How an Oakland shoe designer is helping Black men heal from incarceration – Oaklandside

Dieudonné Brou achieved success after prison with his company Koffi Noir. Now, he’s helping others do the same.

Koffi Noir founders Dieudonné Brou and sister Veronique Brou at the Black Menswear Flash Mob in 2020. Credit: Michael Wayne Turner III IG: @sirmichaelwayne

Now, Brou is putting meaning behind fashion at Koffi Noir, which he co-founded with his sister, Veronique Brou. It’s a passion project for Brou, who aims to give Koffi Noir customers a luxury experience—something he believes should be accessible to anyone. “Everybody deserves a quality pair of shoes,” he said.

Self-proclaimed “dandy,” poet, and performance artist Sir Michael Wayne has provided Koffi Noir’s designers with creative direction. Black dandyism is a style of dress and demeanor used by some Black men as both an expression of rebellion and as a means of distinction, dating back to slavery: The men dress in formal attire to distinguish themselves as free and established gentlemen.

“One thing that folks may not be aware of is Black folk contributions to the fashion space,” said Brou. ”When it comes to Black dandies, they have a whole other connotation and conversation because of our experiences with slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, and colonialism.”

Brou has also worked closely with friend and fellow Oakland-based designer Akintunde Ahmad, founder of Ade Dehye, a fashion brand that sources materials from Africa and specifically from Accra, Ghana, where Brou’s family is from. The materials used include textiles, fabrics, and leather from animals such as pythons, crocodiles, and Ostriches. Research is done to make sure their animal and plant-based products come from ethical sources.

Brou said Koffi Noir is currently working on non-footwear items including wardrobe capsules and crew-neck sweaters, and is planning a style guide. He wants to someday own a leather tanner so he can make materials accessible to other Black designers and create jobs.

Each Koffi Noir shoe is made-to-order and customized through one-on-one consultations. The shoes take two months to be handmade and are then delivered to the customer. The shoes range from $275 to $500 based on the materials and customization. “It’s not so much the price of the shoe per se,” Brou said of the cost. “It’s really the experience and how they feel in that process of purchasing the shoe.”

Giving back to formerly incarcerated men and youth

Brou’s passion for Koffi Noir is equaled by his commitment to helping other formerly incarcerated people achieve their own success through his work as a youth advocacy and program coordinator at Urban Peace Movement, an Oakland-based nonprofit.

“I’m doing this work around prison abolition and trying to find alternatives to incarceration for young people,” said Brou.

Beginning in 2020, California began granting early releases to thousands of incarcerated people as a way to lower the risk of COVID-19 spreading in state prisons. The transition back into society is often challenging for those sent home with little support or resources, making the work of Brou and others like him critical.

On Wednesday nights, Brou co-leads a Black men’s group with Adimu Madyun and Chiedu Ufoegbune called DetermiNation. The group is often hosted at Third Eye Soul Kitchen in West Oakland’s Hoover Foster neighborhood and meals are prepared for the attendees, many of whom are arriving after work.