Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Picking up the pieces, one year after London riots

By Ivana Kottasová, for CNN
updated 10:46 AM EDT, Wed August 15, 2012
Jan Asante in her boutique "Gisella's," in south London, which she runs with her mother Gisella Asante. Jan Asante in her boutique "Gisella's," in south London, which she runs with her mother Gisella Asante.
HIDE CAPTION
Gisella's boutique
Gisella's boutique
Riots in London
Gisella's boutique
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Gisella's" boutique in London was destroyed by looters in last year's riots
  • Having lost everything, the owners Gisella and Jan Asante thought of giving up
  • A year later, their boutique is back on its feet and thriving
  • The pair's dress designs are inspired by their African heritage

London (CNN) -- A year ago, Gisella Asante and her daughter Jan Asante found themselves standing in tears in the middle of broken glass, scattered clothes hangers, bits of wedding dresses and burnt pieces of fabric. Their small shop in south London had been targeted by a mob of looters during the city's worst riots in two decades.

It happened a few days after they celebrated the 20th anniversary of opening their business -- Gisella's, a fashion workshop with designs inspired by the owners' African roots.

In just a few hours of riot madness, Gisella and Jan Asante lost 20 years' worth of work.

A display of valuable dresses made for high-profile celebrities: gone.

Unique accessories, some from remote parts of the world: gone. Handmade jewelry: gone. Wedding dresses ready to be picked up by brides-to-be: gone.

The overall loss is hard to estimate -- on top of all the things lost and damaged, business slowed down for months. "We were boarded for three months, that's how long it took," Jan said. "People thought we folded, it felt like we were in prison," Gisella added.

Lot of our regular customers made an effort to help. They didn't really need anything, and they would still come and buy something. Our customers are amazing.
Gisella Asante

They estimate a loss of £30-40,000 ($55,000-65,000), but say it's hard to put a number on it. "The things are worth so much more. We made them all, they are irreplaceable," Jan said.

Fast forward a year and the place looks like nothing had ever happened. The only visible reminder of last year's events is a couple of wooden boards leaning against the wall. They used to cover the smashed windows.

Watch video: London riots one year on

Now they serve as a notice board, with pictures and supportive letters from customers that flooded the boutique after the riots.

"People sent messages, emails, they phoned to say they were sorry," Jan said. The reaction was overwhelming. "A friend of mine had to come in for a week just to answer the phone and reply to messages. It was like bereavement."

The revival of the boutique is down to the Asantes' loyal customers. "Lots of our regular customers made an effort to help. They didn't really need anything, and they would still come and buy something. Our customers are amazing," Jan said.

London riots: One year later
Pain lingers from London riots

There was a point, they say, when they wanted to leave the shop closed and walk away. But the customers kept coming. "Having the customers, the work, it kept us going, we were on autopilot," Jan said. "It was exactly as the British say: 'Keep calm and carry on.'"

Thank-you notes from clients are displayed all around Gisella's. Many include wedding and honeymoon photos, as the boutique has long been a hotspot for brides who want something special.

"For the brides, weddings are about culture," Jan said. "They want to express their heritage, even if they are very modern, and they always ask us how they can show where they come from and who they are."

The traditional-meets-modern is the key to their success.

Gisella, originally from Tanzania, came to London from Kenya, where her daughter Jan was born to a Ghanaian father. It may sound complicated, but the multicultural heritage of the two women is exactly what makes their clothes special.

"We are inspired by modern Africa. We consider ourselves African, but are also Londoners, and that shows in our designs.
Jan Asante

"We are inspired by modern Africa," Jan said. "We consider ourselves African, but are also Londoners, and that shows in our designs."

Their dresses are a mixture of modern cuts, African-inspired prints and precious fabrics from all around the world. Picking up a beautifully shaped dress, Jan points out the fabric. It comes from a remote area in Nigeria, where it was handmade. Together with a Western-style cut, it makes for a special piece of couture.

"I always talk to our customers about the story behind fabrics," she said. "It's nice to walk around knowing where your clothes came from."

The mother-daughter pair work as a team. Jan talks to the customers and prepares the designs, while Gisella is the one cutting the fabric and sewing.

The workshop is strictly divided in two zones. Each woman has her own territory, where she rules. They say it works perfectly, even though they both admit there are clashes from time to time.

"She is my mum, you always have to do what your mum tells you to," Jan admitted. "But we are also business partners. We have to negotiate and agree on everything. Sometimes it stretches your relationship to the limits."

On the one-year anniversary of the looting the boutique was unusually quiet, and there was time for reflection.

"I couldn't ask for a better daughter," Gisella said, doubting she would have been able to cope without her during the long months of recovery.

Then suddenly, she turned to Jan and said: "You have more strength than I thought you have. I've seen you rise so much. I am proud of you -- I never had the time to tell you."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
updated 1:12 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
U.S. response to Ebola is key for setting global example, writes global health advocate Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 8:39 AM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
ALHAJI MUSTAPHA OTI BOATENG
Using his deep-rooted knowlege of herbs, savvy entrepreneur Alhaji Mustapha Oti Boateng had an idea to help his fellow Ghanaians.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
One of the most debilitating medical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa isn't fatal. In fact, it's easily curable.
updated 10:00 AM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
Nigerian architect Olajumoke Adenowo reveals her tips for success, mentorship and what she'd like to do next.
updated 6:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
updated 6:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Developers, designers and big thinkers gather together on the rooftop of the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos to discuss ideas.
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
updated 5:48 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
Amos Wekesa has seen a lot of changes in his country. Today, the self-made millionaire oversees Great Lakes Safaris, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda.
updated 6:10 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
updated 1:48 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Athi-Patra Ruga,
For anyone that needs convincing that African art is the next big thing, they need look no further than 1:54, the London-based contemporary African art fair.
updated 9:35 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
He's one of Malawi's best abstract artists and now the 40-year-old dreamer is revealing his journey in to the world of art.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT