Over 30 years ago, a young man tried to approach a young woman he’d met at a party at Back Bay Station. The woman though, was unimpressed — the two had already met countless times as she served him in the Science Center café on his study breaks from Harvard Law and Business School. That man was Clarence O’Neill “Neil” Brown III ’74 and the woman, Amsale Aberra. She would become not only his wife, but also a famous fashion designer credited with the creation of the “modern wedding dress.”
In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Brown reflected on his relationship with Aberra and her career’s arc from a political refugee and college dropout after the deposition of Haile Selassie in her home of Ethiopia, to the owner of a major fashion label.
“Amsale, the company, is probably the longest-operating, Black-owned fashion company that has achieved any sort of international recognition,” he said.
Brown described how when Aberra was first living in America by herself, she was incredibly introverted and struggled to meet the expectations set for her in customer-facing roles. “Her first job was at a Jack in the Box where she got fired because she was too shy and too quiet,” Brown said.
Nevertheless, Aberra’s skillset was clear: her ability to create beautifully unique clothes was incomparable. “Her friends, including me, were always admiring the clothes that she would make herself — then out of necessity,” Brown said.
When the pair tied the knot in 1985, Aberra designed and created her own wedding dress. Brown said this began because she was so disappointed by the styles of the time. She was looking instead for dresses that were “there to complement and accentuate the beauty of the wearer,” not compete with them.
She identified this want in other women, realizing that the current styles were missing a timeless and understated quality.
“She made her own dress and then she says, ‘Look, I can't be the only one who wants something tasteful, refined and more fashionable, so I'm sure there are other girls out here who have similar tastes, so that’s what I want to do,’” Brown said.
When asked if there was any moment in particular that convinced him that Aberra would make it in the world of fashion, Brown referenced the night before their own wedding. Aberra was already designing and constructing her own dress, so her sister had agreed to make the bridesmaids dresses. When the day of the rehearsal came though, the couple discovered that her sister had ended up just getting store-bought gowns for the bridesmaids — gowns that fell into a very specifically ’80s look.
“You remember the Pointer Sisters? These were dresses that looked like the Pointer Sisters and in my head I'm thinking, ‘I’m so excited,’” Brown said, referencing one of the group’s iconic songs.
Rather than complain or throw a fit though, Aberra just sat down and sewed each dress herself the night before her own wedding, doing what needed to be done herself.
“That there told me,” Brown said. “That the night before the wedding, when she's supposed to be relaxing and enjoying being the center of attention, she was focused on getting something done that had to be done and not complaining about it.”
Aberra first tried to place an ad as a custom dress designer, but she faced rejection after rejection. Finally, it was a Black executive at Modern Bride Magazine who was so in awe of Aberra’s work as a Black woman that she convinced her white superiors to print her listing.
For Brown’s part, he had the business expertise — and full-time job — to support Aberra as her own business began to take off.
“What's interesting about small businesses is that you have all the problems of a big business, you just don't have the resources, but you have to figure out how to handle them,” he said.
Amsale’s first big customer came from her meeting with Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter of Kleinfeld Bridal, or “Miss Hedda” as she was more affectionately called. Brown described the scene of complete awe that encompassed the entire store when Kleinfeld’s model walked out in Aberra’s iconic A101 gown.
“The model walked out and all of a sudden the store went silent. You literally could have heard a pin drop,” Brown said.
Kleinfeld picked the collection up on the spot.
What continued to define Aberra’s career was her sheer humility. When being interviewed for her first potential magazine spread at Brides Magazine, the couple’s daughter, Rachel Amsale Brown ’10, was just a toddler. Brown recollected how she began crying in the other room as Aberra tried to conduct her interview. “She says to herself, look, I've already blown this interview, I might as well at least have a happy baby,” Brown said. “She goes, gets the baby, brings Rachel out, holds her in her arms, and continues chatting with the editor with the baby in her arms and it turned out to be her first editorial.”
After a stunning career that spanned over three decades, Amsale passed away in April 2018. The news was a shock to all except her closest family and friends, as Aberra didn’t want “to burden anyone else with her challenge and she didn't want to be treated any differently simply because she was ill.”
Brown recalled the moment when he had to tell their staff that Aberra had passed away; he was full of fear of what would come next. How could he continue the company without its namesake? Should he just continue selling it off?
Instead, Brown found unwavering support in his employees, especially with a show for Amsale’s latest collection set to go on the next week. “What I witnessed was an unbelievable commitment to perpetuating Amsale’s legacy,” he said.
One employee in particular seemed especially distressed by the news, so Brown approached him and asked if he was okay.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘We're gonna need a bigger room.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he says, ‘That show is gonna be the best show ever.’”
The show went on and as it came to a close, an Ethiopian model walked down the runway in complete silence as the screen behind her came to life and showed Amsale herself, saying goodbye. The model was wearing the original A101 dress that launched Aberra’s career so many years ago.
In the wake of the summer of 2020 and in honor of Amsale’s memory as a trailblazing Black woman and immigrant in fashion, Brown has worked together with the Fashion Institute of Technology, from which Aberra holds a degree, to create Amsale Aspire, “an initiative dedicated to defeating systemic racism in the fashion industry by creating resilient pathways for Black students to develop transformative entrepreneurial skills to build successful businesses and eminent careers.”
Brown said that “three images” in particular made him feel as if action needed to be taken. First, the glaring juxtaposition between the white privilege displayed in the video of Amy Cooper’s interaction with the police and the police-led murder of George Floyd. This disillusionment was then compounded when Brown learned the stark disparity between the average wealth of Black versus white families. According to the Federal Reserve, as of 2019, “Black families' median and mean wealth is less than 15 percent that of white families.”
Having seen atrocities committed against Black people before in his lifetime and having seen the same fire for change dissipate among activists, Brown said he felt “jaded.” His daughter Rachel though, convinced him that this time had to be different, that, “We have to act. We have to do something.”
Amsale was someone “who utilized education, talent, and the support of a network to build a really powerful business,” Brown said. With her as their inspiration, the family set out to right “the disparity between the impact that African Americans have on fashion culture,” and their representation within the industry itself.
“You can’t deny that the essence of popular fashion culture now was derivative of African American style,” Brown said.
Today, Amsale Aspire aims to work with children interested in fashion and design starting in high school, understanding that the path to success begins long before students are even allowed entry into exclusive institutions such as FIT.
“The real goal now is to build partnership with industry to help open those doors, and provide that mentoring, and help provide that wisdom,” Brown said.
“Anyone who has faced a challenge and who's had a dream can be inspired by Amsale’s story,” Brown said.
Through the lives she touched and will continue to shape through Amsale Aspire, Aberra remains an unwavering inspiration within the fashion world and beyond.
—Staff writer Ella L. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ejones8100.