Alumnus Selling Masks In New Orleans To Help Artists In Africa

By Charles McKenzie, November 24, 2020
Edward Wycliff ’11 enlists the help of artisans to make masks

The triangle created by Tremé, the French Quarter, and the Lower Ninth Ward encompasses the setting of much of New Orleans’ history — from the height of its artistic improvisation in its music and cuisine to the depths of despair in its hurricane-induced flooding and devastation. 

On most nights, you could have found Edward Wycliff ’11 and his sewing machine right in the middle of it all at an open-air night market, home to sculptors, jewelers, painters, and 40 other rotating artists. 

For the last five years, Wycliff had been teaching people in southern Africa how to turn their local fabric into bow ties that he then sold, along with his own creations, in the market, usually until midnight or 1 a.m. But then COVID-19 closed the market in mid-March. 

“It’s a strong community of about 100 artists, some of the better artists in New Orleans creating original art, and then we all lost our spaces overnight,” he said. 

Wycliff had just been invited to sell his work at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, which brings in half a million people and a $300 million economic impact across two weekends at the end of April. 

“I pumped all of our funding into inventory for this event, where it’s possible to sell tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise,” he said. So, when the festival also fell victim to COVID-19, “I was basically broke,” said Wycliff. “I had no venue to sell all the inventory that I had, and I was wondering what the heck I could do to keep the business moving and pay my rent.”

He found the answer in two characteristics of the Crescent City: “New Orleans is a hustler and an artist town,” he said. “Everybody down here is a hustler.” 

So, when life hands you a pandemic, you make masks. 

“Once we had a functional product, I advertised them on my website, Facebook, and Instagram. That was April 1. By the time I woke up on April 3, we had sold over $15,000 worth of masks.”

Edward Wycliff ’11, founder of Bow Shoeshoe

“I played around with a design and hit up a friend of mine who had a connection to a local nursing home because I knew that they would be needed there,” said Wycliff.

Toward the end of March, he sold his first 100 masks to them for cost. 

“Once we had a functional product, I advertised them on my website, Facebook, and Instagram,” he said. “That was April 1. By the time I woke up on April 3, we had sold over $15,000 worth of masks.”

From then on, the pedal was literally to the metal. He gave sewing machines, material, and even training to many of his out-of-work artist friends. 

“I would just buy directly from them while my teams in Lesotho and South Africa were producing the vast majority of our masks.”

The fabric that he uses for the bow ties and masks is called shoe-shoe (pronounced shway-shway), hence his company name, Bow Shoeshoe. Known for its intricate, colorful patterns, the fabric has long been used for traditional South African clothing, becoming so ubiquitous that it’s sometimes called the denim or tartan of South Africa.

A Different Virus on a Different Continent

The entire idea for Wycliff’s original bow tie business actually emerged from the crucible of another virus, HIV. After graduating from IC, the politics major was volunteering for the Peace Corps in Lesotho, a small nation ravaged by HIV and AIDS. 

“I saw that it was the combination of poverty and HIV that made the virus so deadly,” he said. “ You can live a long and happy life if you have the resources to take care of yourself. So we asked, ‘What would the world be like if we could remove the destitute poverty from the HIV epidemic?’”

So, in several remote communities, Wycliff began hiring people who didn’t have access to jobs, training, or materials. He gave them sewing work they could do from home or from community centers instead of from factories. 

When COVID-19 hit, Lesotho closed its borders, and as a result, the country had just two cases in late June and didn’t see its first death until mid-July. Wycliff continues to wire money to his partner, who purchases shoe-shoe from South Africa and disseminates the materials there and in Lesotho, where items like ties, handkerchiefs, and masks are sewn. Once the work is completed, Wycliff pays workers via text. 

Back in New Orleans

people wearing masks

Friends model Bow Shoeshoe masks. (Photo by Daniel Grey)

From Africa, Wycliff receives unsewn fabric, finished ties — and now masks. Demand has been so great, though, that he continues to hire locally. 

“Everybody is making them from their homes. I’m working here, and I’ve got another artist who lives next door who comes over and sews. And then I’ve got a musician who does a majority of our cutting of the material, and four other artists who are very good at sewing.”

He buys his paper and shipping materials from a local paper company, and he hires a local print shop. He’s also stocking more than a dozen local stores.

“I’m trying to do a little good here and make a buck,” he said.

Business grew even more when a different wave swept across the United States. Deaths, especially those of Black men at the hands of police, brought a new awareness to shoe-shoe and new support to Black-owned businesses. With the exception of two workers in New Orleans, everyone employed by his business across three countries is Black. 

“It’s a good opportunity because if people want to find a Black-owned business to support that actually has a social good component to it, we’re perfectly placed to satisfy that demand. It is strangely coincidental, I guess, but things have been going well for us now—much, much better than expected.” 

Wycliff also raised $23,000 through a Kickstarter campaign where, for every $15 somebody donated, they’d receive a mask, and another mask was given to a frontline worker or an at-risk community member in the city of New Orleans. Whether he’s helping across the world or literally right in his backyard, Wycliff said he’s in this business for good, in more ways than one.