African attire is on the rise, and more people of African descent are wearing clothes from the motherland, meaning I’m not the only one wearing them. Recently I’ve seen many Caucasians wearing African headscarves, handbags, accessories, and dresses. African clothes are becoming more popular.  Over the year’s big names in fashion such as Vivienne Westwood, Burberry and Marc Jacobs have been involved in marketing African clothes.  Beninese – American Melissa Pognon is also distributing in this market.

img_5513From pants to fans, Melissa has some unique and eclectic African items for sale. “I sell various clothing; decorative items and fabrics which came from different parts of Africa.” The name of her company is called L’esprit Ouvert, which is French for ‘open mind.’  It took her a very long time to come up with the name as her experiences in life helped her create the name. “I thought things would go a particular way after finishing my Masters in Human Rights, but they didn’t.” She decided to put her resources and skills together to create something.  “Use what you have and do something with it – that’s what L’esprit Ouvert means to me, and that’s the inspiration for starting a small business with big goals and dreams.” 

L’esprit Ouvert launched in July 2015. Melissa decided to do something special with her company. The specifics haven’t been laid out yet, but the long-term project is to use a percentage of the sales and build a school in Benin. “For me, it is crucial that my customers buy products they want and are happy with. It makes the experience more unique because their purchase is going towards something greater, cause that is worth working to accomplish.” Melissa loves children; she knows how important they are and has worked with children from different backgrounds. She wants to help build a foundation for the future, and she wants to start in Benin, one of the world’s poorest nations. “If I had to choose three things I believe in wholeheartedly, those things would be: human rights, the power and potential of children when given the right resources, and our ability to be creative and innovative”. Melissa has qualifications in Social Science (Political Science), Bilingual and Multicultural Education, and in Human Rights.

Although she had the business idea for some time, Melissa only began to be involved in business and entrepreneurship in this capacity around a year ago. Her mother, the owner of Arielle & Melissa, which is the mother store to L’esprit Ouvert, has over 30 years of experience in this business. “My mother is my everything, she has taught me everything that I know, and for that I am grateful. I have been working alongside her and learning how to run a successful business. She is my inspiration and the businesswoman of businesswomen.”

This inspiration was critical when Melissa finished her masters in London and went back to New York in 2014. She found it difficult finding a job, which she was willing to take. “I was aiming for any and all entry level positions in international development and education within the United Nations’ system, NGOs, and charities across the US and in various parts of the world.” She then decided to help her mum with her business for a while before creating her own. Preparations to build the business started in March 2015, three – four months later it was up and running. Melissa doesn’t mess around with time!


“I decided to create my opportunity as I had nothing to lose.”

As well as her mother, Melissa’s other family members, and friends have helped her a lot  on her business journey.

Studying in London gave Melissa a chance to compare New York’s fashion to England’s capital. “Difference in fashion between New York and London is that Londoners are bolder with their fashion.  I’ve seen a lot of fascinating attires which people use to express themselves in London. There isn’t that much excitement to New York fashion; generally, I think we like to play it safe. London is more creative.” Melissa appreciates the creativity and style that Londoners have. African attire is seen a lot in London, but that isn’t the case in most of America to her knowledge. “In New York City, the appreciation for African culture is on the rise in art, clothing, and music.  I haven’t seen much of this in any other part of America.” 

There are many black celebrities in America, but not many contribute to helping an African country like Melissa Pognon. “Celebrities are trying to help Africa, but there is always more that you can do. One person who comes to mind is rapper Akon, who is creating electricity via solar energy for countries in Africa. Except for him, I can’t think of any other African celebrities who are investing time or money in Africa.” Oprah Winfrey is another African American who invests in Africa. When boxer Floyd Mayweather was asked about investing money into Africa, he responded by saying “what has Africa done for me?” Let us hope in years to come, that Miss Pognon is an example for celebrities like Floyd Mayweather to follow. “As the celebrities are not being hit first hand by the problems in Africa, they probably think they don’t have to do as much.” Maybe Melissa is right, but then again celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry, and Ben Affleck still manage to donate.

Curious, bold and open-minded are some of the words, which Melissa would use to describe her business adventure so far. “Believe in yourself to make a decision and get things done; if you want something to happen, you have to work for it.  If you work hard and surround yourself with positive people, anything is possible.” She loves fashion and has a passion for creating and putting things together. I’m sure if you have a look at L’esprit Ouvert’s website, you too will love her fun and edgy products.

She caters for everyone – so why not have an open mind and check out – I certainly am.


Subject – Melissa Pognon
Photography & written – Cris Blaize