Bryan Norris, the Humanitarian Artist and Remmy Kasongo, the Refugee Tailor
Some may call it fate or serendipitous luck, while others would say God had a role in bringing these two men together. However one wants to explain it, it’s definitely an interesting, beautiful and somewhat odd pairing of a local boy who spent 30 years in New York City perfecting his craft as a clothing designer, and his unlikely partner, a Congolese man who escaped a war zone with his wife and family, and survived at a refugee camp for 16 years.
Lancaster-native Bryan Norris, a graduate of Penn Manor High, returned home to help his parents and to begin again—maybe slower, definitely away from the fast fashion industry his had become, and to find a way to do better. He didn’t know what form that would take, but his accidental first meeting with Remmy Kasongo (at a local non-profit) led to what turned out to be truly a perfect pairing. Each man brought valuable skills to the table that the other did not have, and both desired a new start and a way to financially support themselves.
Many years before, Bryan had paired his favorite fabric (denim!) with an Indian fabric to create an over-the-shoulder carry-all bag. After meeting Remmy and trying to figure out a way that he could help, he reimagined his original design using an African Wax print (Kitenge) that Remmy had designed. Voilà—they had created a product that caught the attention of a buyer at the Brooklyn Museum, which led to placement in the museum’s gift shop, which then led to buyers from Tokyo… and a business was born: Refugee Makers Project.
In a studio on Pearl Street in downtown Lancaster (Keystone Art+Culture) these two men work in an organized space filled with sunshine, fabrics, postcards, the butcher paper in which each finished product is wrapped, and a single sewing machine. They communicate through a unique combination of learned English and Swahili, hand signals, and trust. The results of this collaboration are products that are fun, unique, elegant, and truly universally appealing. In their studio, you’ll find African prints sewn on to the yoke of a denim cowboy shirt, hung next to a black bomber jacket that reminds you of a ‘70s disco queen, updated with Remmy’s Kitenge strategically sewn throughout.
The relationship between these two men is seen in every single design; each man brings to the process the skills they learned living thousands of miles and cultures apart, yet the pieces and ideals behind each creation are forever universally similar—the main idea being: bring your best, always your best. Their design aesthetic is practical, classic, and high fashion, blending the brilliant color and culture of Africa with classic American shapes and designs. Sewn into each piece they design and create is friendship, as they work together to not only improve their own lives, but also the lives of those in the community. Bryan speaks of his dreams to hire more refugees, to expand their business, and to create a community space within their workshop that provides a place for all to watch movies together, discuss books, and share ideas. He wants, “a hub of activity with a diverse crowd, connecting and creating.”
The logo of Refuge Maker’s Project is a star with a peace sign inside of it. How appropriate, as Remmy explains that, “Bryan is my star. God gave him to me.” I can’t help but think that God, fate… whatever you want to credit… gave these two men to each other, to guide, teach, and enrich each other’s lives, both working towards something better and brighter. Now, these two stars are building a constellation in Lancaster’s skies, two bright lights that will guide others to them and their purpose.