• Ashley Alexis McFarlane

    Designing a New Career

    Portrait of Ashley Alexis McFarlane.
    Ashley Alexis McFarlane
    Essential Skills in Fashion Certificate Graduate

    Fashion trendsetter sews the seeds of her international business with George Brown courses

    The name of Ashley Alexis McFarlane’s clothing line, Asikere Afana – which translates to “sugar machete” in the African language Akan Twi – fits the path she’s been cutting through the fashion industry. This Toronto designer, a 2014 graduate of George Brown College’s Essential Skills in Fashion Certificate, is making a stylish impact. She runs a business that spans two continents, and her work is showcased both locally and on the world stage.

    With her university communications degree, Ashley never expected to pursue a career in fashion. George Brown changed her focus. “I’m able to do this full-time and work for myself and do something I love, and that’s a blessing,” she says. She credits the college for teaching her the foundations of designing and constructing garments and the hands-on skills she needs, from sewing to illustration to portfolio development. Now, when she’s creatively inspired, she has the practical ability to make it real.

    Fashion started as a hobby when a friend gave Ashley an old sewing machine. After taking a sewing class at a small studio, she designed some items for an event called AfroChic. “People started asking for more designs and I thought, ’I need to know what I’m actually doing,’” she laughs. A George Brown student recommended the college to her as a one-stop shop where she could learn essential skills and techniques. Ashley began her continuing education courses in 2011, which provided a creative break from her intense full-time job as a violence prevention advocate. Soon after, Asikere Afana was born.

    “Go to school and develop your skills. The certificate program at George Brown is really great because you can go for one or two classes at a time that really cater to your schedule and income. Education is one of the best ways to invest in yourself because it’s something you’ll have forever. If you have a creative interest, if you really love it and want to explore it, just take some classes and see where it takes you.”

    Her relationship with Africa runs deep, from her Caribbean roots to the native African dialects spoken by her ancestors. Ashley even arranged her own two-week fashion internship in Ghana, and has been working with local fabrics and artisans ever since to create her contemporary designs. “There is definitely a culture of seamstresses and sewers in west Africa that is kind of unique,” she explains. “It’s ingrained in their cultural heritage – wearing traditional fabrics and incorporating traditional design.” Ashley was ahead of the rising African fashion curve in North America. “It’s now becoming trendier to see African prints in mainstream fashion,” she notes.

    Her insight and focus on African patterns soon attracted wider attention. Her participation in New York Fashion Week Africa in 2015, on one of the world’s biggest fashion stages, gave her a highly-visible platform for her pieces and key marketing and networking opportunities. She was part of a Royal Ontario Museum exhibit called Water Carry Me Go, which was featured during 2016’s Black History Month. Ashley was also recently selected for Design Forward’s Fashion Takes Action, a showcase of Canada’s top ethical designers.

    Sustainability is at the heart of her work. “I’m really interested in paying people fairly – both in Ghana and locally – and I do my best to use natural dyes,” Ashley says. “It’s made-to-order fashion, not mass produced.” She is also committed to making a difference, using charity fashion shows to support initiatives from environmental causes to women’s rights. “Everyone kind of relates to fashion, so it’s a great starter for any kind of conversation.”

    While Asikere Afana cuts new fashion trails, its owner’s journey started at the college. What’s her advice to people with a flair for fashion? “Go to school and develop your skills. The certificate program at George Brown is really great because you can go for one or two classes at a time that really cater to your schedule and income. Education is one of the best ways to invest in yourself because it’s something you’ll have forever. If you have a creative interest, if you really love it and want to explore it, just take some classes and see where it takes you.”