Donning long, large sleeved, colorful patterns hand-woven across his shirts, many of Souleyman Gackou’s friends at Temple University asked him where they could buy similar clothing.
Seeing an absence of African garments in mainstream fashion, Gackou, a junior mechanical engineering major, created King Souleyman Enterprises, a small business of printed shirts, dresses and jewelry produced in Dakar, Senegal. Gackou distributes and sells the clothing online, in pop-up shops around Philadelphia and on Main Campus.
“Right now, King Souleyman Enterprises is just a clothing line, but it is bigger than just clothing,” Gackou said. “There are a lot of people who want these products so they can promote their culture, so I thought, why don’t I provide that service.”
Gackou was born in Philadelphia and moved to Senegal when he was 2 years old, where he lived with his family until 2012. His parents are from Senegal and came to the United States in 1994. Gackou finished high school in the U.S., enrolled at Temple in 2018, and began his clothing business in August 2019.
“My uncle in Senegal is very connected, so I shared my idea with him and he said he would be in contact with some local tailors,” Gackou said.
He sends clothing designs to a local tailor there through WhatsApp, who makes the garments and sends them here.
“I begin with drawings, and once I have something tangible, I will contact my manufacturer in Senegal and tell him exactly what I want,” Gackou said. “From there I have all of my clothes shipped over here in bulk, so the expenses are not as high.”
This process helps keep his clothing authentic, Gackou added.
Traditionally, the boubou, a large, light-weight robe worn in Senegal, is typically over a tunic and trousers and is made of wax or cotton, according to Custom Qamis, a handmade clothing brand from the United Arab Emirates. Gackou sells his shirts for $36 each.
“I want my customers to be diverse and celebrate the Senegalian culture,” Gackou said. “Anyone can wear the clothes I create.”
King Souleyman Enterprises’ platform has grown through word of mouth, social media, festivals and fashion shows, Gackou said. Most of his customer base is from Philadelphia, though he has sold to people in other countries and around the East Coast, he said.
“I try to tell people about his brand in my personal life, and I try to admire people like him who have specific ideas,” said Jelani Tate, 25, a customer and business engineer trainee at The School District of Philadelphia who lives on Broad Street near Olney Avenue. “I like that he is authentic and doesn’t just dress the part.”
The business is planning a party over the summer to introduce more people to their brand, said Diakha Thaim, King Souleyman Enterprises’ operations manager.
“We want to share this culture with everyone,” Thaim said.
At Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness’s “Immigrant Diaries,” a dance, poetry and fashion event hosted in the Student Center on Nov. 16, 2019, Gackou represented King Souleyman Enterprises for the first time and Thaim modeled the clothing.
“He saw my potential and how I would talk to prospective customers,” Thaim said. “After that, he asked for me to join his team and help him out more.”
While the environment at Temple has helped boost his brand’s platform, it is not easy to balance being a student and a designer, Gackou said.
“I had to set a lot of my priorities straight,” he added. “In order for this business to succeed, my grades at Temple have to be there as well.”
Gackou often gets asked about being a mechanical engineering student and a fashion designer, but he thinks his educational background makes it easy for him to ask questions and take criticism.
“[Gackou] is a hard worker in school and the business, and he shows that through his customer service,” said Seth Jones, 25, a customer and entrepreneur at Wavvystraw, a reusable materials company, who lives on Lansdowne Avenue. “One time a shirt did not fit me that well, and I didn’t expect him to do anything but he went the extra mile for me to fix it.”
Looking forward, Gackou and Thaim want to see their website fully functioning, more brand outreach and more customers on the East Coast.
“I hope to see it evolve with time and reach more people who look to wear the authenticity the brand brings,” Gackou said.