Apparel Brand Zapenda Brings Congolese Artisanship and Tradition to Detroit

Local entrepreneur Stella Safari is exploring fashion across borders
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Stella Safari, pictured in a corset from the first drop of Zapenda’s latest collection, The Versatility Collection, and flare pants that will be released later this year. // Photograph by Nelson Nyamugasha

For Stella Safari, her online clothing brand, Zapenda, is a bridge between African and American ways of dress and a reflection of her experiences growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the U.S. 

In 2000, an 8-year-old Safari fled Congo to the U.S. with her five older sisters amid an ongoing war and moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, where Safari grew up. In 2013, she came to Detroit as a fellow for the nonprofit Venture for America (VFA), shortly after graduating from Dartmouth College. 

As Safari navigated postgrad, corporate life, she desired to maintain her authenticity and stay connected to her roots. “I remember working at Invest Detroit and being in this very professional environment, and it’s like, ‘OK, now I have to dress like a grown-up and like a serious professional,’” she says. “I would go back to Congo and I would get clothes made while there. … I would literally take my clothes from my closet that I was wearing to work or wherever, like a vest or a blazer, and I would take it to Congo and have it made in African print.”  

When Safari would return to the States with her custom threads, friends would ask where she got her items. Their inquiries were the push Safari needed to create something that both expressed her love for fashion and shared her heritage. She officially launched Zapenda in 2019 with fellow VFA peer and Detroit transplant Dextina Booker. The brand’s name is a play on the Swahili word mapendo, which means “love.” 

Zapenda offers clothing custom-made in Congo and shipped to customers around the world. Items like the Nabintu Kimono, Bahati Jumpsuit, Serena Jogger Set, and Stunna Dress make up Zapenda’s collection of staple pieces, each made with African wax cotton. Shoppers provide their measurements and select from various vibrant prints; in four to six weeks, their Zapenda garment is at their doorstep.

“Our process is very typical of the region, people from the continent of Africa,” says Booker, who serves as Zapenda’s creative director. In Africa, she says, people purchase their fabrics at markets and have a personal or family tailor create garments from those materials.  Both Booker and Safari aim for people to rethink their clothing consumption, opting for higher-quality pieces made uniquely for their bodies. 

While Safari and Booker hold the fort down in the D, Zapenda employs six full-time tailors in Congo to create the products. Safari keeps in daily contact with the Congo team, communicating in Swahili and French primarily through WhatsApp. But sometimes key details can get lost in translation, and that’s when trips to Bukavu — Safari’s hometown and where Zapenda’s products are made — are required. In fact, the duo recently returned from a monthlong trip to the city, where, among other things, they learned some sewing techniques from the tailors that “will help us with making minor alterations when needed while we are in the U.S.,” Safari says.

Safari and Booker also launched the first items of the brand’s new Versatility Collection while in Congo. Serving as Zapenda’s reintroduction after a pandemic-induced pause, the collection features statement garments — made with the brand’s signature colorful fabric options — that are meant to be worn multiple ways and with whatever is in your closet. Items including the reversible Miss Tina Cloak and the Versatility Corset made up the initial four-piece drop. New items from the collection will be available in mini-drops taking place throughout the year. 

As Zapenda continues to grow, Safari’s goal continues to be sharing her roots and African artisanship with the world. 

“I see myself as an ambassador for Congo when I’m [in the U.S.] and an ambassador for [the U.S.] when I’m there. I think that I exist between these two worlds. My desire is to keep building that bridge for more and more people to have this cross-cultural exchange. As a Congolese person, I feel really strongly about stepping into that light of portraying my country, how I interact with it, and how I experience it. And Zapenda is definitely a part of that.” 

Learn more about Zapenda at zapendashop.com.


This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition.

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