To listen to Zainab Sumu’s story is to be taken on a journey that spans several continents with more dramatic twists and turns than a Spike Lee flick. Growing up the daughter of a diamond scion in Sierra Leone and the niece of the country’s president, her life drastically changed when a military coup took over the government. The African beauty found a home in fashion, first working for Comme des Garçons and recently opening her own boutique on Melrose in Los Angeles that pays homage to her upbringing while attracting major media attention.
VIBE: Tell me about your childhood.
Zainab Sumu: My early years were in Sierra Leone where I went to a Catholic boarding school and then I went to England and started college there. Meanwhile I [spent] my summers in Paris. That was basically it and then once there was a military coup that stopped. Then I had to figure out what to do. After the coup I moved to New York. My first job was working as a hostess at Bambu. Then I got a job at Comme des Garçons.
Was that your first job in fashion?
It wasn’t really my first job in fashion. I did some modeling while I was in London but yeah, that was really my first real job. After my time at Comme des Garçons ended, one of the clients I was working with, H. Lorenzo said, “You should come to LA and check it out” so I said sure and it reminded me of home. [In] New York I feel at home because I have great friends there and I love the vibrancy and the energy. The constant contact with people and the realness of it all—I loved that. But the scenery in LA reminded me of home because of the hills and beaches. I just felt a connection.
How did your upbringing impact your personal style?
Well I was lucky in a lot of ways—my dad wasn’t a typical African dad—he was more open minded. He adored his kids to the point where as long as you were happy and not doing crazy things then he was fine with it. My dad also loved clothes. We had his suits custom made in Saville Row. So he was really into fashion and loved me looking good. My sense [of style] was always different. I didn’t like what typically everyone else wore. If I wore a dress it was because I was made to. I loved things that were different since I was a child. I saw something that was in a magazine, I would take it to a tailor and get my own fabrics and get him to make exactly how I wanted it.
What did your father do in Sierra Leone?
My dad was in the diamond industry and he oversaw the mineral side of it as well for the government. He travelled quite a bit and my uncle at the time was the president, which was when the military coup happened our family was affected big time. That’s just how it is. When you’re linked closely to a certain government and something like that happens, people come after you. Really, our lives changed drastically because most of what my dad had built was taken away from him. We all just had to sort of regroup. They had to leave the country for a while. My mom is still there and things are much better and I can go home but for the longest time they wouldn’t let me.
What brought you to the point of opening your own store on Melrose?
I always knew as a child that I wanted to do my own thing. When I came to LA, I knew my love for fashion was so immense and it came to natural to me. When I stopped working for H. Lorenzo, I asked how I could go about this. I knew there was a place for something new and different in LA. I took the time to find the right location and the ways I could do it. I started working out of my apartment and I had great brands that I was working with. I attracted a really great group of women—personal shoppers and stylists—but then I realized that for me to really be able to crate a brand and make a living, I have to be more accessible. So finally I found a place on Melrose and opened shop.
What’s the style of your Melrose boutique store? What’s the typical customer?
I call it “primitive modern.” Basically, I take my aesthetic—I have a lot of African art. I’m into designers that have a unique creative view, an ideology every season, and at the same time, make women look beautiful. Most of the personal shoppers I work with shop for socialites.
What’s ahead for you in the future? Do you want to expand beyond LA?
I’m definitely taking it global. LA for me was just to build a base and credibility. I want to create other things to go with the store, there’s a household brand I want to create, a jewelry line, a fragrance line.
It’s so inspiring to hear your story. It’s amazing.
My whole thing is to inspire other people. Everyone has a story. Everybody has dreams and goals and there’s so much that I want to do that’s related to where I’m from, that’s related to helping other people. ––Adrien Field
7021 Melrose Avenue (Between Sycamore and La Brea)