Improvising a Solution

By Charles McKenzie, July 27, 2020
IC alumnus sells masks in New Orleans to help artists in Africa.

New Orleans has the wisdom of an artist who has fought through it all. Everything the United States faces these days, New Orleans has survived for the past three centuries — and it continues to survive today. Woven into the fabric of the city were deadly virus outbreaks, rampant racial and economic injustices, massive infrastructure problems, and ugly political squabbles. The triangle created by Tremé, the French Quarter and the Lower Ninth Ward encompasses the setting of much of the city’s 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.

man holding small dog

Wycliff made New Orleans his home after returning from serving in the Peace Corp in Lesotho.

On most nights, you could have found Edward Wycliff ’11 and his sewing machine right in the middle of it all. If you were walking past the Spotted Cat Music Club and then got distracted by the Electric Ladyland Tattoo Studio, you might have missed him in the open-air night market, a home to sculptors, jewelers, painters, and 40 other rotating artists all situated under string lights and umbrellas. With 4,000 visitors per night, the market was better than Wycliff’s previous location — a suitcase on a street corner.“It’s the destination for people who want an authentic New Orleans,” he said.

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. Nestled amid five jazz clubs, the business had been bopping along.

“We were doing pretty well, slowly growing,” he said, and then in March, the pandemic began barreling across the country, and Wycliff’s entire world started to unravel. First, 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.

And with what should have been great news — Wycliff had 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 — let’s just say he had put all of his bow ties in one basket.  

“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.

“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. The experience affected him, evident as his tone changed while describing not just the medical crisis but the economic one. For a brief moment, he was no longer the smiling entrepreneur. 

“Basically, I was tired of putting little old ladies in wheelbarrows and pushing them three miles to the clinic, so they could die from HIV,” he said. “I saw that it was the combination of poverty and HIV that made the virus so deadly. 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.

“So basically, that was my ethos, and we’re still functioning the same way today,” he said.

“Technology has created a bridge to some of the most remote parts of the world, where some of these villages I work with don’t even have paved roads or electricity. But as long as they have a ‘dumb’ phone, and I have their legal name and cell phone number, I can text them their payments. It’s available to them within 15 minutes.”

Edward Wycliff '11, BowShoeshoe founder

When COVID-19 hit, Lesotho closed its borders, and as a result, the country had just two cases until 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.

“Technology has created a bridge to some of the most remote parts of the world, where some of these villages I work with don’t even have paved roads or electricity. But as long as they have a ‘dumb’ phone, and I have their legal name and cell phone number, I can text them their payments. It’s available to them within 15 minutes.”

Back in New Orleans

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.”

But Wycliff is the first and last person to touch everything, and he’s frequently tested. Before he peddles his products, he pedals to them: he bikes around the city, putting fabric parcels in sewers’ mailboxes and picking up finished products.

couple wearing masks

The masks are made with bow shoeshoe fabric, with a mix of intricate patterns. (Photo by Daniel Grey)

“I can be anywhere in the city in under 30 minutes,” he said. “Although we’re an international company, almost everything we do locally is done without a motor vehicle.”

His economic impact has reached other local industries. 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, even moving into coffee shops and wine stores to diversify his market.

“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.”

Putting the PPE in Lagniappe

In his senior year at IC, Wycliff lived with fellow politics major Chris Bodkin ’11.

“After we graduated from IC, we always kind of competed over who was doing more social good,” Wycliff said with a laugh. “It was a fun, joking, competition we had.”

Bodkin, for his part, had opened a company called Circular Blu, a company that upcycles polypropylene sterilization wraps that hospitals typically discard. Circular Blu then turns them into masks and tote bags.

After the pair chatted about their mask making, Bodkin offered a load of polypropylene to Wycliff who sewed it into his masks, making them breathable as well as liquid proof. There’s a term in New Orleans, lagniappe, which means a sort of free bonus or a gift for a customer. Together, the pair of IC alumni put the PPE in lagniappe. When Wycliff had run out of the first shipment, he was able to get more from a Houston hospital.

“Now for the foreseeable future, the masks made in New Orleans have a 98% bacterial filtration rate and are completely liquid impenetrable. I’ve poured a cup of coffee in this mask and nothing came out the other side, but it still remains completely breathable. So it makes the mask one of the best, most protective masks available to the public, more effective than an N95.”

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 says he’s in this business for good, in more ways than one.