When Archel Bernard graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Science, Technology and Communication, she had a goal: to become the Oprah Winfrey of West Africa. Soon after, she moved back to her home country of Liberia in pursuit of that dream. However, she quickly found that the country was too poor to support that kind of lifestyle journalism in a sustainable way, and realized that more than the fame and success she wanted a connection with people. Instead of becoming a television personality, Bernard found success in designing and creating West African-inspired dresses that she wore on camera and then began to sell.
Bernard opened her own boutique in Monrovia, Liberia in 2013, selling bold, brightly colored dresses and accessories. The Ebola outbreak a year later forced her to close her doors, but Bernard wouldn’t leave her shop and her employees behind. The pandemic helped her to realize that she had built what she calls “a selfish business” that served no one but herself. She reopened with a fresh perspective and a new vision for the shop: to build a business that served the community she loved.
Now, the Bombchel Factory and Mango Rags Boutique in Monrovia employ over ten girls from around the area, giving them opportunities they might not otherwise have had to get involved with fashion, learn skills, and begin to build their own businesses. Bernard’s all-female staff includes Ebola survivors who are earning salaries and working towards self-sufficiency. They are learning to read, supporting their children’s education with their paychecks, and taking the first steps to breaking into the fashion industry with their own boutiques.
“We have to get past the point of buying cheap clothing because it’s cheap,” says Bernard of her boutique, “Because somewhere in the world, a garment maker is paying the true cost.”
Earlier this year, Bernard’s life was changed by a second pandemic — this time COVID-19. She was in the U.S. when the outbreak began and ended up back in Atlanta where she had grown up. But characteristically, Bernard didn’t let a virus stop her. In October, she’ll be opening a second boutique in Ponce City Market, one of Atlanta’s most iconic destinations. The PCM location will sell Bombchel Factory’s lavish dresses, tees, sets, jewelry, and masks.
With the death of George Floyd and subsequent civil rights movement that swept the nation, Bernard has observed an increased interest in Black-owned small businesses.
But she is still the only Black-owned clothing store in Ponce — and that’s something, she says, that has to change. Bernard’s parents came to the United States as refugees from war in Liberia and became a part of the city’s ecosystem.
Establishing her shop in this community, Bernard says, is her way of representing their history and that of others like them.
Bernard describes Atlanta as “the best place to be if you’re Black,” so she wonders why it is that among the city’s renowned fashion designers, not one is Black.
In an effort to change that, one quarter of the space in her boutique will be dedicated to the work of Black female designers.
“We need to create Atlanta legends from here,” she says, “I never saw someone who looked like me opening a store like this.”
As a part of Tech’s Alumni Association, Bernard says that her GT network has been incredibly supportive of her journey across continents and industries.
The first time she ever voted was in the Tech Student Center, and she recalls seeing Barack Obama and John Lewis’- names on her ballot.
But it doesn’t seem like that long ago to Bernard that things were very different: when her grandmother was growing up, women, much less Black women, weren’t allowed to attend schools like Tech.
The only people at Georgia Tech who looked like her grandmother were doing the cleaning. Bernard can’t talk about her grandmother, who introduced her to retail with her job at JC Penney’s, without tearing up.
“Now we can be in any place that we want to be,” she says, “We have to have good businesses and we have to do things that will make the people before us proud. We owe it to people like John Lewis to keep dreaming the big dreams.”
When asked about the future, Bernard looks at the still-boarded-up walls of her shop and says, “This is it.”
It’s time to get past “selfish” businesses: “Brown girls will feel exceptional, and everyone will be welcomed. Everything we do has to be to make a better future for them.”
Bombchel will be opening on the second floor of Ponce City Market on October 7. Tech students can receive 50% off a pair of the shop’s signature hoops with their Buzzcard. Find Bombchel online at shopbombchel.com and follow their Instagram @shopbombchel. Follow Bernard