The saying as one door closes, another opens is playing out for the founder of Bed Stuy sewing non-profit Black Girls Sew, Hekima Hapa.
As the store that has housed Black Girls Sew since 2020, Botanical Life & Style, is getting ready to shut its shop at 384 Tompkins Avenue, Hapa is looking to take her classes mobile with a new classroom van after more than 25 years in brick and mortar retail spaces.
“It just seems like a really good time to say it’s time for the next chapter,” Hapa, a fashion designer who launched Black Girls Sew in 2013, said. “I think I have to focus on the non-profit and on growing that aspect of it.”
The organization focuses on teaching fundamental life skills through the design process. Last year, Hapa and co-author Lesley Ware released a book, “Black Girls Sew,” to share practical tips and advice to create a foundation of skills while inspiring young sewers to express their own creativity and identity.
Botanical Life & Style was opened by Hapa and neighboring small business owner Khadija Tudor (who is the co-founder of the Life Wellness Center at 376 Tompkins Avenue) near the end of 2020 as the pandemic entered its first winter. Previously the space was home to the Radical Women retail store. Inside, Hapa held her Black Girls Sew classes and sold clothing from her brand Harriets by Hekima as well as products by other local makers, and Khadijah hosted Conversations with Khadijah.
While business was still going strong on the bustling avenue, which has become a hub for dining and shopping especially with the rollout of TAMA Sundays, part of Open Streets, Hapa said souring relations with the building’s landlord paired with the space not being ideal for classes made it a “great opportunity to bow out gracefully, for me, it’s a good pivot.”
“I’ve done retail for 25 years. I’ve had at least six different locations throughout that time. I’ve been moved by the stadium from one location to another on Flatbush, two stores on St. Johns [Place] and then two stores on Tompkins Avenue, this is my second,” Hapa said.
“I think it’s just time to graduate. I’m teaching children about design and alternatives to business and I think for me that work is more important and I have to be an example that you have to know when to say when.”
Although she said she was feeling liberated by the move, there was definitely sadness giving up a storefront on Tompkins Avenue alongside the “terrific” small business community she had helped to grow. “But at the end of the day I thought for me, individually, like you’ve done this, it works, you know that you’re good at retail. But there’s something that’s greater,” she said.
“I feel like teaching the children at the non-profit is my calling as opposed to a job and I haven’t been doing that well in the last five years. The distraction is being a good fashion designer, being a good store owner, and I want to stop being distracted, I want to do this other work.”
To get the ball rolling on the next chapter, Hapa is now fundraising for a new van to convert into a mobile classroom for Black Girls Sew, which offers “the tools needed to create a more fashionable future,” according to the fundraiser.
“Home economics and life skills programs have been removed from most New York City schools. SEW BK-NYC will act as a catalyst for change to provide these skills once again,” the fundraiser reads. “Black Girls Sew will continue to offer monthly sustainable sewing classes for adults, Sew Green Fashion Camp for the youth. With an increased mobility for additional programming.”
The fundraiser is asking for $50,000 for a transit style van; $25,000 for classroom conversions; $10,000 for sewing equipment; and $15,000 for licenses, insurance, and parking.
Hapa said the goal is to be up and running doing after-school programming by the fall, offering regular classes on top of the nonprofit’s current monthly adult classes and children’s summer camp. Some of her former summer camp graduates will be employed to help teach, she said.
“I want to have the mobile by fall so that we’re able to really just move around from community centers to churches and into the boroughs. People are always asking me in the Bronx and Queens, do you do programming here, and the only issue is the mobility,” Hapa said.
Despite the plans to travel across the boroughs and give up the Brooklyn brick and mortar, Bed Stuy will remain her home base, she said, with some administrative operations running out of the back of Tudor’s Life Wellness Center.
“We’ll still be around for TAMA Sundays, my children go to school in the neighborhood, we don’t live very far so it’ll still be Bed Study based. We’ll still do a lot of programming with TAMA,” Hapa said, referring to the Tompkins Avenue Merchant Association. “It’s just leaving that space and giving someone else an opportunity, in my mind, while creating other opportunities for ourselves.”
[Photos by Anna Bradley-Smith]