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Harrisburg designer empowers women through fashion

Harrisburg designer empowers women through fashion

  • Amma Johnson couples her love of art and fashion with her drive to strengthen women through her brand, AMMA JO.
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Amma Johnson had $100 and a dream. She wanted to start a handbag company and fashion brand.

Sourcing fabrics from Africa as an homage to her Ghanaian parents, Amma had one handbag made with her signature AMMA JO label. Then she sketched the design in an array of colors.

“The scariest part,” she says, “was putting my name as a logo inside the bag.”

In 2014, Amma began showing her sample bag and drawings to family, friends, and owners of local shops, gathering her first 100 preorders.

It was the beginning of a Harrisburg-based fashion brand that can be found at boutiques and gift shops around the country.

Giving her dream a chance

Amma has loved fashion and art since she was 4 years old, when she started drawing faces with hairstyles and pages and pages of outfits.

“As I grew up, I forgot how much I loved it,” she says. “I did what most women do: go on with life, get married, have kids.”

She spent several years in retail before going to work for the Harrisburg Regional Chamber. A decade of being around entrepreneurs and business owners, hearing their stories, and seeing their growth inspired Amma to give her own dream a chance.

“I always had that passion to start my own business, but it was just a passing thought,” Amma says. “Women can be so focused on making sure everyone else is OK.”

‘A colorful culture’

As the sketchbooks came back out and Amma began to design in earnest, she took inspiration from her rich cultural roots. After emigrating from Ghana, her parents found a diverse network of friends in the United States and specifically in Pittsburgh, where she grew up. Her father, an electrical engineering and mother, a nurse, were part of a vibrant international community in Pennsylvania. Amma and her three siblings grew up surrounded by friends of many cultures from India to Sri Lanka to Vietnam and many more.

“It was a colorful culture,” she says.

That rich heritage and diversity played out in her designs. Popping colors and geometric patterns take shape on her handbags, backpacks, scarves, jewelry, and clothing lines.

By 2015, Amma was ready to take her brand to the next level. She attended her first buyer show in Philadelphia with a goal of getting 10 stores to purchase her bags. The other vendors had elaborate, professionally lighted displays showcasing their wholesale goods.

Amma had boxes. Lots of white shipping boxes. They were stacked like a wall with her purses displayed along the façade, illuminated by cheap LED lights she had picked up online.

Other vendors warned her that this was a place to make connections, not sales. But Amma was persistent. By the end of the four-day event, she had 10 orders.

Inspiring others

For Amma, fashion design is about so much more than making sales. Early in her journey, she knew she wanted to give back. She began hosting an annual AMMA JO Summit in 2018 and smaller events throughout the year where attendees could hear successful speakers, grow their network, and shop local brands.

“I want to help people, to encourage them and inspire them to hold on to their dreams,” Amma says. “I know how it feels to get knocked down.”

As she launches into a new year, still partly in COVID-19 recovery mode, Amma is doubling down on that mission. She’s shutting down her in-person retail showroom and taking the AMMA JO brand into the virtual space and on the road in 2023, encouraging women to step out, show themselves some grace, and pursue their passions. “If I could sum up my life in one word, it would be to inspire,” she says. “Be inspired to dream, to get the better job, to just take that next step.”