For F&W Style founder Alexandria Alli, fashion is a love affair that spans nearly her whole life—and two continents. Alli grew up in Nigeria, where her mother, Adeola Yununsa, owned a design studio that made contemporary clothing in traditional African fabric. “I thought I worked there growing up,” she says, laughing. “I would spend every day after school in the studio or the showroom, watching the tailors at work. My mom would call me her ‘creative director,’ giving me little jobs here and there.” This environment provided Alli’s first crash course in the industry—and a hands-on one at that. “I was young, but I learned so much about the technical side of fashion there, as well as the business side, that I really internalized,” she says.
When Alli turned thirteen, her family moved from Nigeria to Atlanta, where a different facet of the industry soon came calling. Throughout high school and college, she forged a successful modeling career on the side, posing and walking in shows for a slew of top Southern brands. “I was lucky to work so closely with designers,” Alli says. “On the production side, I was there for fittings and photo shoots, seeing how the designs evolved. I was also going to school for business at the time, so I was fascinated by the buyers’ side of things too. At shows I would pay attention to what they were looking for and how they were ordering.”
Alli eventually grew out of the modeling world (“I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Naomi Campbell,” she jokingly admits), going to work instead as a corporate banker in Atlanta. Even so, her bold personal style never changed. “My coworkers would always say I looked like I was headed to a runway show or something,” Alli says. Sometime later, however, she confronted the truth: She wasn’t content in her career and longed to engage her creativity again.
“It was my husband who really pushed me to return to fashion,” she says. “I’d been sketching all my life, and I could already see a void in the market that I wanted to fill.” Alli had noticed that bags and accessories tended to fall in one of two categories: luxury items with thousand-dollar price tags, or lower-quality pieces that wouldn’t last. What was missing were Black-owned luxury brands with prices within the reach of the average working woman. “My goal was to change that narrative,” Alli says. “I started envisioning a line of bright, beautiful bags for women like me.”
When she launched F&W Style in 2010, Alli had just two handbags in her collection. After hosting countless trunk shows and knocking on the doors of boutiques across the South, she steadily increased her number of stockists, and soon the brand had amassed a small but mighty group of color-hungry devotees. More than a decade later, Alli looks back with pride. “The fact that we have a community of women who love and continually buy from our brand is a major accomplishment,” she says. Her bags have been featured in the pages of major publications including Vogue and Essence and have been spotted on the likes of Gabrielle Union and Tiffany Haddish.
While the F&W line now encompasses dozens of colorful leather totes, shoulder bags, clutches, and other accessories, one design is especially close to Alli’s heart. “The Sade collection is one of my favorite things we’ve created,” she says of the cross-body handbags. The idea stemmed from Alli’s own wedding ensemble. “In Nigeria, there’s a beautiful fabric called the aso-oke that’s traditionally reserved for weddings and other special occasions. I wanted to translate it to an everyday piece for women everywhere, while still providing jobs for artisans in Nigeria,” she says. Thus, the Sade bags were born, hearkening back to Alli’s roots in her mother’s studio. “I’m so happy we’ve been able to do this, because we’re providing jobs for these artisans year-round, rather than just wedding season,” she says. Handwoven in varying patterns of aso-oke fabric, each Sade design is limited edition. “Once a pattern sells out, that’s it. So it creates a very special product.”