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Africa Global

Photo by Kent Andreasen

Gold Coast Trading Co.’s visionary couture

Emeka Alams travels to stay grounded. The 32-year-old visual artist, clothing designer and entrepreneur keeps studio workshops in Germany and the Ivory Coast and maintains collaborative connections in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Taiwan, New York, Belgium, London and Paris. Each of these locales—magnified by the distance and differences between them—shapes the globe-spanning aesthetic he brings to bear on the clothing brand he founded in 2006 called Gold Coast Trading Company.

GCTC’s garments span the spectrum of style and formality, from black- and-white screenprinted T-shirts, hats and hoodies to diaphanous tunics and jackets in sun-bleached pastels to unisex suede moccasins and canvas Oxford shoes. These items are Alams’ sustained riff on the evolving interplay between Africa and the United States, a transatlantic connection that contains centuries of storylines, some familiar, others unknown or undiscovered. For Alams, fashion is like travel—a conduit, a means of transferring stories and ideas from one part of the world to another.

At the moment, though, Alams is unusually settled. He’s staying at his mom’s place in north Seattle, where his family landed years ago, after moving from Nigeria and state-hopping around the U.S., including a stop in Kansas, where he was born. He spent his school years in Seattle in the early ’00s, a sponge to the city’s diverse music scene. Back then he created artwork for his friends’ bands, mostly fledgling rock groups like the Blood Brothers and Gatsby’s American Dream. After high school he moved to West Africa and continued his design work remotely. As his friends’ bands gained notoriety, so did he.

His career grew through relentless pestering. Alams hunted band websites to find out who was releasing an album or going on tour, emailing any and every potential client. Of every 1,000 emails, he says, he’d maybe get a single reply. “After a while I didn’t have to hit people up,” he says. “They started to come to me.”

Some of those people represented acts like Brandi Carlile, Gym Class Heroes, the Strokes. Without any formal artistic training, he created images for some extremely visible musicians. Eventually, around 2007, he began focusing on his own clothing company.

“I was living in Côte d’Ivoire a second time and they’d just gone through civil war a second time,” Alams says. “I could barely sleep with everything I went through.” Again he took an aggressive online approach to finding clients, emailing fashion websites, artists, singers, whoever he thought might be interested in his clothing designs. Eventually his GCTC garments were picked up by international icons like MIA, Nas and Damian Marley. Gold Coast suddenly had cachet.

“It speaks to the imagery I’m creating with the brand,” he says. “It’s more than just clothing, it’s a story. You feel that story, then you want to gravitate toward what I’m doing.”

GCTC’s earliest lines fused Western streetwear signifiers with modern African history. Taking inspiration from the Soweto youth riots of 1976—during which some 20,000 high school students in the suburbs of Johannesburg protested the use of Afrikaans in class, leading to state police killing upwards of 150—he emblazoned T-shirts with SOWETO 1976, rendered in bold, thick lines above stylized tribal patterns. Another line was inspired by the Harmattan trade winds that blow across the north of Africa; Alams designed blousy dresses and hearty work shirts in muted desert pink and teal. He created a line in collaboration with the London-based electronic act the Very Best and another with Belgian-born, Cape Town-dwelling singer Petite Noir. To complement each line, Alams compiled a SoundCloud playlist of musical influences.

His current line is an homage to the pan-African heavy-metal band Vision, which was active for a short time in the 1970s. Alams learned about them from a professor of musicology at the Bavarian university where Alams sometimes lectures on his work, who played him Vision recordings and showed him the band’s merchandise that he’d unearthed.

“There wasn’t much else to go on—nothing on Google, nothing on YouTube,” Alams says. “But with his help I researched another dude in Ghana who had a garage full of [Vision] music.”

Along with the clothing line, which debuted its first run of replica T-shirts and hats last month, Alams is working on a documentary film about Vision. His co-producer is Christopher Leacock, aka Jillionaire of the electro-dub band Major Lazer. Alams says the film should be complete by the fall of this year.

“It seems so out of context,” Alams says of the idea of an African metal band, “but when you look at the origins of all popular music, it all goes back to Africa. It makes sense that you’d have a group that incorporates things that left the continent and came back in a different form.”

Perhaps because he’s at home right now, while film production is on hiatus, Alams is generous about his Seattle upbringing. The city, he says, undoubtedly set him on his nomadic course.

“A place like Seattle, you can hear everything: rock, punk hip-hop, jazz, everything. I’m thankful for that because it made my sphere of influence so vast. Even in my design process I feel like a lot of limitations have been lifted because the creative scene in Seattle was so broad. People were very earnest about their craft. It helps when trying to tell a story, the fact you’ve listened to so much and have a really broad view on people and culture.”

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