Just a stone’s throw from Pink’s hot dogs and set off by a bright orange awning, Zainab is an oasis of eclectic glamour on a gritty stretch of Melrose Avenue.
In the six months since boutique owner Zainab Sumu moved her operation from a private, appointment-only salon in Hollywood to a 1,300-square-foot ground floor retail space, Zainab has steadily generated buzz as one of L.A.’s most creatively curated shops.
At a recent cocktail party for shoe designer Jerome Rousseau, many of the guests were visiting the space for the first time. They included Imitation of Christ designer Tara Subkoff, who praised the “comfortable, cool, open vibe.” And while most were drooling over Rousseau’s fetish-worthy footwear (green glitter stilettos, anyone?), Subkoff had zeroed in on something else: the gray cotton scarf that Sumu wore chic-ly twisted around her head, accenting her Ohne Titel red silk top and sculptural black pants.
“It’s so good!” Subkoff raved. “How do you do it?”
“You just knot it, and keep twisting it,” said Sumu, obligingly unwinding the scarf to demonstrate.
The designer of this covetable piece? “Oh,” Sumu replied, “it’s just from home.”
“Home” is war-torn Sierra Leone, where Sumu lived as a girl before going to boarding school in London. She moved to Paris after falling in love with fashion and later became the sales manager at Commes des Garçons in New York. Five and a half years ago, “work and play” brought her to Los Angeles.
All along, she was developing what she calls her “modern primitive” aesthetic, a bold, sophisticated, multicultural sensibility that she says she shares with Guinean artist Aly Kourouma, whose colorful graphic paintings hang on the walls of her store. Later this year, she plans to add a selection of books on fashion, design and contemporary African art.
“It’s like a contemporary fusion of Africa and the West,” she says. “It’s sort of that marriage between music, politics, art; it’s our take on the West and Africa.”
Now that there is peace in Sierra Leone, Sumu says “it’s time to reconnect.” She is planning to visit her family this spring and meet with local craftspeople. “A big part of my business will be working with artisans from Africa,” she says.
Zainab’s current selections include luscious cotton basics with a haute twist from Herff Christiansen, elegant, airy tunics by Bruce II, feathered skirts by Leila Shams, charming floral pieces from the revamped Cacharel and a line of artisanal fragrances called Histoire de Parfums that the shop carries exclusively. Prices range from $40 for tees by JVL to $7,500 for an Azzaro dress with hand-sewn Swarovski crystal, but most items fall into the $1,000 to $2,000 range.
At the end of April, she hosted a trunk show for the young Canadian designer Jeremy Laing, whose wrapped geometric pieces she describes as “avant-garde, wearable and classic at the same time.”
Stylist Ezra Woods, who co-hosted the Rousseau soiree, observes that “the coolest thing is that she buys pieces that are daring but beautiful. There aren’t that many people that take risks with daring stuff.”
Even more important to Sumu is that all her merchandise stands the test of time. “You can pick a piece out of your closet 10 years down the line, still wear it and not feel like, ‘this was so spring-summer whatever,’ ” she says. “I focus on designers that are aesthetically timeless.”
And somehow, the proximity to Pink’s works for her. “You don’t think about having luxury clothes there,” Sumu notes with a laugh. “I love that! It’s still a sense of discovery.”