Mainers aren’t known for their loud and dramatic fashion. The plaid variations and yellow laces on their bean boots are about as colorful as they get. But Nana Batumike is working on that.
Incorporating the bright, dramatic prints that are traditional to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, her home until she left the dangers of war in June of 2012, Batumike last year opened NanuSka Style, where you can find all manner of hoodies, dresses, tops — even backpacks — that are sure to lend a little sparkle to Portland’s sidewalks.
The big, bold patterns are “similar to where I’ve come from,” she says. “I try to modify them with my own ideas and make them new, but they’re still informed by traditional styles.” Yellows, purples, reds, and greens jump off the fabric, making sure no one wearing them blends into the background.
Batumike hopes those who wear her work — mostly women, but sometimes men and with more masculine offerings in the plans for the near future — feel as though they stand out. Regal, even.
“I call it queening,” she laughs. “That’s my slogan. You’re queening with me. You’re making yourself beautiful with NanuSka Style.” Batumike also does hair extensions and a variety of other hair, nail, and make-up work, drawing on the coursework she did in the DRC.
Currently, Batumike creates the design for each article, then works with a partner in India to stitch the clothes and imports them. Yes, she’s a designer from the DRC who works with a seamstress in India to sell clothing in Maine. Why not?
“I couldn’t find anyone to work with here,” she says by way of explanation. “I was trying to collaborate with someone next door, but they gave up. My thinking is to go back to school here to make it by myself. I’d like to learn more here and be doing everything here.”
It’s a long way from the uncertainty she felt when landing in New York City in June of 2012, with four kids in tow, aged 13, 12, 4, and 3. She stayed there two months before moving north to Portland. “When I came the U.S.,” Batumike says, “I didn’t know where to go for assistance. I didn’t know anyone here, and I was with my kids. I heard, ‘If you go to Maine you’ll find people with a good heart to help you and there is a good assistance for your family.’”
And she did find people to help, particularly at Catholic Charities of Maine, which helped her with things like paperwork and some initial start-up capital to get her business up and running. “They help with the marketing,” she says, “even the rent is affordable.” Her retail store has been open since September 2, nestled inside the Threads of Hope thrift store in the shopping plaza at 1041 Brighton Avenue, in Portland.
“Sometimes, when I’m not around and someone comes in to buy my products,” she says, “they’re ready to help with that, too. You won’t find that somewhere else.”
It’s also unlikely you’ll find the sort of fashions, jewelry, and make-up that NanuSka carries in many locations in Maine, which is a particularly new experience for Batumike. In the DRC, nearly everyone worked in the same patterns and fabrics, so the competition was fierce. Here, she’s unique, but that also presents challenges. Mainers are generally a pretty conservative bunch, and she hopes to encourage people to take a chance and get out of their comfort zone, rather than simply selling to fellow African immigrants.
“I feel like I’m home here,” she says, “and NanuSka Style is for everyone, not just one culture. It’s for everyone living here in Maine. When I see people from Maine coming to me, that’s when I really feel at home. I feel comfortable. I feel like this is my place.”
So comfortable, in fact, that Batumike is also continuing to build her family. She now has six children, and has found love again with a fellow immigrant, who moved here from Angola. They bonded over both speaking Portuguese.
“It wasn’t easy” setting up a new home in Portland and opening her business, Batumike says, but “now I’m following my dreams.”