In Stitches: The Surgeon Who Started a Ready-to-Wear Line
Surgeon Sophia Aomo Omoro Expertly Juggles Medicine, Fashion Design and Philanthropy
“I have been designing forever. Fashion has always been in my heart,” says Dr. Sophia Aomo Omoro. “I just didn’t know how you could make money with this!”
Omoro, an otolaryngologist, says her interest in fashion dates back to her childhood in Kenya. She and her five sisters were often dressed in the same fabrics, something Omoro did not appreciate. She would distinguish her looks by redesigning and sewing what her mother, a seamstress, made.
Now, Omoro — a tall, gracious surgeon with a bright, endearing smile — spends half her week on her odAOMO fashion collection, launched in 2014 with a boutique in her adopted hometown of New Orleans, and the other half of her week practicing medicine in Lima, Ohio, a city with a 25 percent poverty rate.
It’s perhaps from growing up, living and working in such contrasting environments that makes the OdAOMO collection so wonderfully eclectic. The name of the label means: “House of Aomo.” Aomo, in Omoro’s tribal tongue, means “time of harvest” in addition to being the name of Omoro’s grandmother, who was a strong, entrepreneurial matriarch after whom Omoro got her middle name. OdAOMO’s women’s ready-to-wear, accessories and jewelry combine classic or more exuberant design with the fabrics, materials and craftsmanship of her native Africa. This means you can find a cocktail dress with a tiered ruffle skirt in a wax print cotton fabric from Ghana ($180) or a leather clutch embellished with beading comprised of ostrich egg disks and Masai glass ($230). OdAOMO’s jewelry, largely in brass, is inspired by traditional African pieces in terms of shapes and materials, but the nonliteral approach results in fully modern designs such as a brass cuff with four rings, two of which are covered in glass Masai beads.
Why did this surgeon get into the rag trade? Because she couldn’t find what she wanted to wear in stores. She loathed the mass approach to design, style and manufacturing.
“When I came to North America, I had a tough time buying off the rack. I didn’t want to wear things that everyone else had,” Omoro recalls. She had learned sewing and the basics of tailoring through her mother, who insisted that Omoro and her sisters help out with her business. Omoro began to design clothing and have it made when she went back to Kenya.
“When I was in a stable place in medicine, a friend said ‘Your clothes are amazing! Let’s do a trunk show!’” Omoro continues.
So, she had a “whole bunch” of stuff made in Kenya, did a trunk show with what were meant to be samples, and sold $8,000 worth of merchandise in two hours. Her husband noted that this was a “no-brainer” and they set up the fashion business backwards, renting a prime retail space in New Orleans’ French Quarter before having anything to sell.
Omoro uses eco-friendly and ethically produced materials for odAOMO. Rather than work with contract suppliers the way some brands do, in keeping with her goal of making craftsmen and women in developing countries economically self-sufficient, Omoro fully employs her team of sewers and artisans.
“The problem with being just a ‘supplier’ in Kenya or the Third World [is that] you don’t know when you are going to get paid. My team knows every month what they are [earning] no matter what we sell,” Omoro notes. “I wanted to give my suppliers a stable base.”
In addition to the New Orleans shop, Omoro opened a boutique in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of 2017. Brick-and-mortar plus online sales have made the odAOMO collection profitable, despite the prices being comparatively — ridiculously, if you ask me — low compared to hand-sewn ready-to-wear in general. For the time being, Omoro is keeping her prices intact and putting profits directly back into the company. She has a few VIP clients, including Hannah Beachler, the first African-American woman awarded an Oscar for production design (for Black Panther). Beachler wore several odAOMO creations, including custom gowns, while promoting the Oscar-winning film.
Dressing Hollywood was not part of the plan for Omoro, who knew from age 12 that she wanted to be a doctor. Omoro’s parents — her father worked in infrastructure for the Kenyan postal system — expected all eight of their children to get As in school. Omoro was a high achiever. She consistently got the highest grades in math and the sciences, allowing her to advance through the top boarding schools in Kenya. The family lived in a small rental home in Nairobi to be nearby while the children were at boarding school, but when school was off, the family returned to their village of Muhoroni, about 310 miles away. Running water and electricity were practically nonexistent, bathing and laundry was done in the river, and no refrigeration meant daily walks to the market for food.
“I knew what I was going to do [professionally] by just looking at my environment,” Omoro explains, noting that the nearest hospital was about 30 miles away. “People were dying. I remember thinking I have to be the one to change this. I tended towards mending things, creatures — chickens with broken legs.”
She scored a top grade on the high school entrance exam, in addition to successfully passing paneled interviews and other tests, earning her a scholarship to a boarding school in Victoria, Canada, that is part of the United World Colleges network, an educational International Baccalaureate program that focuses on academics and life skills, notably by mixing students of all economic backgrounds and nationalities. Omoro credits this experience with making her a “global citizen.”
The next stop was Oakwood College, now Oakwood University, a small historically black school in Huntsville, AL, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, Omoro’s family’s religion. She breezed through and got a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans for an MD/PhD, coursework which she feels made her a better doctor thanks to the skills needed to research, write, and defend a doctoral thesis. She chose to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon and began her residency at University of Washington.
“We joke that you can tell what kind of surgeon someone is by their demeanor. ENTs are the happiest,” Omoro says. “It’s a nice work balance: we treat all kinds of diseases; we treat little tiny babies all the way to geriatrics, keeping it nice and fresh. It’s the head and neck except eyeballs and brains — a condensed, small, intricate area that’s beautiful, challenging and magnificent.”
After four years of residency, her mentor at Tulane asked her to return to complete her studies, which she did. This was post–Hurricane Katrina, when many medical students left to return home, and local educational programs were threatened with closure. Omoro started her medical career at Ochsner, Louisiana’s largest hospital and healthcare network provider. She left Ochsner at the end of 2015 when odAOMO began to take off, and now practices medicine in Ohio.
“I never knew such poverty existed in the US,” states Omoro. “Ohio is a state that America forgot. There are huge wastelands here; it’s very sad.”
On top of being a practicing surgeon and running a fashion company, Omoro also founded and operates a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Blooming Lily Foundation, in honor of her sister Lily, an accomplished scientific editor who died at 46 due to multiple obstacles, including depression, domestic physical and emotional abuse, and untreated colon cancer. The foundation helps young women in Kenya through health and empowerment initiatives and supports a club for orphaned HIV-positive girls. Blooming Lily also works in New Orleans in Tammany Parish to combat human trafficking. The foundation is funded through donations, 100 percent of which go directly to the foundation.
“I have to let people know that we each have a purpose independent of husbands,” Omoro says. “There are obstacles that will get in your way. You have to [learn] how to go through them, through failure, and how to reach your goals and work fully.”
odAOMO stores: 839 Chartres Street, New Orleans; The Village Market, Limuru Road, Nairobi.
Fashion photos: Pilot & Powell/Augusta Sagnelli