Maisha Webb wants to be seen before she is heard. She has always been a little quiet, but when she makes an entrance, she’s determined to be noticed.
“Fashion was a way to express myself without having to say anything,” she said. “I knew when I walked into a room (…) it’s going to turn heads.”
When you enter Mean Girl Style Boutique, the first thing you notice is pink—pink walls that Webb’s dad had contested when she pulled out the paint cans. But remember, she was going for head turns.
Racks of neon dresses, shimmering skirts and graphic tees with messages like, “Alexa. Block his number,” line the wall. Her outfits are for people who like to think outside the box when it comes to fashion, she said.
“I really like sparkly things,” Webb admitted. “I have a lot of sequins.”
Webb’s story reflects that of a growing number of Black shop owners and entrepreneurs in the Harrisburg area, who are taking something they love and turning it into a money-making venture. Whether it’s fashion, food or health, many new African American businesses have opened in recent years.
When she started her brand, Webb didn’t have a degree or business experience, she just wanted to sell shoes. She went through ups and downs, periods of stepping away from the business and name changes to her boutique. Webb took time for her family, working other jobs and caring for her three kids. But something was missing.
“When you have something you’re really passionate about and you step away from it, it’s like a void,” she said.
It was in 2016 when she decided to commit to her business. Webb was listening to a Jay-Z song, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” when the lyrics called out the perfect name for her boutique, Mean Girl Style. Hip-hop lyrics often speak to her like that. In 2018, she bought her store on N. Front Street in Steelton, painted the walls pink and, in her words, worked her butt off.
Webb’s daughter Ajia’s artwork decorates the walls of the boutique. Ajia even has a few shirts and jackets on the racks that she designed herself.
“My mom is an inspiration to me,” she said. “I’m trying to follow what she is doing.”
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Yolanda Maina learned everything she knows from her mother. Her skills of beading jewelry, carving wood and stone and sewing clothing came from her mother’s teaching.
At Jambo African Fashion and Design, she sells items just like the ones that she and her mother made and sold in Kenya years ago.
“We have bright colors, beautiful colors,” said Maina, who owns the enterprise with husband Edwin. “I try to make many different pieces.”
Until recently, their store was located in downtown Harrisburg, but recently turned to an all-online model.
Maina said that the couple brings a taste of African heritage to customers. Dresses, jewelry, men’s suits and kente head wraps are just a few of the items they sell.
She makes some of the jewelry and clothing herself, and some is sent from Kenya.
“I try to create employment for the ladies back home,” she said. “It’s about empowering them, and they are learning the skills, too.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, things slowed down at the shop, except the owners. Maina continued working and studying in school to be a nurse, while running the store.
“There are some good days and bad days,” she said. “It’s about patience.”
Owner of Ex•hale Candle Co., Aubrea Thompson, not only wants to make her customers happy, but healthier.
About four years ago, Thompson started experimenting with making aromatherapy candles.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” she said. “There’s a science to it. I had to learn a lot.”
Thompson loved a good candle—the way it made the room glow while creating ambience and a sense of relaxation. But through research, she found information on how paraffin wax candles, the most popular kind, could potentially cause health issues, she said.
Thompson decided to make her candles with soy wax and essential oils. They are all-natural, organic and vegan-friendly, and each is handmade by Thompson, who pours many hours each week into the craft.
One of her scents, perfect for fall, is a blend of blood orange and cassia (cinnamon) called “Bliss.” Another customer favorite is “Zen AF,” a mixture of lavender and vanilla.
Each candle has the name with a definition of the word underneath. “Pur•if•y,” “Pros•per•i•ty” and “Vibes” are among them. There’s one for almost every feeling or state of mind.
“I’m big on words and positive affirmations,” Thompson said. “My candles have a meaning of wisdom and purpose.”
In addition to candles, she has her own photography business, ATV Studios in Carlisle. Thompson currently sells her candles online, but hopes to find a storefront eventually to continue helping people live a healthier life.
One of Thompson’s candles recently sat on Webb’s desk at Mean Girl Style Boutique.
“I’m a Black-owned, small business so I get a lot of support from my community,” Thompson said. “Doing this makes me feel like I have purpose again.”
Making a Statement
When the pandemic hit, most people suddenly had a lot more time on their hands. Danielle Williams sure did.
Now that she had more time at home, she wanted to do something meaningful with it.
Williams started designing and making her own earrings. She was selling clothes on her small online boutique, The Beat Boutique, but wanted to expand to jewelry. YouTube helped her learn the technicalities, but the creativity was always there, she said.
“It started as a hobby,” she explained. “It was just something to do in quarantine. But then people started reaching out.”
It wasn’t long before Williams set up a room dedicated to earring making in her home in Midtown.
Every day, she spends time rolling and hand molding polymer clay, using a pasta maker to get the air bubbles out, and cutting out whatever shape she has in mind.
Some of her earring designs resemble a sunset, others a crescent moon. One pair is a swirl of pink, blue and purple pastels, another a simple, moss green that reminds her of her destination wedding in Iceland.
“I’m really big on loud colors,” Williams said. “I have darker skin and short hair, so I like statement earrings.”
Under the name Earrings by Dee, Williams has sold her jewelry at venues like Rubicon, La Cultura and the HBG Flea. She is grateful for the opportunity she has, while recognizing there is still often a lack of diversity among artists and makers showcased at festivals and pop-up shops.
“I think the community is working on giving a platform to people like me,” she said. “But I would love to see more people that look like me at these pop-ups.”
While Williams never expected her quarantine hobby to take off like it did, she is grateful for the ways she has grown because of it.
“I’ve learned to really believe in myself and grow outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “It’s a feeling of ‘wow, I’ve done this.’”
Mean Girl Style Boutique is located at 147 N. Front St., Steelton. For more information, visit www.mgsboutique.com or their Instagram (@meangirlstyle).
Jambo African Fashion and Design can be found at www.jamboafricanfashion.com or their Facebook page.
To order from Exhale Candle Co. or to learn more, visit www.exhalecandleco.com or see their Instagram page (@exhalecandleco).
To check out Earrings by Dee, visit www.thebeatboutique.shop or her Instagram (@earrings_bydee).
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