strain on the running of the business.

All of these factors are presenting extra challenges for Wilhelmina Cooper who wants to expand her business.

“I’m grateful for the growth in the business, but right now I’m having problems with raising the money to have massive production in order to be able to reach my goal.

“You don’t have a stable price of leather and country cloth (waved cloths made in Liberia), which I use for producing the bags. The price changes at any given time,” she explained. “Also, keeping the staff has been a problem because of the up and down in the economy. The economy is not doing fine; therefore, I don’t have a stable price for my products.”

Managing the financial crisis

Despite the financial crisis the country is experiencing, Wilhelmina Cooper still manages to keep the company running by reinvesting capital and profit into the business.

The young fashion entrepreneur strives daily to keep the business running with extra capital and working hard to produce designs for the strong, bold and daring individuals and her dream of seeing her iconic handbag designs grace the international fashion scene.

“I’m working to see my product grace runways in cities like New York, London, and Milan a few years from now. I know the time is short, but I’m working extra hard to bring that to pass. That way, every day I put out my best to perfect my products and services,” she concluded.


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