"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
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.
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.
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.
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,” 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.”