LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – From the outside, it looks like a modern, yet traditional, store front.
Ferris Mason (left) and Akil West with Sole Folks in Leimert Park in South Los Angeles. May 2021. (CBSLA)
But once inside Sole Folks here in the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park, it’s a different story.
“I consider it like Afrofuturism,” Sole Folks owner and founder Akil West said.
You will find one-of-a-kind items.
“Designer sneakers, sweatshirts, candles, jewelry, a lot of cut-and-sew pieces,” West said.
Pieces developed and/or created by more than 50 local fashion designers, artists and creatives. It’s a vision brought to life by West.
“I just wanted to create a space in Leimert Park where they could see Black people, Black men and women, doing what they really desire to do,” he explained to CBS2’s DeMarco Morgan.
West, along with his team, set out to do just that not long after the start of the pandemic. Their goal? To make sure people had a way to make ends meet.
“The first day we opened, we had people making like 17-grand, and had people who sold $4 to $5 items making $6,000 to $7,000, paying their rent up for the whole of last year,” West said.
“We have a co-op working space, kind of like a WeWork for artists,” West said. “We have everything we need inside of this space to market, produce product and make it happen,” West said.
“People are religiously coming in here, it’s almost like a duty to come in here and take care of these people up in here,” West said.
To understand West’s mission, one must first understand his story.
“I got incarcerated for doing a residential burglary,” West said.
“High end open houses in the Hollywood Hills,” he discloses. “And one day, we just saw that it was some valuables around, my girlfriend at the time, and we walked into the space and we took it. We figured they were rich people, we figured that insurance would take care of it, and we did that for a long time,” he goes on.
He was caught and arrested in 2004. He was sentenced to serve 14 years in prison. However, after his first year, West says he escaped and fled to Mexico. Several weeks later, he drove back to the U.S. and turned himself in. He was resentenced to 15 years and four months in prison. After serving a total of 13 years, West was released in 2018.
“It’s more important that you come back out and do something for the community so you can stop other people from making these types of mistakes,” West said.
West said he was able to start his businesses after a ton of reading and studying behind prison walls, the Amity Foundation’s re-entry program, and also while maintaining important relationships he had before he entered jail.
Today, West gives back through organic food giveaways and creating spaces like Solk Folks and a new free community art studio, Sole Folks Art Lab.
“Manifest it, man, you always have to see what you want,” West said of his advice to those who are going through what he went through. “When I sat in that place for all those years, I thought about this, and couldn’t wait to come here. Once you see it, you can achieve it, and that’s real,” West said.