Operating out of a modest strip mall in West Omaha, El Roi House of Design offers a boutique specializing in African traditional styles for men and women, brilliantly patterned fabrics, and beaded and bejeweled accessories.
But if you take a peek beyond the retail counter and into the back room, you’ll see where the real magic happens.
That’s where El Roi founder and head designer Priscilla Teley Foley dreams up high-fashion concepts for events of all kinds and turns them into dazzling bespoke garments that command attention.
On a recent Saturday, we caught up with her in her workshop. With a cloth tape measure looped around her neck, Teley Foley was perched on an ergonomically engineered chair, pushing yards of turquoise fabric under the needle of the sewing machine in front of her to create binding as a finish to a bridesmaid’s dress. Her niece was working on a different garment in another corner of the shop, and a rainbow-hued array of finished gowns hung from a rolling rack in the center of the room.
Since 1990, the number of African immigrants settling in Nebraska has tripled, accounting for almost 10 percent of the foreign-born population in the state today. That’s a significantly smaller demographic than immigrants from Latin America or Asia, but it is enough to support a wave of Africa-born designers who are making names for themselves in Omaha and throughout the Midwest.
This past Spring, Omaha played host to its fifth annual African Fashion Week to showcase designers’ African inspired designs. This is part of an effort to strengthen ties among folks from the African diaspora, but also to elevate their talents and visibility to the overall community.
Teley Foley’s own story began in western Africa. She was born in Togo, and later moved with her family to Ghana. By the time she was 15 she realized the family needed her to leave school and contribute to the family income. Teley Foley’s aspiration was to become a lawyer, but her parents felt that she needed to enter a field that was more practical and hands-on. She had reached an impasse with her parents when a pastor intervened and suggested that she pray over the problem.
Instead, she went to her room and took a nap, and the resolution came to her in her sleep.
She dreamed that she was walking through a shop full of dresses, instructing people how to sew wedding gowns and other fashions.
Feeling that this vision had been delivered to her by God himself, she became a fashion designer, and named her business El Roi (The King) House of Design in His honor.
Teley Foley’s resettlement in the United States has opened new opportunities for her business – although during the COVID pandemic she was sewing more masks than evening gowns. Business has bounced back now, though, and she has built a reputation for her detailed embroidery and beading handiwork, as well as her custom African designs.
“Since I had that dream and I said ‘yes’ to that dream, I never gave up on this,” Teley Foley said in a recent interview, “because it’s something that I love doing.”
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.