Aneka Brown Designs offers a ready-to-wear line of kimonos, caftans, and tees, as well as the more formal line called California AfroChic, for people who “don’t mind standing out.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUNE KIM
“If you can take someone who’s a size 24 and make that person be the envy of everybody in the room, then you’re a true designer,” Aneka Brown opines. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do because that’s where my designs came from.”
The fashion designer, who was raised and still resides in the Coachella Valley, left her position as an interior design associate eight years ago to launch her own apparel line. She entered the fashion industry sans any formal training — or prior experience fabricating garments — but quickly homed in on her sartorial voice. Brown designs for all sizes, and the bold prints and colors that dominate her collections celebrate her African heritage while also being right at home amid the modernist sensibilities of Palm Springs.
• See Aneka Brown's Designs at a Black History Event on May 29.
It all started with a jumpsuit.
Having worn a size 6 or 8 for most of her life, Brown struggled when health issues caused her figure to change. She was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma and a lung condition known as environmental chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. To reduce lung inflammation and combat her coughing fits, which were so severe at times that she would lose consciousness, doctors prescribed prednisone. The steroid medication wields a possible side effect of weight gain. Brown encountered that reality.
“One month, I was a size 10, and then I’d blow up to a size 18 or a size 14 or a size 16,” she shares. “I just couldn’t find cute things to wear.” It’s not in Brown’s nature to sit back and feel frumpy. She abides by the motto, “Live every day of life like you’re on a runway.” So, with existing brands failing to meet her needs, Brown set out to create something fabulous herself.
Aneka Brown’s designs celebrate heritage and welcome all body sizes.
Her first piece, a loose-fitting jumpsuit inspired by the baggy pants MC Hammer rocked in the 1980s and ’90s, was designed to adapt to weight fluctuation. “When I was thinner, I would belt it. When I was a little heavier, I wouldn’t belt it — I’d throw a kimono over it — and it hid my weight,” she says. “My best friend, Keisha, saw this jumpsuit, and she was like, ‘Girl, where did you get that jumpsuit? That is so cute!’” Word of mouth resulted in enough orders to propel this mother of two toward designing full time.
“My kids were older, and my husband was just like, ‘This is something you should do. Keisha is absolutely right, and I support you,’” Brown recalls. “With $250 and that jumpsuit, I started Aneka Brown Designs.”
There are two primary collections: ABD, her ready-to-wear line of kimonos, caftans, tees, and accessories, and California AfroChic, which uplifts fair trade African wax print as a focal material in her more gala-worthy designs. “I would take trips into L.A., go to the fabric district, and seek out the stores that carried African fabrics,” she says. “I would only purchase from women who were from Africa because I wanted to understand the difference. There’s fabric in Ghana. There’s fabric in Botswana. There’s fabric in Nigeria. There’s fabric all throughout Africa, and they’re all different. The colors are different, the shapes are different.”
Brown happily relays these origin stories to her clients, who include former Palm Springs mayor Rob Moon and actress Trina Parks (best known for portraying leggy henchwoman Thumper in Diamonds Are Forever). Her creations have become conversation starters.
Though Brown fell into fashion later in life, her desire to be a designer was always there. After graduating from Palm Springs High School, she was accepted at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “I didn’t end up going because I couldn’t afford the tuition,” she says. More recently, she and her husband, Ethan, uprooted their family from the desert and moved to Michigan for a few years to be near his parents as his father developed Alzheimer’s disease; during that period, Brown opened a clothing boutique called Diva Style by Aneka, but she didn’t design the products. Now, they’re back in Palm Springs, and they own property in Joshua Tree. Their 25-year-old son, Donald, is a rapper known by the moniker Khan; their 21-year-old, Darien, is a college student pursuing a STEM program who has served as a grocery clerk throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. (“The sense of determination in both of these kids,” Brown reflects, “I couldn’t be prouder.”)
That single MC Hammer–inspired jumpsuit has grown into a vast portfolio of daytime and evening wear for people who “don’t mind standing out.” Sherbet orange, fuchsia, and turquoise dance across caped rompers and well-tailored shorts. Earthier tones of chocolate brown, sunflower gold, and moss green make an appearance on wrap dresses and blazers, recalling the arid palette of the African plains.
Batwing sleeves and flowy shapes conceal oft-bemoaned traits. Still, each piece has structure. Brown has also created a few separates for babies, reflective of her newfound role as grandmother. “My oldest son just made me a bibi,” she gushes. “Bibi is Swahili for grandmother.”
After launching her eponymous line, Brown developed another notable project — this time with her friend and collaborator, Keisha D, a local entertainer and community leader. In February 2015, the pair organized the Coachella Valley’s first Black History Month Cultural Appreciation, Fashion, Music, and Art Extravaganza. The annual event, which was canceled in 2020 and postponed in 2021, invites people of all walks to learn about African American heritage and discover Black artists and creators hailing from Greater Palm Springs. It traditionally features an Aneka Brown Designs runway show along with live music, art, food, and discussions on race and inclusivity.
“I really love to educate myself about African history,” Brown says. “Hearing these stories that aren’t often told gives me a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment — not for me, but for my ancestors. It gives me the spirit to continue, and it gives me the motivation and the inspiration that I need to uplift myself. And that’s what I try to instill in my clothing.”
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