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Dresses for Success

Raised in Nigeria and New Jersey by parents with lofty expectations, Latifat and Moriamo Obajinmi ditched postcollege plans to become fashion designers.

Moriamo Johnson (left) and Latifat Obajinmi
Alumnae and sisters Moriamo Johnson (left) and Latifat Obajinmi, the proprietors of the Philadelphia-based Aso Damasi, were photographed in their former studio at Macy’s Center City. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Growing up, first in Nigeria and then in North Brunswick, New Jersey, Obajinmi sisters Moriamo and Latifat knew their parents had high expectations. One of them was that when the girls grew up, they would be in charge. For older sister Moriamo LC’03, the plan to become a doctor was recalibrated at Rutgers to having a leadership role in the pharmaceutical industry. Younger sister Latifat SAS’12 had the intention of working in human resources management.

Today, the sisters are in charge all right, but not in the manner that their parents anticipated. The two are running and designing their own fashion line—Philadelphia-based Aso Damisi (ah-SHAW DAH-me-see), following their hearts and creative muse, if not certain expectations. “When we started the label four years ago, my parents thought it was a joke,” says Moriamo, a chemistry major. “It was ‘Oh, it’s a phase they’re going through.’ ”

“Being designers was not the plan they had for us,” says Latifat, who has a degree in labor relations and management. “It was ‘You’re not leaving school.’ ”

Aso Damisi is a women’s clothing label that fuses the sisters’ Nigerian roots with contemporary fashion. In the Yoruba culture, Aso means cloth or clothing and Damisi means prosperity. The line, inspired by the brightly patterned fabrics that the sisters grew up with, features patterns based on traditional African textiles. Aso Damisi also adds Western touches in the fabrics, such as stretch cottons and silks, and the current collection features silhouettes that are Western fashion staples like sheath dresses, pencil skirts, and blazers.

models with sample pattern dress
 

Neither sister studied fashion growing up, and their learning curve since starting Aso Damisi has been steep. Latifat, who designs the line, only recently learned to sew. Moriamo, who had a successful side business selling Mary Kay Cosmetics while working in research and development for a pharmaceutical company, has put her sales skills to work for Aso Damisi, which is sold in 10 boutiques around the country, with plans to expand into 50 stores by year’s end. The sisters have also benefited from their selection last year to be part of the inaugural class of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator program, designed to promote Philadelphia as a fashion hub and entice young designers to establish businesses there.

Aso Damisi was able to snare the only slot in the program for designers who were not recent graduates of a Philadelphia fashion school. As designers-in-residence, the pair spent last year working out of an office at Macy’s Center City under the mentorship of business and fashion executives before graduating in February.

Even before their acceptance into the program, the sisters had figured out crucial details, from finding affordable textile resources to marketing and sales to having their clothing made in the Philadelphia area near their home in Sicklerville, New Jersey—not overseas. Get one of these details wrong, and your enterprise can sink, as the women know. “We’re always going to do our research,” says Moriamo, who goes by her married name of Johnson (she and her husband have a 4-year-old daughter). “That’s who we are. Asking questions. Listening.”

“We love fashion,” says Latifat, “but it has to make business sense. Just making pretty clothes that don’t sell is not what we want.” And that’s no one’s expectation.                                                                                              — Karyn D. Collins