News & Events

Boston’s Zainab Sumu - Disrupting the Fashion Industry

Fashion Designer, Zainab Sumu has been all over the globe. 

Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone; raised in Paris; educated in London; and schooled in the real world of fashion from New York to Los Angeles. 

Sumu’s label, “Zainab Sumu Primitive Modern” combines indigenous and avant-garde elements that tell unique stories of African culture through fashion.  

Each collection under Primitive Modern was inspired, Zainab says, “to showcase the beauty, diversity and richness of West and North African cultures through authentic designs and textures.”  Her first collection, Djenne Illustrated brought life to the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, a world heritage site associated with the ancient civilization of Djenné-Djenno.  

“You can see the beauty of a building and see it transformed into clothing… Now, fashion is a form of transport, an emotional connector,” Sumu explains, “You can then tell a story and create an emotional connection through clothing.”

Zainab’s first entrepreneurial venture was a high-fashion retail boutique she operated in Los Angeles.  She tried weathering the storm of the great recession of 2008-2010; her business didn’t survive through the economic downturn – but she stayed resilient.  Then after spending some time in Sierra Leone, she focused on creating her own fashion line – using it as a medium for telling stories of the underrepresented.  

Launched following graduation from Massachusetts College of Art and Design – Primitive Modern was started from her home in 2015.  She took the business as far as she could and quickly realized that in order to reach her full potential – she needed experienced advice to help fully develop her market strategy.

Zainab learned about the Center for Women & Enterprise (CWE) and explored the educational workshops offered year-round.  She ended up enrolling in CWE’s Power Up! Business Planning Course, a 13-week program (3-hour classes) for entrepreneurs who are in the process of growing their business. 

The program was exactly what she needed – it allowed Zainab to work closely with a mentor to develop a business plan and practical strategy for profitability.  

The CWE Power Up! course was able to help her focus on her business, outside of working in it.  The process helped fuel her determination to shake up the fashion industry and create a high impact brand.  She was able to exchange ideas in a cohort of fellow women entrepreneurs and work with a mentor to create a blueprint for growth.  One of Sumu’s strategies is to use fashion as a medium to share African art with the world.  Through the first and only-ever fashion collaboration with iconic Malian photographer, Malick Sidibe – powerful images from his collection are the focus of a slate of limited edition t-shirts.

The CWE course also helped solidify the social mission for Primitive Modern – to change the narrative of North/West Africa from one of poverty, disease and terrorism; to one of beauty, rich culture and high fashion.  Sumu partnered with ‘Nothing But Nets,’ a global grassroots campaign for the fight against malaria – a deadly disease she herself has been sick with several times.  Sumu donates $20 for every limited edition t-shirt sold, hoping to raise awareness that MALARIA IS PREVENTABLE.  Every two minutes, a child dies from malaria, a disease caused by mosquito bites.  With more education and support, Malaria has been found to be preventable and also a treatable sickness that leaves refugees, pregnant women and children most vulnerable. 

Today, Zainab Sumu’s atelier is based in Boston’s SoWa Art & Design District and is changing the perception of Africans with her fashion.  Zainab’s high-fashion scarves have already been seen sported by the likes of celebrity, Alicia Keys.  


460B Harrison Avenue, Gallery B5
Boston, MA 02118

 By Lisa Achoki, Center for Women & Enterprise; Edited by Norman Eng, SBA Massachusetts