Archel Bernard, right, teaching employee Beatrice Blama at a sewing machine at Bernard’s “The Bombchel Factory” in Monrovia, Liberia. SPECIAL PHOTO / CONOR BEARY

Gwinnett grad’s fashion biz hires Ebola survivors (and needs your help)

Beatrice’s husband was one of the nearly 5,000 men, women and children killed in Liberia’s Ebola epidemic.

She didn’t know for sure for several days, but finally learned from an ambulance driver. She never got to see him. His body had been burned.

She tried to return to her village, but was shunned — the disease’s inescapable stigma hard at work. Her husband had been the breadwinner, and she couldn’t read or write. She had no options.

Then she met Archel Bernard.

“There’s a woman there, whose life was literally over,” Bernard, a former Gwinnett resident and current Liberian fashionista, recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And she’s found a breath, because she’s found a skill.”

Bernard, 27, graduated from Collins Hill High School in Suwanee and studied at Georgia Tech before heading for the Liberian capital of Monrovia, where her family has roots, in January 2011. Not especially inspired by the traditional clothing offered at local tailors, she began taking them her own designs — and realized later that her handiwork was being offered to other customers as well.

She was working a government job — “they would kind of pay us when they felt like it” — so she decided to start producing and selling the clothes herself. She opened a boutique called Mango Rags but things started small, a little extra cash the only real goal.

Less than five years later, things are a tad more ambitious. “The Bombchel Factory” has been born, an online crowdfunding effort has already raised nearly $60,000, and Bernard hopes to start selling to the rest of the world by the end of the year.

And she’ll do it with a staff of women like Beatrice, women with no other way — survivors of the Ebola epidemic, rape survivors, deaf students. They’ll get training and a fair wage, with transportation and lunch paid for.

The Bombchel Factory currently employs three such women and produces about 150 of Bernard’s vibrant (and sometimes revealing) pieces every month. The Kickstarter campaign, which ends Friday, will allow the factory to hire nine more survivors. The hope is to have 24 total by September, when Bernard hosts an event at New York Fashion Week and launches a full website.

Eventually, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 pieces will be produced monthly.

“Once I got into it and started learning how to operate a business,” Bernard said, “it felt selfish not to find a way to benefit other women.”

» Click here to learn more about The Bombchel Factory and contribute to the Kickstarter campaign.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.