May 28, 2023


We Bring Good Things to Life

Armed with needle and thread, refugee designers create stylish face masks for community members

West African designer Lili Klu watched as the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend her custom clothing storefront in City Heights in early March, when she was forced to close it for four months.

Klu has been a clothing designer for nearly 30 years, and like dozens of other designers and seamstresses across San Diego, she began making face masks to provide residents with masks and to keep her business afloat.

“It was bad at the beginning but now, with the face masks, it’s letting me survive a little bit,” Klu said. “People really like it, and the community really supports it.”

Klu will be one of several refugee and immigrant designers from Somalia, Uganda, Iraq, and Togo who will showcase their most recent work — colorful stylish face masks — during a virtual fashion show Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., as part of the Mingei Museum’s inaugural San Diego Design Week.

Klu’s face mask designs are inspired by African art and come in bright colors. She said she is excited to participate in the fashion show because it allows her to help residents in the community.

About 150 face masks designed by refugee and immigrant designers will be distributed free to City Heights residents that day at the open space called [email protected] on El Cajon Boulevard. Organizers also will provide a complementary lunch to anyone in need.

The event is hosted by the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, the International Rescue Committee Small Business Development Center and Bodhi Tree Concerts. The online fashion show will be shared live on Instagram through the boulevard’s account at

Participating designers are based in City Heights; some are new to the local fashion scene. Designers will showcase at least three designs of face masks, some inspired by vibrant colors and patterns found in their home counties’ traditional clothing and art.

Designers also will sell face masks and matching apparel at [email protected] on Saturday.

The El Cajon Boulevard BIA hosted a similar event in June to support local designers during the coronavirus pandemic. The business association also has been using the space at [email protected] for a weekly fruit swap.