There’s a saying that “clothes don’t make the man.” And while it’s true that a person’s character can’t be judged by their appearance, it’s also undeniable that what we wear and how we present ourselves to the world can impact how others perceive us. It’s a truth that Dieudonné Brou, founder of the Oakland-based custom footwear brand Koffi Noir, understands well.
Brou entered prison at age 18 and served seven years. What made all the difference when he re-entered society, he said, was having someone waiting at the gate to take him home, and the support of family members who wanted to see him succeed—a privilege not everyone has. That support led him to graduate from UCLA and go on to work as a community advocate and mental health counselor with Alameda County.
But the other key to his success? “After spending seven years in prison, the one thing that was the difference between me achieving all the stuff that I have over the last 10 years—it was the way that I styled myself,” said Brou. “I don’t look like someone that’s been to prison.”
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.
People who were incarcerated at a young age, said Brou, may find that upon being released they still have the same behaviors and thoughts as when they went in. It takes the support of people in similar situations to understand how to make a new life for themselves.
“[DetermiNation] is just a way to get young Black men together in a safe place and talk about healing and trauma,” said Brou.
The men’s group was founded in 2012 as a program of Urban Peace Movement, and Brou joined as a mentor some years later. Many members of the group also participate in a social justice committee, which pushes for criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration. It also offers leadership development opportunities, wellness support, and stipends for participation.
“[I’m] working with young Black and brown kids who are basically getting pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline and segregated from the rest of their peers to some obscure place on [their] campus,” said Brou, “because none of the teachers want to deal with them.”
Most participants are aged 15 to 24, he said, but men of all ages are welcome to join. The oldest person currently in the group is 42.
Brou said he doesn’t want to let his past define him or the youth and men he works with. “You’re meant to walk, regardless of what the circumstances that led you down that path,” he said.
And it helps if you can wear a nice pair of shoes along the way.
“It doesn’t feel like work to me,” Brou said of his efforts with both Koffi Noir and Urban Peace Movement. “I think that’s what’s allowed me to fully immerse myself in both and do it unapologetically, in my own way.”
For more information about Urban Peace Movement and its programs, call (510) 444-5400, email [email protected], or mail a letter to PO Box 19339, Oakland, CA 94619.