EdoEyen: Jewellery Creators and Culture Curators

“I always wanted to work with my sister because Edo and I are different in a certain way but we also have certain similarities, such as our love of fashion “ reflects Eyen Chorm who together with her sister Edo founded EdoEyen, a jewellery house that is experiencing the kind of industry buzz an army of PRs would only dream of generating, global pandemic be damned. Apart from a desire to work together – the brand’s name being a portmanteau of their first names, was a more serious aim to articulate, via the lens of jewellery, their own personal history, their country of origin Cambodia’s and weave it into their adopted home, New York. “Everything we learnt, everything we got inspiration from was from my Mum” explains Edo. Their mother was a classical dancer in the Royal Cambodian Ballet before the brutal regime change that was the Khmer Rouge and a relocation to the US saw the family build their life anew. It was the ornate pieces, worn by their mother and the other members of the classical dance corps that acted as the genesis for creating their brand. EdoEyen’s mandate goes beyond adornment, the brand acts as a conduit for the sisters to share and expound on socio-political and cultural themes and provide a space for amplification of a different and altogether more positive story of Cambodia. Edo elaborates “It was important to do something we truly care about and truly identify with and the jewellery is that because it is so strongly linked in story and style to Cambodia.”

Eyen and Edo Chorm wear the Phkachhouck 1.0 and 2.0 Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Eyen and Edo Chorm wear the Phkachhouck 1.0 and 2.0 Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Mrs Chorm wears Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Mrs Chorm wears Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Where Culture and Skyscrapers Meet

Brooklyn raised since moving to New York City in the late 80’s Eyen reminisces “there were not many Cambodians [but] we grew up watching movies and Edo learnt traditional dance…I am so jealous of that because I was still a toddler”. The Chorm household’s joyous and altogether celebratory approach to maintain links with their culture are diametrically opposed to the assumption that the country’s trauma under the Khmer Rouge was so great that anyone who fled would want to forget everything they left behind. On western perspectives they encountered growing up Edo recollects “Always they talk about the skulls, the skulls, and I get it but there is also a beautiful part of Cambodia.” Exploring and expressing this beauty as well as creating a timeless elegy to a culture that had been subsumed became a subliminal preoccupation.

Eyen and Edo Chorm Image: Courtesy of EdoEyen

The sisters are both preternaturally beautiful and possess the oft copied Downtown cool girl insouciance, something that has made them natural subjects for their own campaigns. Fashion was initially the lens in which they explored their visual language: Eyen worked as a model and Edo studied at the prestigious FIT before a career working for a global beauty behemoth. Of her fashion evolution Edo observes: “I am starting to gravitate to Versace now…I think as you get older and start to become your own person you are a little more fearless and make a little bit more of a statement.” Eyen for her part describes herself “as more Zimmerman and Alexander McQueen as I lean more to the dreamier side” Their seemingly opposing aesthetics found a home in their collections which they develop side by side “we are definitely both co-creative directors” Edo says smiling. Their first two collections are named Hand and Face and the nomenclature is a statement of intent, speaking directly of the body parts they wished customers to adorn, no further explanations required. Furthermore, they chose the road less travelled by launching with the Neang Neak ear-cuff rather than what might have been a safer choice such as a ring, or classic jewellery suite. “The reason we chose [to launch] with the Neang Neak cuff is because it is symbolic of our culture, and even when you go out now you don’t really see a lot of ear cuffs being worn” notes Eyen. By contrast, ornate pieces for the ear, hair and head are staples in traditional Cambodian jewellery. The risk was worth it as it positioned the brand as authentic and with a unique point of view.

Neang Neak Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Neang Neak Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Culture is the dominant theme throughout and the Kbang crown harks directly back to the Angkorian Empire; a kingdom that spanned modern day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and which was at its zenith from the 11th to 13th centuries. During those times status was denoted by the different features and ornamentation that appeared on a crown and in more contemporary times such regalia would only be worn at formal occasions such as weddings. To the Chorm sisters it was a situation worthy of a reboot and the artistic challenge of modernizing. As Edo explains “We want people to wear the jewellery out and about”. Picking up on this point Eyen adds “We are from New York and we know the fashion here and how everyone is just a risk taker. There is always a fashionista out there, a trendsetter willing to wear anything and make it bold and daring so we incorporated that New York lifestyle too.” Thus the crown was reimagined as a lightweight tiara-cum-bedecked headband, with Eyen designing a mechanism that negated the need for hair pins to keep it in place. Once completed the styling of the piece on their Intragram account irreverently and successfully removed the notion of ‘for special occasions only’. It was an approach might appear like an affected exercise, but in the Chorm sister’s hands is casually chic and genuine. Their campaign images and the New York editorial sensibility speak to the modern migrant experience; where home is a patchwork in thinking, dressing and being and where the confluence of style and identity merge between countries of origin and current locations. It creates for an atmosphere where pieces which might have felt like an act of appropriation if worn by those not sharing similar heritage metamorphose into an alluring option for all. As Eyen concludes “Whatever you want to wear just be yourself and be you.”

Edo in Kbang Crown in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Edo in Kbang Crown in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

However, it is important to note that applying a contemporary twist to a mediaeval south east Asian aesthetic is not a mere marketing differentiator. For the Chorms, EdoEyen as a brand has a multifaceted role to play both now and in the future. “We wanted to start a movement to bring Cambodian art and culture to the forefront of the fashion industry” says Edo. For Eyen, the brand’s wider remit reached the realms of manufacturing and imagination and she relates “when we first started, even the people we gave our designs to make were afraid, they were intimidated but I was thinking if back in the day in Cambodia they can make this, then I am sure in modern days we can do it too.” To the veteran hands in New York’s jewellery district the sister’s pieces appeared as flights of fancy, but solutions were always found, including upholding transparent sourcing credentials and working only with United Precious Metals. Placing culture at the centre of their messaging and product has also allowed the sisters to challenge existing jewellery orthodoxy which is anchored in a specific western European aesthetic and its accompanying normative concerns. The pieces also act as a starting point for the intellectually and visually curious to discover more about what was happening historically and currently in the area that occupies Cambodia. As well as a rich metalsmithing and textiles industry, the Angkorian empire was marked by its ambitious architectural projects, most notably the Angkor Wat which remains the largest religious structure in the world. For the Chorm sisters achieving the goal of celebrating their heritage whilst creating a relatable entry point for people to participate was key. As Edo notes “I think our culture is so under-represented and it is about time for us to do something about it.” Choosing not to lobby for a seat but rather create a place at the proverbial table has resulted in EdoEyen being a defiantly stylish riposte to historic and existing acts of erasure.

Eyen wears Neang Neak Cuff in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Eyen wears Neang Neak Cuff in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Mythical Muses and Other Inspirations

“I have always been intrigued by anything mystical and anything goddess like” reflects Eyen. Cambodian origin myths, figures from history and religious deities have all been drawn upon by the sisters in the creation and development of the pieces which in turn have always been underpinned by their mutual love of fashion. Neang Neak for instance was the Queen Consort to Preah Thong and they were co-founders of the Funan Kingdom which preceded the Angkorian Kingdom and dated back to the first century AD. Legend has it that she was a Naga Princess who led her beloved by her scarf to her own father’s underwater kingdom to ask for her hand in marriage. With a compelling back story as a demi-goddess and a princess in her own right as well as an inventor of tradition (traditional marriage rites in Cambodia include the bride leading the groom in by the scarf) it was perhaps inevitable that the brand’s first and instant break=out piece would be named after her. For the Aroubei ring, which has a serpent like form, the goddess Sovann Macha is the muse behind its creation. She was a mermaid who married the Hindu deity Hanuman and she appears in the Reamker which is a Cambodian iteration of the more famous Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. The overall effect of these stories being woven into their creations is an internal universe within the brand where a woman’s power, allure and otherworldliness are the tools that allow her to realise the inconceivable and where pieces possess a magical quality that allows wearers to tap into the same. As Eyen summarises “You are part of and not part of this world but you are enticing.”

Aroubei Ring in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Aroubei Ring in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

However, there is a political agenda woven in EdoEyen’s genesis and vision, Edo reflects “throughout my college years at FIT I felt like we were under represented. I didn’t see any influences from our culture and I always felt that didn’t make sense.” Her incredulity is valid given the rich history of the Angkorian and Funan Kingdoms, and whilst much has been written about the systemic undermining of black people, similar acts of marginalization, exploitation and prejudice have occurred for centuries towards Asian communities. Of the lack of visibility and understanding Eyen notes “lack of visibility takes a toll and so does being stuck in being or being perceived something else and trying to belong.” From lazy acts of homogenization – assuming Cambodia, Vietnam, China, South Korea and Thailand are one and the same for instance; “we want to make people aware that south east Asia is more than just one culture” Edo asserts, to western designers’ careless acts of cultural appropriation or more sinisterly positing that Asian aesthetics or philosophies are interesting and of note but not on a par with outputs that originate from Western European traditions. The sisters are clear of the scope of issues they wish to tackle and where necessary challenge. Eyen notes “I feel like a lot of my friends are starting to understand our culture now because we brought the jewellery out.” As a gateway to a complex and rich culture jewellery is a beguiling means for illustrating how conquests and migration flows, Buddhist and Hindu thought and a highly sophisticated society utilized art, architecture, design and craft as a means of self-expression and self-determination.

Gbang Crown in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Gbang Crown in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Inclusivity cuts across several metrics and one sees this most clearly on EdoEyen’s website where the same designs are offered in precious metal and gold-plated iterations. Edo explains this unusual decision further: “We wanted to start with high-end…but we know within the Cambodian community in general people aren’t as financially comfortable so we wanted to offer our fellow Cambodians a chance of shopping our products” They could have chosen to solve the cost quandary by offering a diffusion line with simplified designs but in making the decision to straddle the price points of fine and fashion jewellery as well as actively not abandon clients who would innately have affinity with the pieces they open up other questions around the democratization of luxury and what is considered art. “Our goal is to make people understand that this is fine art” says Edo but one could counter that surely art be it jewellery or created in any other medium needs to be expensive and difficult to acquire to have true value. The Chorm sisters’ decision challenges the industry to accept or at least consider that notion; one where concept, craft and execution are of equal import to the precious metals or gemstones used. More pertinently it also results in a more meaningful inclusiveness that goes beyond sloganeering.

Neang Neak Cuff in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Neang Neak Cuff in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Future Plans and Manifestations

As any social scientist will assert, culture is not static. History, current realties and future hopes and influences all play their part and for the Chorm sisters this is seen in the Phkachhouck 1.0 earrings and their updated 2.0 iteration. The earrings are in many ways the perfect distillation of the Chorm sisters taking inspiration from the two locations they call home. Inspired by Hevajra one of the main Tantric Buddhist beings, who wore earrings to render her deaf to evil words, the design which features lotus leaves but is an entirely modern imagining of what she might wear if she lived in New York city today. Edo adds “They don’t look like anything existing in Cambodian jewellery and the aesthetic is more influenced by our western upbringing.” As autodidacts the sisters do not feel bound by the jewellery rulebook and as Cambodian Americans they possess a lightness of touch when relating to their heritage, neither constrained or overwhelmed by it. “It is really fun to learn as you go along because each progression makes you feel proud” notes Edo of the duality of their situation.

Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Beyond jewellery the sisters see their product offering extending into flatware “we want to make utensils” Edo explains ”Like blessed bowls” Eyen finishes, in one of the many instances where they have completed each other’s sentences and stream of consciousness during our conversation, which took on the energy of a late night hang with friends over Zoom than a heavy discussion on culture and aesthetics. A major stockiest “like Bergdorf’s would be like hitting the jackpot to be honest” notes Edo, although their existing steady clientele is indicative that they have already happened upon a winning formula. Future collaborations with fashion brands is something they are open to. with Edo adding “Doing a Dolce and Gabbana runway would be amazing as it is always bedecked and opulent and I would just love that.” Style icon, mogul and noted jewellery collector Rihanna is Eyen’s dream client and they are currently in talks with other A listers who have are captivated by the jewellery and there seems a cosmic inevitability that it will be worn by them sooner rather than later.

Phkachhouck 2.0 Earrings in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Phkachhouck 2.0 Earrings in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

EdoEyen is in many ways a brand that is reflective of the present moment in time. The world, whether via socio cultural shifts or an internet that has made us collectively more curious about other places and said places accessible with a swipe of our fingertips has opened up avenues of discourse for brands large and small. Furthermore, the west is no longer seen as the lodestar of taste, civilization or even commerce, and attesting to this is the number of recent and successful launches of jewellery houses with founders of South East Asian heritage. “When we came into the jewellery world we wanted to create something that speaks to us and something that belongs to us and something that is our identity” says Eyen. As their line continues to expand with new pieces in development, their commitment has birthed a jewellery house that resonates and validates a community whilst making pieces that paint a more nuanced picture of Cambodia. Edo adds “Cambodia is not just about the genocide…we want to change the mindset, especially in America.” Places, like gemstones are multifaceted, and by highlighting this truism and how it relates to their home of origin and their home of choice, EdoEyen as a brand and the Chorm sisters as individuals are well positioned to play an important role in the further diversification of the global jewellery canon

London, Lagos, Milan, Tokyo James

Arranging a time to interview Tokyo James has proved tricky. Busy is not so much a definition but rather a default setting for the designer and fashion polymath with a career that has straddled three continents. In the end, we agree to a call in what can best be described as a multi-tasking maelstrom: James is putting finishing touches to his (now recently shown) Spring/Summer 2022 collection as well as finalising orders and deliveries for Autumn/Winter 2021. As he barks instructions in a combination of Pidgin English and Yoruba to the team in his atelier, I wonder audibly whether we will have to adjourn to a later date. “Keep talking” he enthuses breezily as he repeats guidelines to a pattern cutter, warning him of the costly implications of waste, and simultaneously tells his assistant very firmly not to accept to pay above a certain figure for fabric. “I came from a mathematics background. I came from a very analytical background, so I think I brought that mathematics into what I do I now.” James is far removed from the stereotypical fashion creative director – absorbed in himself or preoccupied with being part of the scene. He is an autodidact with a laser focus on the fiscal health of his eponymous brand. Accolades are all well and good but he is business minded and has eyes already fixed on his legacy: “I am hoping that within my lifetime I will have created a brand that will live past me.” It is as much a raison d’etre as it is a call to arms, for during the course of our conversation it becomes clear that Tokyo James is so much more than one of Africa’s leading luxury fashion houses.

Tokyo James A/W2021 Photo: Akin Adegunju
Tokyo James A/W2021 Photo: Akin Adegunju

Home Is Where The Style Is

Tokyo James as a brand is a sartorial love letter to two cities that Iniye Tokyo James, to give him his full name, calls home. He elaborates: “the brand is a nexus between London and Lagos. If you’ve noticed there is a large emphasis on jackets and outerwear and that is because of London – it is cold, and I have grown up with that…. but I fused this with an African aesthetic, it is two dichotomies but that dichotomy is where the beauty lies.” James has over the years sought to upend many of the existing binaries in both locations. From the knee-jerk expectation from many in the UK fashion industry assuming that a luxury brand with a black creative director would be wedded to a streetwear aesthetic, through to assumptions that to represent the continent truthfully, clothes need to be jaunty and awash with bright, bold prints – smiling models and bongo drums on the runway an optional extra. Since his launch in 2015, James has become one of the few names on the continent who reliably offers Autumn/Winter collections that not only look autumnal but also reflect that beyond the equatorial tropical region of Africa, cold weather is present in the northern and southerly parts of the continent. And as anyone working in fashion long term will attest, clients’ lived realities and needs always anchor their clothing choices.

Tokyo James A/W2018 Photo: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James A/W2018 Photo: Courtesy of I T James

By virtue of his background, James has been unafraid to tackle the arguably still unresolved relationship between Nigeria and it’s former colonial master, the United Kingdom. The colonial experiment was complex, with the UK needing lengthy and protracted efforts to get the geographical area now known as Nigeria under their control, and in some regions, merely nominally. James expands: “As a brand I focus a lot on intersectionality. How do you merge two worlds together? How can these two worlds live in unison? And for me Nigeria and the UK is a perfect example…there is a lot of material to explore.” And explore he does with early collections harking back to the precision cutting found in the bastion of gentlemen’s tailoring, Savile Row but with a very necessary dollop of what can most accurately be described as Nigerian swag.

Tokyo James A/W2021 Image: Akin Adegunju
Tokyo James A/W2021 Image: Akin Adegunju

Who’s That Guy?

For someone who has worked in fashion in Europe, Africa and the Americas, where James recently collaborated with the NBA, he remains an enigma, a throwback to an era where designers took a bow at the end of the show and precious little else was known about them. By not giving too much of himself away, James has allowed for his collections to act as a window to his interior concerns and passions. It has also allowed for a wide church of clients straddling across age, profession, race and orientation, as everyone can legitimately be part of the James aesthetic and vibe. “I always say I make clothes for my boyfriend.” James says with a coquettish giggle. Adding “If my boyfriend is not going to love it then it’s a no, And my boyfriend is very masculine… I call men like him alpha males and I think there are alpha males within every set whether in the gay world or the straight world… I always say Tokyo James is for the alpha male. It could be for the alpha gay male. It could be the alpha feminine male, but you are `alpha, you are the leader of the pack.” It certainly takes a man who gives zero-fucks for ‘consumption by consensus’ to wear a red quilted hooded cape with burgundy vegan leather single breasted suit and accessorised with an oversize tote bag, a standout look from James’ Autumn/Winter 2019 collection.

Tokyo James A/W 2019 Image: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James A/W 2019 Image: Courtesy of I T James

One tribe James has been indelibly associated with is musicians, of the coolest kind. James’ name was trending when Nigerian artist of the moment Burna Boy, and this year’s Grammy recipient wore custom Tokyo James to the 2020 Grammy’s where he was nominated, but surprisingly didn’t win ( he would win the following year and once more choose Tokyo James for his pre-recorded due to Covid19 restrictions performance). The three piece damask suit at the centre of a global viral fashion moment was one part ‘African Royal on Tour’ and two parts rebellious reveller who decided to pass through on an obligatory black tie event, so made sure the cut of his jib was unimpeachable and threw out the rest of the rulebook en route. “Burna has been a fan of the brand from the very beginning” is all he will provide as way of expanding on the metronome like consistency that Burna chooses to wearing his designs. Other stars have followed with singers Zlatan, PrettyBoy D-O and Rema all at one point or another dressed by the house. Further afield Chinese superstar Lay Zhang wore the Sequins Continuous lapel jacket from James’ Autumn/Winter 2021 collection and another Chinese megastar Fan Chengcheng was photographed head to toe in a customised A/W 2021 ensemble. James reflects: “It is so peculiar to me that I have started getting more love and more respect from China. A place that I have never visited in my entire life…I am so grateful [and] now I am listening to their music [and it is] making me look more and more into their world.” Can we expect the next big thing in K-Pop head to toe in Tokyo James? Given current form, probably.

Burna Boy in Custom Tokyo James. IImage: Courtesy of I T James
Burna Boy in Custom Tokyo James. IImage: Courtesy of I T James
Burna Boy in Spring/Summer 2020 Tokyo James. Image:  Stephen Tayo
Burna Boy in Spring/Summer 2020 Tokyo James. Image: Stephen Tayo
Fan Chengcheng in Custom Tokyo James A/W 2021 Image Courtesy of I T James
Fan Chengcheng in Custom Tokyo James A/W 2021 Image Courtesy of I T James
Lay Zhang wears Tokyo James A/W 2021 Image: Courtesy of I T James
Lay Zhang wears Tokyo James A/W 2021 Image: Courtesy of I T James

Yet, in spite of the verdant possibilities of Asia and it’s elites, Tokyo James chooses to stay grounded. For every celebrity customer there are dozens of discerning but not globally recognised who return for his one of a kind point of view and keep the tills ringing. Every collection, for James is ultimately customer-centric and developing house-loyalty, like many of the heritage luxury houses of Europe can draw upon, critical. He elucidates: “It takes a lot of time [to create] luxury. It is all about attention to detail . And we pay a lot of attention towards the construction of our garments…We have a corner where I think I have cancelled garments… As a team we are like, ‘we have gone through this, tried it and it didn’t get a look’. But we do this for our customers” One can’t help but wonder that this cast-offs rack is sample-sale ready, but it is testimony to James’ meticulous approach. A foray into womenswear caused a clamour of interest, and even though he scored an immediate hit with Seyi Shay an early supporter, he decided to defer. “It is more about capacity” he offers as explanation “we are just barely meeting the demand we have for our menswear before we start catering to all the queens in the world. But we soon will.”

Tokyo James A/W 2018 Image: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James A/W 2018 Image: Courtesy of I T James
Kesewa Aboah wears Tokyo James S/S2021 menswear. Image: Courtesy of I T James
Kesewa Aboah wears Tokyo James S/S2021 menswear. Image: Courtesy of I T James

The Image Interpreter

James’ fashion journey did not begin with design, but as a stylist in London’s indie fashion publication scene. The 90s and early 00s were a veritable Golden Era for fashion magazines with titles such as i-D, Dazed and Confused (later known as Dazed) and Purple setting the style agenda in a potent way, unlikely to be seen again given the present dominance of digital media. “I was particularly obsessed” James reminisces with a giggle “At the time if it wasn’t Dazed and Confused I didn’t understand what people were doing…it was such experimental fashion and that was really exciting for me…I still have a large collection in my Mum’s house in London, like, stacks and stacks. I think I may have four to five years of magazines.” Given the self confessed obsession, James’ first job was as fashion director for music indie mag D101 before starting his own publication Rough (later renamed Rough Italia) “my main goal was it (Rough) had to be as good as any publication that was in existence because that was going to give me access to the next.” James mitigated the fact that he wasn’t connected to leading PRs and showrooms by “styling what I had in my wardrobe, using that to create imagery…It actually got to a situation where I had to spend my own money and buy in some of the brands that I wanted at the given time”. This guerrilla approach eventually paid off. With Rough looking the part, circulation increased, and with more eyeballs, greater opportunities.

Tokyo James S/S2020 Photo: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2020 Photo: Mike Oshai

It is here that his trajectory gets interesting: James does not shy away from talking about how the London fashion scene prior to George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the summer of Race Reckoning that followed, was pitilessly white with limited space for black people or other ethnic minorities to rise. James adds “There was only Edward Enninful, Pat McGrath and Naomi Campbell. Those were the only people that were in the limelight.” A career situated permanently on the periphery or stalled altogether did not suit his can-do, must-do disposition so James began plotting a way out. “Me starting my own publication was partly because I loved fashion and I loved editorial. But me starting my own brand was a result of me wanting to create iconic imagery. I wanted to style the Gucci’s and the Louis Vuitton’s, the Prada’s and the Chanel’s and put my spin and my touch on the visual aesthetics of those brands. But the opportunity never arose and so I used Tokyo James as that vehicle.”

Tokyo James A/W2018. Image: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James A/W2018. Image: Courtesy of I T James

One can hypothesise about the terrible loss to the fashion landscape had James begun his fashion styling career during a more inclusive time and bagged a styling role in a historic fashion capital working for a super-brand. Yet, his discomfiture birthed a fashion house that is greater than the sum of its parts. As a stylist – come- designer, James puts a lot of store in the brand’s visual language, ensuring messaging is clear across all touch points, with runway shows, campaign imagery and even packaging all carefully considered. In light of his first role in fashion as an image maker and then a publisher, he was quick to adopt an modus operandi that saw apparel as not only being about beautification, but also playing a critical role as cultural barometer. Our collective and individual socio-economic, political and spiritual states of mind are often revealed in the fashion of the day. Whoever, can tap in and relay that back to us wins.

Tokyo James S/S2021 Photo: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2021 Photo: Mike Oshai

For James, collections as well as being marked by their seasonal intent often have titles where a whole thesis and bigger discourses are elicited. From his acclaimed debut at Milan Fashion Week for Autumn/Winter 2021 with a collection entitled Ogidi Okunrin which means ‘The Strong Man’ in Yoruba to the still much referenced Spring/Summer 2018 African Cowboy and his just shown, again in Milan Fashion Week Osu. Speaking of the rationale behind the nomenclature and how this manifests, James becomes particularly animated: “The African Cowboy comes from the spirit of hustle. London is a hustle and Lagos is an even bigger hustle. But the difference between the UK and Nigeria when it comes to the hustle is that Lagos is one of those places where you can be poor today and rich tomorrow.” Social mobility and the narrowing of it in the fashion industry is a topic he returns to: “I find London nepotistic, it is literally about who you know and what class you come from… In the earlier days if you were from a working class background in the United Kingdom, you had hope. But now, I don’t feel it exists as much. Because the struggle to achieve, to create anything especially for the creative is real.” James is vociferous of the dismantling of the educational grants system, the deliberate shrinking of the benefits system and the rising costs of living in the city of resulting in a balkanised creative industry. “From Alexander McQueen to John Galliano, a lot of people don’t remember that they were working class. And the system we have now, would not support them. To be from a working class background was not the end. if I was in London now, the dream of me being a designer would have died prematurely.” James translates these themes in African Cowboy via a proliferation of hats and masks in the show and suits that featured quintessentially British pinstripes but teamed them with embroidered insects and reptiles found only under African skies. He adds these “evoke the many faces you have to wear to navigate the United Kingdom and Africa.” But if you have a clear destination and a killer ensemble his thesis concludes that you will prevail.

Tokyo James S/S2018 Image: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James S/S2018 Image: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James S/S2022  Image: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2022 Image: Mike Oshai

His Spring/Summer 2022 show was entitled Osu, a term from the Igbo people in South Eastern Nigeria which literally means ‘outcast’. James adds; “These were the people that they sacrificed to the gods. But I saw it as these were people who were different from the rest of society and they were actually more special.” In the James universe, the so-called freaks of society become the revered and extraordinary. And in this collection he took the unprecedented move of not using some of his house motifs. “I translated it by not using the leather which is a house signature. I translated it by using fabrics and textures that I would not normally use, so this season we used a lot of lace, and the specific lace that we used was cord lace because it has a lot of holes. First of all because of the climate but then it was also meant to signify the holes within society’s logic with a lot of things.” It also nods to traditional attire from the south-east of Nigeria which also features lace. James as ever gives a historical nod to the culture, whilst forcing it to look forward. He also played with processes. “There were a lot of distressed fabrics used and that was also to stress the affect that these actions society does has on people’s mental health.” The result was a collection that was both celebratory and poignant. Acknowledging the damage done to many whilst looking with optimism for those still left standing.

Tokyo James S/S2022  Photo: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2022 Photo: Mike Oshai

For The Love of His Community

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ says the oft repeated quote which is derived from an Igbo Proverb “oran a azu nwa”. But what if said child doesn’t fit the mould? Is LGBTQIA but not in possession of a foreign passport where a speedy exit to a life of relatively safe exile in the west is an option? Well, if you are interested in fashion, you make your way to Badore, the most dynamic fashion incubator you have never heard about and home to James’ atelier, where he has made room for many others to live, work, seek community, shelter and acceptance. “We don’t talk about it much because I just think it is very tacky how people go ‘I’m doing this and I’m serving like that’, [and] there are many gatekeepers that have used the talent of a lot gay kids in this part of the world in order to further their agendas but not really doing anything for them.”

Tokyo James A/W2021 Photo: Akin Adegunju
Tokyo James A/W2021 Photo: Akin Adegunju

Prior to the first global lockdown in March 2020 James invited me to Badore. Deep in the Lekki peninsula, way past Victoria Island and Lekki 1, the retail and entertainment playgrounds of Nigeria’s 1%, we arrived at an unassuming building. The space was throbbing to a soundtrack of songs one was certain would be the city’s future playlist and one was met by numerous young, enthusiastic people either busying themselves at sewing machines, sorting the bolts of fabric or putting together potential looks on fit models before presenting them for James’ consideration. In a corner, Papa Oyeyemi, creative director of Maxivive and veteran LGBTQIA activist was working on his latest collection. Whilst voices were often raised there was no aggressive energy. Perhaps because outside the walls exists the real animosity. As well as those I met on that day, Badore has played a pivotal role in the career of brands such as Vincnate, photographers such as Mike Oshai and many others who have for a variety of reasons distanced themselves from the place that gave them creative refuge. James is pragmatic: “a lot of the gatekeepers are very homophobic but pretend they are not to their western peers because they know how the western peers can shut the doors.” This results in many underplaying or even hiding their orientation for fear of negative repercussions and those said forces posing as pseudo-allies. The themes of James’ African Cowboy come to mind as people shape-shift to save face, career or whatever else they are pursuing or protecting. But James sees a positive end-game in fashion’s future,: “I do this for the younger generation so that they can see that it is not going to be easy but it’s possible.” Ever the realist, James who himself did not go to fashion school and irreverently dismisses it as “just a big networking forum”, sees his role as providing a space where those on the outside can get a tangibly beneficial ‘in’ and not become casualties of circumstance.

Tokyo James S/S2022  Image: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2022 Image: Mike Oshai

Beyond the Clout Chase

Whilst many luxury brands have struggled or even shuttered in light of the pandemic, Tokyo James has had a phenomenal year. Having previously shown in London, Lagos and South Africa’s Fashion Weeks, the brand added Milan to their roster. “It was another fashion week.” James deadpans before adding “of course we were excited. I think I was more excited that we showed on the same day as Prada, I was like ‘Oh My God! Prada!’” As well as the shows, there have been features on Vogue Runway and a deal inked with heritage cognac house Martell. Prior to the global lockdown a partnership with YouTube included a pop-up in London’s Westfield and Tokyo James was one of the anchor brands selected by Grace Ladoja’s Metallic for The Homecoming an online festival and retail-led event that was held at Browns London. Since Milan this year, more prestige stockists have followed including Dover Street Market: “that nod from a store like DSM is one of those things where you are like, ‘yeah, okay this is super cool.’ It is always nice to get that recognition.” When I pose the question whether the industry embrace has become a delicious experience, one that will always need to be sated, James laughs before exclaiming “Definitely not! With or without them we would have continued doing what we are doing because we believe in us.”

Tokyo James S/S2022  Photo: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2022 Photo: Mike Oshai

James is the embodiment of practical perseverance meets clarity of vision. Prior to his brand being in a position to partner with a drinks company or a tech behemoth, he dusted off his mathematics degree and with his fashion nous worked for Accelerate TV the online platform that is part of Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s largest financial institutions. “We were there to invigorate and excite he millennials” he says drolly. He was also unafraid to review how he could become more environmentally sustainable and while he was an early adaptor of the possibilities of vegan leather, he was also determined to always present customers with a choice. “It was us doing our little part to save the environment for future generations. But choice for me is essential and percentage wise customers are 75% vegan leather to 25% leather which is really good.” Self-affirmation as principal motivator and intersectionality as the happy by product is also seen in a bag he first debuted as part of the Ogidi Okunrin collection but has now gained a life of it’s own. The Ato Rodo, the Yoruba word for the Scotch Bonnet Pepper, has a ubiquitous best supporting ingredient role in Nigerian cuisine. In James; hands it has become the arm candy of choice for those who wish to have a ‘for the culture’ moment but make it fashion. The shape is immediately recognisable to those who eat the peppers and to the rest of the world it is just another cool shaped cross body bag that is capacious enough for your daily essentials.

Tokyo James Ato Rodo Bags. Photo: Courtesy of I T James
Tokyo James Ato Rodo Bags. Photo: Courtesy of I T James

James’ story=so-far in many ways reads like a modern day fashion fable = without the appearance of a Godmother waving a wand or indeed a wad of cash. An absence of distractions which would have been there aplenty had James been a card carrying member of the in-crowd have given him the time and space to focus on his craft. Because the African fashion scene, in spite of the flurry of positive stories still remains a relatively closed shop. Most of the successful brands across the continent have hereditary money oiling the engine and familial connections swelling the customer base. Furthermore, proximity to favourable business opportunities and access to markets is very much a chum-o-cracy, an issue highlighted in Papa Oyeyemi and Udochi Nwogu’s seminal essay for Business Of Fashion tackling bias in the industry, and the organisation they subsequently launched, Bias in African Fashion. If you don’t fit the look and feel, it can be demoralising. However, it is important to note that these issues of inclusiveness and level playing fields are present in fashion capitals in other cities too.

Tokyo James S/S2022 Photo: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2022 Photo: Mike Oshai

“I have never felt welcome in London and I have never felt welcome in Lagos” says James. Yet one could argue this has been his greatest blessing. Belonging often brings with it a rigid point of view. We have all become citizens of the world by way of our phones, but James has actually lived it too and possesses a competitive advantage in distilling this via the lens of fashion. The visually literate such as James, hold a winning hand in a world where our attention spans have been so shot to pieces and our brains rewired to seek the next quick hit via an arresting image or a catchy song. Furthermore, if we accept the fact that fashion has become a business first and foremost and a creative expression second, James’ mathematics background equip him in a way a less financially savvy designer would only dream to. There are however, some complicated yet beautiful contradictions: James is the antiestablishment outsider who nevertheless sells luxury to the cool kids of the global music industry. The loner who has opened the doors of his home and atelier to society’s misfits and ostracised. And a sensitive soul whose heart burns hot against injustices in his chosen industry. He candidly admits “I have had to fall and re-fall in love with fashion so many times,” but each time he does he falls hard. Bringing the intensity of those feelings, blending them with his innate cultural magpie sensibility and the romantic notion that all true lovers of fashion have of an epic ensemble possessing the magic to change your trajectory forever.

Tokyo James S/S2020 Photo: Mike Oshai
Tokyo James S/S2020 Photo: Mike Oshai

Theresia Kyalo: The Jewellery Rule Breaker On A Mission

“It’s funny that people consider what I do jewellery because I don’t consider it that necessarily” says Theresia Kyalo the twenty five year old artist, maker and creative convener who in the space of three years has created a buzz around her work that has spread far beyond her native Nairobi. Kyalo and I speak after a devastating fire at the workshop in Kibera where many of the team of artisans she works with are based. For someone who has gone through something so harrowing she is remarkably calm. Beyond the logistics that getting back to work will entail; “I have other connects in a different area so I can work from there for now”, she offers briskly, her focus is on the artisans in Kibera getting back to work, both for her and their other clients. She is also concerned by the wider issues that a lack of infrastructure within the creative industries in Kenya causes. “In a different world what happened to us (the fire) should not have paralysed us as much as it has because there would have been systems in place. I really want to put systems in place that will sustain longevity.” For Kyalo, the creation and development of her own practise is just one part of the equation. Of equal import is fostering an enabling environment for artists to not only be, but thrive. It is a dual mandate that runs through the body of her work which she humbly downplays as ‘working with metal’ but which has presented those who have seen it with a radical take on what jewellery is and can be in the future.

Uso Jicho (face eye) Face Piece. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Uso Jicho (face eye) Face Piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru

Jewellery as Art and Cultural Barometer

Kyalo first came to prominence with her electrifying face pieces that walk the tightrope of adornment and sculpture. Part of her Body Pieces project and made of brass, each piece’s name in Swahili evokes the body part it is either adorning or resembles. Uso Mzunguko, which means ‘Spiral Face’ follows the jaw line before looping in the aforementioned spiral near the wearer’s cheekbone, Uso Jicho means ‘face eye’ and is an arresting  piece, Kinga Pua means ‘nose protector’ (and was a piece subsequently featured in the Beyoncé film Black Is King) and Kofia Kidole which means ‘finger hat’ – a stunning interpretation of jewellery for the hands – moving the viewer from the conventional base of the finger to its tip. The pieces are emblematic of the tension Kyalo has created in her body of work so far, where viewers’ perceptions do not always align with her conception and intentions. She sees herself as a creative custodian of culture, researching deeply, adding contemporary interpretations to age old concepts but also drawing deeply from her own imagination.“I think it is something that happens indirectly to a lot of artists, we end up extracting things from different sources and they inform our work in different ways.” Indeed for many who find the pieces that frame the face or different parts of the body as avant-garde, edgy, never-thought-of attire, they would do well to look at historical photographs which show that African adornment was not limited to what conventional jewellers present us, and how we have all been somewhat indoctrinated by western norms. Kyalo’s work challenges this, blends references freely, and makes the end results covetable across generations and cultures.

Kinga Pua (nose protector), in silver. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Kinga Pua (nose protector), in silver. Photo: Edwin Njeru

Returning to her conflicted state regarding jewellery and her place in the contemporary African canon of designers she reflects: “I really struggle with it because once you start describing yourself as a jewellery designer people expect you to make collections and to have pamphlets and booklets of things and that’s not my business model and that’s not how I work.” Kyalo’s resistance is not pushback for the sake of, but a timely questioning of a system that is neither kind to the planet or edifying to many in the supply chain who work in it. For makers the present commercial jewellery model is relentless in its demands of more product to sate the demands of an easily distracted but never fully satisfied customer base. Yet, even when we consider the end consumer, we have a finite number of body parts to adorn, so why the quest for more? For an artist who sees her work as having a permanent place in collectors’ hearts and minds, the notion of collections and drops points to the very opposite, and it is one that Kyalo bravely resists.

Portrait of Theresia Kyalo by Gatugui
Portrait of Theresia Kyalo by Gathigia Kinyua

An Autodidact Crafting a New Pedagogy

Kyalo did not study jewellery at university, but trained as a lawyer. “I was still in college and I wanted to embark on something different” she recalls, taking herself to Kibera, a neighbourhood in Nairobi that is known as much as a hub for the ‘juakali’ or informal sector as it is for being the largest slum in Africa. “I partnered with an artisan and I told him I want to learn, and he thought it so funny. He was like you are not just placing an order? You want to learn how to make the things? And I was like, Yeah! So we started making a bunch of things.” In her recounting one is struck by how socioeconomic class and access to knowledge play a pivotal role in the jewellery system in Africa and in many ways stymie it, something Kyalo herself is acutely aware of and wants to change. Of terms such as ‘craft elevation’ which has become something of a one-size-fits-all term, especially when designers, particularly those with some sort of western training or exposure talk of engaging local African artisans in work, she is neutral, but only to a point. “I think there isn’t anything wrong with these phrases, however, are you compensating your people well? It becomes problematic when people use these terms to their advantage and really do not give praise to the actual people on the ground doing the work.” She also adds the importance of authenticating claims rather than bandying terms and increasing the price accordingly adding: “You say you are using age old techniques but what are they? Have you talked about it? You say you are elevating, but how? What new thing did you bring to the table or are you just using the old stuff and calling it new?” We both laugh at this point cognisant of a trend that is only set to expand without further interrogation of the veracity of claims. Indeed, as the booths at international design and art fairs such as PAD and TEFAF become awash with creatives providing so-called love-letters to African craft, Kyalo’s pragmatic, transparent and respectful approach when working with artisans is not only admirable but necessary.

Kidole Kiboko (finger hip) finger piece and Saba Pete (seven rings) ring in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Kidole Kiboko (finger hip) finger piece and Saba Pete (seven rings) ring in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

However, Kyalo is not satisfied with carving a successful niche for herself. Looking outwards is at the heart of what she does. She notes how the heavy gender skew of male to female artisans needs to be addressed especially in light of youth under-employment in Kenya. Additionally, a reassessment of the juakali sector is urgently required. “A lot of girls don’t know that this is an option for them. And this goes to us really unlearning things. Going to high schools and showing young people that this is an industry because for a lot of people there is a misconception that artisans don’t make money, which is a lie. I know most of the guys at the workshop that when it is a good day, it is a GOOD DAY.” For her part, Kyalo is making skeletal plans of how her future studio will address this in a microcosmic way: gender parity, professionalising practical training, creating clear benchmarks and certifications, with an end goal of dismantling the status quo of artisanal work being only for men and for a particular sort of man at that. Kyalo is also a fierce advocate of safeguarding measures such as insurance, healthcare and pension plans for all workers.“That is my goal. That is my dream…a solid foundation so it doesn’t just come crumbling down.”

Duara Dogo Dogo (small small circles) in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Duara Dogo Dogo (small small circles) Fascinator in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

Belonging to a generation that has been digitally literate from birth has allowed Kyalo to successfully navigate Social Media and the opportunities it presents for artists. “Because I am such a storyteller I am very big on visual presentation. I can not just put work out for the sake of it. The aesthetic has to be strong, it needs to have a message and it needs to prove a point.” Scrolling through Kyalo’s Instagram page it becomes clear that this is not an abstract claim lacking evidence; there is nothing as basic as jewellery photographed on a white background. Instead stills photography and short films are all part for the course, creating a multi-dimensional conversation between artist, objects and the viewer. Her collaborations often riff on themes within her work making them more than a mere merchandising exercise but another lens from which to explore ideas. Particularly notable are 11 stages of awakening, an editorial conceived by Kyalo herself and photographed by Gathigia Kinyua, Sacred Faces photographed by Brian Siambi and the original campaign accompanying Body Pieces photographed by Edwin Njeru. The overall effect is immersive, intriguing and informative something older artist friends have been quick to compliment her on although Kyalo self deprecatingly adds “I think my youth works for me a lot of times because I am in touch with both worlds.”

Kidole Kufia (finger hats)  finger pieces in Brass. 11 stages an editorial, Photo: Gathia
Kidole Kufia (finger hats) finger pieces in Brass. Photo: Gathigia Kinyua 

Kyalo’s design process is anchored in meticulous research, as her series Ode to the Adinkra Symbol attests. Adinkra, symbols that communicate age old aphorisms and philosophies of the Akan people of Ghana were the starting point for her project that was crafted in cow horn (responsibly sourced from the cattle farming industry) and took as its central thesis the enduring truths rooted in African traditional belief systems. Although Kenyan, Kyalo is mindful when making based on her explorations of other African cultures and is passionate about artists being respectful in reinterpretations. However, she stops short at spoon feeding her audiences: “It is not my job to really make people catch up with my thoughts. …whether you get it now or next year that’s your problem but you will get it eventually. Some people will get it instantaneously… others will be like It looks weird , I don’t quite get it but she is doing her thing so that is fine” Being untethered to how her work is received has also allowed Kyalo to explore other disciplines, most recently textiles where her line drawings, that are often the starting point for her existing body of work have been re-imagined into embroidered curtains and wall hangings using dead-stock fabric. It is yet another example of her refusal to be boxed in by perceptions, and although her clients are equally split between Kenya and overseas, staying in `Nairobi is central to her long term plans.

Ode to Adinkra Symbol Earrings in Cow Horn Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Ode to Adinkra Symbol Earrings in Cow Horn Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

 

Custom Curtains by Theresia Kyalo: Image Courtesy of T Kyalo
Custom Curtains by Theresia Kyalo: Image Courtesy of T Kyalo

Working beyond Clout Chasing

We inevitably alight on the summer of race reckoning as 2020 will be known to future generations. Kyalo, like many black creatives experienced a spike in commercial and media interest as a result of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the global race protests it sparked. “It was problematic visibility…it was a backhanded kind of visibility” Kyalo notes reflecting back on the deluge of requests for interviews, lists collated and articles hastily written that put a spotlight on black excellence. Whilst some of the interventions might have been borne out of good intentions, one cannot ignore the precursor for the collective volte-face from a media which had placed many black artists actively or otherwise on the margins and always contingent to whatever their white counterparts might be doing. Whilst some black artists have chosen to ride the wave of freshly minted celebrity, and the attendant attention and commercial possibilities it might invite, Kyalo’s design and work process, pandemic and recent fire aside, remains unchanged: sketching out pieces first, experimenting with her team, road-testing samples herself and making final adjustments. “How I navigate this is I let my work speak for me.” It would be easy, indeed natural given her age for Kyalo to jump feet first into the media melee and performative posts that have flooded timelines, but her eyes are clearly fixed on her long term vision, one that will endure long before a hastily clicked like.

Mdomo Kipande (lip piece) in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Mdomo Kipande (lip piece) in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

.There was however, one list Kyalo was comfortable to participate in – the Beyoncé endorsed Black Parade. Explaining her rationale she states “it was made with a purpose…I really like that they considered looking at black people who are not only from America.” `For Kyalo it resulted in more US clients but she is cautious about seeing critical acclaim from overseas or intercessions from any other external advocates as the only viable routes for long-term success for artists working in Africa: “We are at an era where we can form our own visibility here in our own capacity” Focusing on the possibilities of her current and chosen location segues into the artists she admires who are all from Africa. Kyalo cites South African fashion designer Thebe Magugu, Kenyan fine artist and personal friend Peteros Ndunde and the Senegalese ceramics artist Faty Ly as holding particular resonance for her and inspiring her to push boundaries and improve in her craft.

Uso Mzunguko (spiral face) face piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Uso Mzunguko (spiral face) face piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru

For Kyalo, the real work beyond building systems that create a healthier jewellery industry ecosystem is fostering and deepening continent and diaspora wide relationships. “The BrushTu collective have been very instrumental in my growth as an artist” she notes of the Nairobi based contemporary art collective which includes fine artists Maina Boniface, Lincoln Mwangi and Waweru Gichuhi among their number. Also up for discussion as she looks forward to future works are an expansion of materials Kyalo uses in her work, whilst maintaining her brand ethics of sourcing responsibly and consciously. “I am currently working on something that will use tsavorites” she shares, excited by both the prospect of departing from the familiar and the possibilities that a foray into fine jewellery might hold. She adds “I do want to source gemstones locally first, but anywhere else in Africa would be great for other stones, Zambia is a good example with emeralds.” Kyalo is in step with many younger interdisciplinary makers who are placing materials provenance, authenticity of intentions and working conditions on an equal footing to building a brand.

Duara Tatu (three circles) neck piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Duara Tatu (three circles) neck piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru

Curiously for this current age of instant everything, Kyalo is surprisingly old-school in trusting the process rather than rushing at top=speed to reach an imagined marker of success. She possesses a purposeful tranquility, both in her speech, where she takes time to respond to questions, seemingly sketching out the possible answers in her mind before giving them, and in her deliberate decision to be omnivorous in her artistic oeuvre and see where these explorations take her body of work over time. That she chooses to work on a human-scale level, with items crafted by hand, speaks to her desire to leave a tangibly positive mark on communities: from those currently in her employ to those that will be trained by her in years to come. As our time together draws to a close she returns to perceptions. “In terms of being an artist and being a jewellery artist I think a lot of westerners who dissect our work expect it to have a deeper meaning all the time. I hate that. I don’t want people to be ‘oh ah, it is an African designer, what is it that they meant by this?’ If I meant something, great. But if I didn’t it is okay. It doesn’t lose value because there isn’t a deeper meaning you know. Westerners do that all the time. They make shit and it doesn’t mean anything and people rally behind that. We can do that too.” Kyalo’s point is prescient especially in this age of increased visibility to creators living and working in Africa or from her diaspora. It is one thing to create, even to find stockists globally, and the attendant accolades. But when your work is always interpreted in a pre-existing narrative of what it is to be you, that has ironically been created by someone else, it irks and ultimately it disenfranchises. Pulchritude for pulchritude’s sake. Made for our gaze primarily, but others are welcome to the party and can participate should they wish. It sounds like wishful thinking, and a revolution.

Kidole Kofia (finger hats) in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Kidole Kofia (finger hats) in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

Emmanuel Tarpin: Nature’s Jeweller

“I put a part of myself in each jewel and it is always a new story to write and to read”  says Emmanuel Tarpin, one of the world’s most feted new talents in high jewellery. The poetic turn of phrase is in no way hyperbolic. Tarpin’s creations are not only adornment but also act as a conduit for communicating emotions, ideals and other truths. Ones that lucky wearers will have to wear and treasure forever. Serendipity may have played a role in the achievements his eponymous house has received since launching in 2017, with accolades aplenty, industry recognition, and a loyal client base. But whatever may be ascribed to good fortune and timing is underpinned by Tarpin’s own innate understanding of who he is, what he has to offer and how his processes, design language and aesthetic are pushing boundaries in what is expected in high jewellery and who can participate within that world.

Arum Lily Earrings: Aluminium and Yellow Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Arum Lily Earrings: Aluminium and Yellow Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

In Pursuit of Beauty

Paris based Tarpin has a melodious voice and is matinee idol handsome but seemingly unaffected by it. We converse for far longer than we had initially scheduled as he admits “I could talk about jewellery all day”, but our conversation is more of a reflection of his knowledge and vivid storytelling. Tarpin is passionate and delights in exploring creativity in all its iterations, drinking deep from the experiences of travel and observing and capturing the beauty therein. “I love music, I love dance, I am crazy about classical music as well and I practised sculpture for fourteen years, mainly working with clay.” This omnivorous appetite  did not diminish once he enrolled at HEAD, Geneva School of Art and Design, specialising in jewellery, accessories and watches as he reminisces “I even asked a glass blower to help me and I am always really inspired by talented people…To be curious is the best thing to be and to stay.”  Intriguingly, Tarpin is also a fan the Golden Age of Disney animated films, he says laughing, “I have been indoctrinated with Disney, it has been a big part of me, I know all of them. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White, they taught me  to keep a child-like vision about everything” Indeed there is something otherworldly about his creations, that are fit for the chicest of modern Disney Princesses.

Emmanuel Tarpin in his atelier. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Emmanuel Tarpin in his atelier. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin

On graduation Tarpin joined heritage house Van Cleef & Arpels, but rather than the design studio, he chose to work in the workshop. However, after three and a half years the pull to start his own eponymous line became too strong to ignore “it was really nice because [in the high jewellery department] it was only one of a kind pieces [we were making] using really amazing stones so it was the best school to learn how to make jewellery.…but I was working on pieces for them and not mine and that felt a bit frustrating” Starting his own line, especially one dedicated to high jewellery was not a decision he took lightly “of course I was a bit scared as it is always complicated when you start your own brand but it was a feeling. Because I am someone who will always try things, who likes to evolve and so, why not?” He adds with a chuckle. Much has been made of Tarpin’s youth but what is not often dwelt upon is that his was in many ways a long apprenticeship; first in his own private study and appreciation of the creative and visual arts which commenced in childhood, then in his academic endeavours and finally in founding his brand. The tired trope that his is an indecisive generation finds an elegant rebuttal in his work and attitude to it. What is also telling is his choice of word, making his decision on a metaphysical ‘feeling’ rather than one that is governed by a conventional career trajectory. When he knew it was time, he simply trusted and acted. As he points out “I think it is ridiculous to think about age as there is no specific age to express yourself and to show your inspiration.”

Blue Orchid Earrings. Aluminium, Diamonds and Aquamarine. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Blue Orchid Earrings. Aluminium, Diamonds and Aquamarine. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

One might conjecture it is following his intuition, rather than what the crowd expects that has allowed Tarpin to have an avant-garde approach to his craft, experimenting with metals to stunning effect. Tarpin uses aluminium prolifically, in part because it is lightweight, he notes from his Van Cleef days, ”I worked on a big pair of earrings which were very beautiful and I remember hearing that one hour during the dinner the client had to remove them because they were too heavy and too uncomfortable for her and I believe that jewellery does not have to be like that.” However, he does not compromise on impact, choosing gemstones every bit as breathtaking as those used by the Place Vendôme stalwarts. Diamonds in all their colour iterations, Paraiba tourmalines, rubies and sapphires all feature in his work and like the German heritage brand Hemmerle he loves to play with patinas to create an additional textural layer to pieces.

Geranium Ear Pendants: Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Geranium Ear Pendants: Aluminium, Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Early industry recognition, courtesy of his much referenced Geranium ear pendants was testament to the dividends of developing a clear and recognisable design language. The story of how they ended up in the Christie’s Magnificent Jewels Auction in December 2017 and easily realised their reserve price has a Disney – The High Jewellery Version –  ring to it. Tarpin speculatively called the auction house to come in and show his work and the ear pendants were an instant hit and vitally, a last minute addition to the catalogue. For Tarpin however, it was more reflective of a commitment to a particular aesthetic for his work “I can be inspired by a cool shape of a flower or a plant’s really small detail.”  The plant’s verdant hue is mimicked by the aluminium and the round cut diamonds aren’t just an obligatory dusting of bling, but reminiscent of morning dew settling on leaves. Since the fabled Christie’s auction, Tarpin has chosen to keep his operation ‘human size’, making one-of-a-kind pieces for clientele who like him are drawn to particular and specific markers of special; “Quite often they are collectors of paintings or sculptures, they are very interested in culture..and love details…They will buy a piece because they have fallen in love with it.” Tarpin is adamant to not rest on his creative laurels and recreate pieces he has made before, even if a client requests it. Instead he ensures that energetically and aesthetically there is something of the client’s essence in the custom pieces he creates. Visits to his atelier often result in friendships as he delves deep into a client’s memories, passions and gemstone preferences, he notes” jewellery is something very intimate because it is worn very close to the body… so in this way I think it is important for it to be one of a kind as we all are…I like clients  to enjoy looking at the piece, wearing it but also to see it as a beautiful object..If jewellery is an art, which I believe it is, we don’t want duplicates. Just as with a painting we need only the one. The original.”  In a world driven by profit there is something romantic with how Tarpin approaches his work and treats his clients. This is not a conveyor belt exercise where celerity and efficiency reign, but a discourse, a dance between mood, cadence and connection. 

Hydrangea Brooch. Green gold, Pink gold, aluminium, rubies, diamonds, spinels
Hydrangea Brooch. Green gold, Pink gold, aluminium, rubies, diamonds, spinels

The Bucolic Dream Realised in Gems

Annecy, is an Alpine city in south-eastern France and Tarpin’s home town. From  the mediaeval era it changed hands between the Counts of Geneva (less than forty kilometres away) and the Dukes of Savoy whose territories stretched from modern northern Italy to south-western France. It is a city that in many ways is a chameleon with only the surrounding countryside a constant. French, Swiss and Italian in character, a refuge for fleeing Swiss Catholics during the counter-reformation, a crucible for ideation. Framed by the crystalline waters of Lake Annecy and nestled in the shadow of the Alps, the surrounding terrain has featured prominently in Tarpin’s work and continues to act as principal muse. “during my childhood we took a lot of walks in the mountains with my parents and I continue to do that because nature is a real passion for me.” The juxtaposition of beauty and danger present in the mountains is captured in Tarpin’s Foxglove ear pendants, a flower native to the area but also highly poisonous. His bejewelled version in red gold, yellow gold with a single rubelite as the dominant gemstone is the sort of piece that remains in one’s mind long after first sighting.

Foxglove Earrings. Aluminium and Rubelites. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Foxglove Earrings. Aluminium and Rubelites. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Tarpin’s use of gemstones in replicating flowers and vegetation is carefully considered. And furthermore, speaks of someone who adores wild open spaces and observing and absorbing the intricate details displayed for later use. Instead of yellow diamonds he selects yellow sapphires for the Globe ring which give an intensity of hue rather than the reflected sparkle of a canary diamond which would detract from the lush artichoke leaves with their patina. His beanstalk earrings play a similar trick, creating a coiling tendril of green garnets and tsavorites that seem to be growing from a wearer’s earlobe. Finally, an acorn brooch is an ode to Autumn, that like Keats’ famous poem one can hold close to their bosom. Although flowers are a motif many high jewellery houses return to from Van Cleef’s Quartrefoil to  Chanel’s Camelia, Tarpin’s fascination with foliage, often placing it centre stage, is novel and speaks to a profound notion – one where we are called to reconsider what is valuable and what is worthy of being deemed beautiful and eulogised as such. 

Beanstalk Earrings: Yellow Gold, Tsavorites and Garnets. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Beanstalk Earrings: Yellow Gold, Tsavorites and Garnets. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

His family are still based in Annecy, and they are all intrepid travellers: “we travelled a lot when I was young so I saw a lot of countries.…My parents always chose to travel in the non-touristic way and I still try to travel this way”. Tarpin, a keen diver, attributes the ocean and its bounty as another enduring inspiration indelibly realised in his seashell earrings, that were worn by Rihanna. Although honoured that she chose to wear them and cognisant of the favourable attention that resulted, for Tarpin, celebrity endorsement in and of itself is not a primary motivator.”You don’t see a lot of my jewels on celebrities because I don’t produce a lot and every time it is one of a kind so chasing them will not fit my business  model.” What the piece spoke of more was Tarpin’s own ideology of celebrating the natural world in all its guises but injecting modernity via the presentation, the kind that would get image savvy clients, be they famous or not, clamouring for more.

Rihanna wearing Seashell Earrings in Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Rihanna wearing Seashell Earrings in Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Leading High Jewellery’s Reset

High jewellery has been going through a something of an image re-boot of late, from the grand heritage houses of Place Vendôme transforming Haute Joallerie week to a companion to fashion’s Haute Couture week, to the proliferation of jeunesse doree being co-opted as brand ambassadors. Kaya Scodelario  for Cartier and Lisa Manobam  of Blackpink for Bulgari are two recent signings. These somewhat clumsy attempts to tap into a particular demographic are not Tarpin’s modus operandi, instead his approach is one of democratising the rules of engagement with his Instagram page playing a pivotal role. He expands: “My instagram is a window…a lot of people have told me and sometimes criticised me that it doesn’t look really professional, and I am like, I am not looking for a perfect page with jewels on a white background. I love to share final pieces of course, but I love to show my inspiration. I love to show some drawings, some different steps because I think that there are so many interesting things about jewellery.” The result is a page that is every bit as compelling as an influencer’s and a visual autobiography. Tarpin oscillates from beautiful still life drawings to images of him at his bench, to finished pieces occasionally modelled on the body, but more often than not photographed on their own. His contribution to jewellery industry and enthusiasts community, Gem X Club’s Advent calendar was a Spotify playlist,  and reflected his relatable nature and his more relaxed social media approach. He adds: “I feel we have to share, and I love to show everything because it is part of my process and it is important because it is a part of me and sometimes  to understand my work you have to understand me as well.”

Emmanuel Tarpin, sketching in his studio. Image courtesy of E. Tarpin
Emmanuel Tarpin, sketching in his studio. Image courtesy of E. Tarpin
Illustration of the Acorn Brooch. Image Courtesy of E.Tarpin
Illustration of the Acorn Brooch. Image Courtesy of E.Tarpin
Acorn Brooch. Bronze, Yellow Gold and Sapphires. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Acorn Brooch. Bronze, Yellow Gold and Sapphires. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

How people engage with high jewellery is also important to Tarpin who notes “people have to see jewellery as an art and to respect it is as such,…it is not just precious stones on a metal base and that’s it, there is more than that… sometimes a client can buy a piece worth millions and not understand why the price, what took time, what is interesting about it, they will just put it in the safe and not understand the story of the jewel and I think that is really sad.”  Owning an important piece is one thing, appreciating it another and still understanding how it fits in the  widen canon, where Tarpin cites the work of Suzanne Belperron and Rene Lalique as being particularly influential is the final aspect in the equation. Luxury has long traded on the cost of an item rather than its intrinsic value or even its contribution to widening the remit of design. Tarpin’s methods, showing his process and the ‘tricks of the trade’, for all to see on his feed could be viewed as radical, potentially harming the market, but they are merely an expansion and acceleration of his objectives to create high jewellery and a community within it that is untethered to existing rules.

Wax Carvings by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Wax Carvings by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Wax Petals by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E Tarpin
Wax Petals by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E Tarpin

Tarpin has become a deft hand at cancelling out the noise, even if it is laudatory, “I just focus on my creations and don’t think too deeply about people’s perception or reception”. Consequently, it spares him being governed by critics’ reviews or client’s expectations, and allows him to retain what he cherishes the most, an open and uncluttered mind to channel his creativity best. He is equally as alternative in his thinking of how high jewellery should be worn as he is about how he should be received. “My clients can wear my jewels for big events with a beautiful dress by a huge designer for example but also they can wear it with a white t-shirt and a jean and the jewellery will be what creates the full outfit.” This insouciance, creating informal spaces for jewellery to be worn, taking it out of the realm of the ballroom or wedding banquet or indeed safe deposit box, is perhaps what is most revolutionary about Tarpin. Giving clients the permission to not have to wait for a special occasion but instead to make every day special by wearing their most precious pieces is thrillingly liberating.

Future Plans and Legacy Building

Tarpin’s eyes widen when I bring up the topic of legacy, “You know I am still at the beginning, I am not an old brand.” He says laughing. But it is not an entirely unexpected question given the opening four years and his prodigious talent. Unsurprisingly, Tarpin does not live and work in the city’s jewellery quarter but instead the  7th Arondissement, home of the Musee D’Orsay, Musee Rodin and the iconic Eiffel Tower. By picking a corner of Paris teeming with art and beautiful gardens, Tarpin is tapping into his perennial sources for inspiration, whilst still ensuring he is not too far off the beaten track. “I am finding a good harmony between my life and my work,” he notes and admits to savouring time spent in his much instagrammed rooftop garden tending to his plants. And although he has jeweller friends, industry gossip and the scene prior to the pandemic hold little draw. In many ways it is the recipe for a brand that will stand the test of time, as in choosing not to pander to a scene or clique he can quietly and assuredly hone his craft and deepen relationships with new and old clients who have come to understand and appreciate what he has to offer. It is however, not unreasonable to speculate that based on current form Tarpin’s star seems to be the sort that will attract a museum retrospective in the future. Maybe one as unforgettable as that held for JAR in London’s Somerset House in 2002 and New York’s Met Museum in 2013.

Globe Ring: Yellow Gold, Patinated Bronze, Yellow Sapphires and Diamonds:. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Globe Ring: Yellow Gold, Patinated Bronze, Yellow Sapphires and Diamonds:. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin

We close considering the shifting relevance of jewellery in society’s eyes; from the proliferation of brands, to the unrealistic expectations for production, even in the rarefied world of high jewellery where clients are accustomed to waiting. “I take my time for each piece because if I want to do things well I have to feel it.” Is Tarpin’s succinct response to those expecting speedy turnarounds. We also touch on the fact that jewellery has itself had a moment of reckoning with conversations about ethical sourcing, mining, inclusivity and environmental degradation all no longer on the periphery but central to how those in the business work today. Tarpin reflects; “Our workshop uses very ethical metals and gemstones, I have to be very careful and that is why I don’t work with a lot of gemstone dealers” The net result is sometimes sourcing a particular gemstone might take longer for a client, but in today’s climate, where reputations can rise and fall in an instant, it is worth it. Tarpin also hopes a time will come where jewellery is no longer a mere addendum of the Red Carpet, “I  never saw a total outfit that was important because of the jewels.” He is equally enthusiastic about gender norms being more expansive, as they are in the global south where the notion of men bedecked in jewels is not considered subversive. Of his extensive research whilst studying in Geneva he observed “In Africa I saw a lot of pictures in the archives where the jewels mean everything and the men were wearing the most… and in India too there was jewellery that was only for men because it was a way to show power and masculinity which is contrary to its role in the west now.”

Seashell Earrings, Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Seashell Earrings, Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Will Tarpin takes his initial findings as a cue to create pieces that speak to this and maybe reference the savannahs, rainforests, deserts, mountains and ever changing coastline of Africa and the Indian sub-continent? One can but hope. Tarpin believes that for jewellery to have resonance for future generations “we have to think and look again at what jewellery meant in the past.” Whilst this is clearly true, the industry also needs pioneers, lodestars of taste and discourses, and innovators of craft who work with a fearless spirit. High jewellery has found one such voice in Tarpin: an artist who possesses the talent, curiosity and dedication to continue enthralling collectors, appreciators and curators for many years to come.

 

Lagos Space Programme: For the Culture and the Future

“I have always known that once you create good work and once it is authentic good work people will always come.” Says Adeju Thompson, creative director and founder of Lagos Space Programme. The brand’s debut at this year’s Milan Men’s Fashion Week was topped and tailed with a flurry of excited and laudatory press notices and more pertinently, in these economic uncertain times, global commercial interest. For Thompson who identifies as non-binary, the attention and plaudits have been novel, “I see [myself] as someone who exists on the fringe, as someone who sees themselves as part of the other,”. But although identifying as queer means many fora of existence in a CIS gendered centric world are somewhat liminal, what Thompson has unequivocally proved is that when the work is undeniable, the clothes covetable and the presentation and interpretation of ancient and current truths arresting, admiration is inevitable

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From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Creating Spaces for Different Voices

For Thompson, what started as a deeply personal aim to depict an alternative Lagos that was not steeped in the maximalist glamour and ostentation that the city has long been associated with, has evolved into a carefully curated challenging of norms and myths that have calcified into facts. They expand “It was very important that I contributed my voice..it was also important for me to create clothing from a very informed very in=depth well-researched perspective..[and] I know it is kind of weird but I felt a bit frustrated because I am someone who doesn’t like to be spoken for.” Indeed, since they founded Lagos Space Programme in 2018, the brand which takes as its raison d’être and Instagram bio the phrase ‘Sartorial Project exploring African futures’ has dared to interrogate, explore and propose alternative ways of being via the lens of apparel. Thompson not only challenges but upends many assumptions of the lived experiences of Africans and what luxury is and should be in the future. The clothes though in Milan they were shown in Men’s week are specifically non-binary and customers past and present have come from all genders Furthermore, they have dived into topics that for many of a more cautious disposition are off limits: traditional belief systems, gender norms, mental health and colonialism as a cultural decimating force have all been put under their forensic eye.

Frpm the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Identity, how much significance we attach to it and what it is informed by is a theme that Thompson returns to frequently: “It has become important for me to have a cultural aspect in my collections…for me, my Yoruba identity is always going to be a huge part of my work.” For Thompson, dabbling is not an option. When they choose to expand upon a thesis, they do so fulsomely. Their break-out collection in Lagos dissected what a modern-day Babalawo, or Traditional Priest would need from his clothing and resulted in an exposition for Afro-Minimalism. The collection consisted of long line sleeveless coats with multiple pockets, Adire, a traditional fabric, which Thompson has returned to severally, fashioned into wrapper skirts, and shirts and jackets occasionally adorned thin strips of reflective fabric, a hint of the futuristic possibilities that a modern diviner might be able to see. An installation at Lagos’ interdisciplinary art space, 16/16 followed, complete with a divination booth that those open and curious enough could engage with. As Thompson dared to place what has since colonialism become a marginalised practise, due to the dominant religions of Christianity and Islam viewing Babalawos as fetish and demonic, there was an inevitable backlash from those who saw the show and collection as dangerous. They reflect: “In Nigeria people are very weird [about my work] and very scared about my work. And it really breaks my heart because I am Nigerian. If only people would take time to understand where my research is coming from.” For Thompson’s part their research into ancient Ifá Priesthood divination practices showed they had more in common with computer coding and applied mathematics than barbarism. It is this reclaiming of Nigerian cultural history and placing it under a celebratory light rather than a derogatory one that drives much of their work.

Yegwa Ukpo Wears Project 3 Awo Workwear, Image: Courtesy of Lagos Space Programme
Yegwa Ukpo Wears Project 3 Awo Workwear,  Image: Courtesy of Lagos Space Programme

This is not to say that Thompson is one for culture that is mummified. Their research always circles back to the contemporary, distilling knowledge from the past and using it as a tool to answer the challenging questions of here and now. This approach is most clearly seen in their ongoing work with Adire, a traditional Yoruba fabric, which in their hands they have defined as Post-Adire. “I find Adire itself stunningly poetic, this idea that you can tell a story on your body, like a woman will wear a print because she recently got married. This idea of subcultures passing on hidden codes within the pieces themselves, and it is only if you are part of this community that you understand…I find that idea on a surface level was very fascinating.” Thompson has experimented with different indigo dyeing techniques, a textile they also discovered had anti-inflammatory and immune system enhancing properties. Often working side by side with traditional artisans, they are reticent to use language and terms that have been popularised in the modernising textile and craft space. “I am trusting them [the artisans] to guide me… I don’t like using the word elevate. I think it is very presumptuous to say I am elevating a thousand year process. I think for me I see myself as a conduit to continue the conversation around these things..” Thus Adire prints that are still in production now, but that Thompson discovered were first created in the 16th Century, and speak to specific challenges and triumphs of then, are re-invigorated via print designs that reflect present concerns and joys.They note: “I am trying to create prints that are informed by my realities now, so dissecting ideas about queerness or mental health.” Thompson has taken the process one step further, creating knitwear from Adire, a process hitherto never done. The response has been resoundingly positive: “I am getting so much amazing feedback [and] I have hardly scratched the surface.”

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet  Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Collaboration As A Culture

We live in the age of the omnipresent collabo, where leveraging and partnering to make a bigger splash, particularly in the luxury spaces has become de rigeur. For Thompson, collaboration has always been an intrinsic part of how they work: “I enjoy my collaborations so much because I only collaborate with people like me, people who exist and create on the fringe. My fellow nerds. It is fun because there is no ego, it is just people coming together to create.” For the recently presented collection which has the dual name of Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, the crew was a veritable who’s who of creatives across disciplines. From artist and photographer Kadara Enyeasi who shot the fashion film and look-book to interdisciplinary designer and architect Kelechi Odu who styled the collection for Arise Fashion Week’s 30/30 Show, to Seetal Solanki who played the role of muse and model for the digital diary of the trip to Osogbo Sacred Grove. Yegwa Ukpo, the pioneer menswear retailer and and unofficial mentor to Thompson was also on hand throughout the process. In each instance Thompson notes how they shared an aesthetics and intellectual shorthand with the respective individuals and drew upon their reservoir of combined talent to add further texture and nuance to the collection. Of Solanki the founder of Ma-tt-er, a platform encouraging different engagement with materials, as well as a Lecturer at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martin’s they note: “One thing that made the shoot with Seetal pretty incredible was the context in which I shot her in. As this woman existing in this very matriarchal space because the grove is dedicated to Osun, the goddess of fertility. So she is interacting in the grove, whether in the water or in the middle of this herd of cows, it was so freakin’ incredible and we didn’t even plan these things … But I think that is also what happens when you are working with your friends.” In the instance of their collaboration with Odu, Thompson alludes to synergies and innately understood references: “We had a pre-meeting but he just got it immediately. I was very inspired by the Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Ann Demuelemeester shows. I wanted to give a very vulnerable experience. Because even with the models it wasn’t sexy it was very beautiful. There was a very dark element, but it wasn’t dark in a destructive way it was dark in a very sensitive way. Reflective of someone who thinks deeper about things. Those were the intersections; my identity as a Yoruba person, my queerness, and the fact that I am black.” The result was a haunting show that lingered in the memory longer than the few minutes the models were on the runway, and was one of the evening’s stand-out moments. In the instance of Enyeasi who they collaborated on both the look-book and the fashion film shown in Milan, Thompson succinctly says: “he is one of the few people I can work with and I just can leave him and go do something else because I know that whatever decisions he makes are decisions that I would like.”

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Co-creation extended to the clothing and accessories, something that has been an organic part of how Lagos Space Programme operates. The ongoing knitwear project with Alexandra Weigand’s Studio Sattelit continues to widen its locus of expression and added to the Post-Adire canon are tapestries created with Flatspot_, an artist studio based in Oakland, California and masks with London based artist David Gardner who Thompson adds “is a friend who created the masks within the realities of our shared queerness.” One of the most talked about elements of the current collection has been the jewellery and objects,cq collaboration with Dunja Herzog of Red Gold and Phillip Omodamwen a seventh generation master bronze caster based in Benin City, Southern Nigeria – a place that is seen as the spiritual home of bronze-casting in Western Africa. For Thompson and Herzog, their working engagement came about through a variety of synchronic conversations and meetings. Herzog is Swiss but came to live in Nigeria, where she rented an Afro-Modernist house designed by the iconic architect Alan Vaughan-WIlliams that acted as a salon and meeting point for creatives in Lagos, as well as a location for a Lagos Space Programme shoot. Thompson relates: “I was talking to Dunja about how my new collection was informed by clothing as spiritual objects and how I am very fascinated by the idea of designing bells for the collection, and she says ‘hold on, say no more,’ and she is rushing upstairs and bringing these series of bells she had developed herself. And it was like what? It was these two nerds nerding out in Ikoyi about bells and sound and soundscapes and the possibilities of our potential” they add laughing. Apart from the bells, staffs that could double up as wands, bangles and harness jewellery that had a modern talismanic quality to them, all designed in concert together, was the crafting process itself. It involved a road-trip to Omodamwen’s studio, where the master caster still employs the lost-wax method of casting, one which is also practised by the goldsmiths working for the Asantehene of the Ashanti in Ghana. Thompson and Herzog describe the completed collection as ‘sculptural accessories’ and the soundscapes they make in their movement is of equal import to how they adorn the bodies of the wearers. In a sense the aural effect is akin to an Emeka Ogboh, piece, only in this instance one is transported to a world of Ifá Priests and Priestesses, divination and Yoruba deities. It also reflects the collection’s title, with one ‘hearing’ the ensembles as much as ‘seeing’ them prior to greeting them. For Thompson, collaboration was also an artistic form of defiance adding: “I like that I have created my work outside of the system in Lagos and its gatekeepers. A lot of people don’t know me, don’t care about me and I literally don’t care [because] I have created my own community.” But more than that, Thompson and their ever-evolving and expanding roster of co-creators are illustrative of what collaboration should really be – a cross-fertilisation of ideas and methodologies, a playground for new ways of thinking and being and a crucible for realising beauty in it’s most undiluted sense.

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Redefining Success and Luxury

Challenging what success is and educating consumers in luxury’s possibilities is one of Lagos Space Programme’s modus operandi. Prior to the Milan show, the brand was already on the international fashion community’s radar, courtesy of a full feature in Vogue in 2019; “I got that article when I was less than 800 followers (on Instagram) and it wasn’t by any connections just the strength of my work” Thompson reminisces. But although the praise party has expanded exponentially in the months since, reaching fever pitch in the last few weeks, they are adamant that they don’t want to get caught up in being the next big thing from the continent or part of “Africa Rising” narratives. For Thompson, Africa, and their locale of Nigeria, and South-Western Nigeria in particular, has always been a nexus of innovation, excellence and spiritual dynamism and these things are not contingent on praise or acknowledgement from a Western gaze.

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Value always starts with self-acknowledgement and love, and it is something that Thompson chooses to imbue their work with. For them. inspirations always emanate from what has been previously overlooked, forgotten or hidden but that is too important to remain so and they are consistently drawn to those existing on the margins. The prior collection Gay Guerrilla was inspired by the composer Julius Eastman, who died after a lengthy battle with drug addiction and mental health challenges: Thompson notes: “when I studied the life of Julius Eastman I was very struck by the similarities of our lives and a lot of my friends were cautious about how much I consumed, because there was a lot of darkness. But I told people that darkness is also part of the human condition and when I am creating a collection it is a form of therapy for me first and foremost.” With Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Thompson was making a comment on dress as spiritual armour complete with supernatural properties. Their explorations were further augmented in an essay by the late scholar Ulli Beier, that explored similar themes, and who alongside his first wife Suzanne Wenger spent time in Nigeria in the 1960s and was part of the Sacred Art Movement in Osogbo. For Thompson the clothes and accessories are meant to have a dual role: one as luxury adornment and second as meditative aid, they add: “When you dissect my work further it is me weaving these different narratives in a way that is very seamless.” Thus Thompson’s work which straddles the medicinal, spiritual and apparel becomes desirable on numerous levels.

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Thompson is keen to communicate to consumers that production takes time, is done in a human-scale with quality rather than profit in its purest sense being the driving factor and that runs of pieces will inevitably be small. In the purest capitalist sense it is a foolhardy model but it chimes perfectly in this more compassionate age we are living in, and also is a clever response to the challenge facing the luxury industry globally. If anyone who has the money can purchase an item and shareholders are demanding the maximum number are sold, how do you retain exclusivity? How do you honestly respond to the accusation of adding to the collective environmental Armageddon we are all facing? For Thompson and Lagos Space Programme, their response is to follow a conscious capitalist model; one that also places equal value on the knowledge and cultural systems that the pieces explore, the means in which they are made, and the resultant quantity produced as much as how they look on the body and how hard the tills ring in their making. Sustainability as a lifestyle is further reflected in the ordering method: the current collection is available to order until the 31st January 2021 with items sent to clients in mid May 2021. This is not fashion for those accustomed to ‘drops’ and who need to post their #ootd post-haste. Thompson adds; “The people who connect with my work, who buy the stuff, tend to be older so they are not people who go around on Social Media taking selfies, they just like wearing the clothes and getting on with their lives.” It is however, a niche without borders as clients are dotted across Africa and the globe with a particularly strong presence in the creative industries and in Europe, America and Asia.

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Isabel Okoro

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Isabel Okoro

Whilst clothes are the starting point for Thompson they are ultimately a medium for deeper discourses something that they indicate when we conclude our conversation talking of future plans: “I envision Lagos Space Programme to be much more than a fashion brand I want it to be a research based establishment where we are contributing and adding to the conversations around African design.” `Not only have the clothes have acted as a catalyst for conversations around gender, queerness and conservative norms in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, they have also provided an important link between culture past and the current experiments that will inform culture future. That Thompson returns to motifs and methods that have centuries old provenance such as indigo dyeing, textile weaving, brass casting and divination but explores them via the lens of contemporary mores, fears and wants creates for thrilling results. That they do so in a contained palette of soothing blues is evidence of a maestro of mood evocation. In these tumultuous times we  could all benefit from feeling calmer and having greater insight of where we have come from and how we wish to proceed in light of that. The brand and its founder may be young but Lagos Space Progamme’s agenda is rooted in eternal truths that Thompson aims to reveal one collection at a time to a global audience: “We are incredibly complex and we have been lied to and I think that as a designer it is my job to highlight my culture. We need to continue the conversation around these things. I feel like our ancestors would have expected us to continue the dialogues around what they started.” The oracle has spoken and the fashion world continues to listen, wear, and love it all.

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

 

Sukeina: Sartorial Story Tellers

Finding time over Zoom to speak to Omar Salam, the founder and creative director of Sukeina, is a tricky process, but for the best reasons. In spite of the world being in the grip of a global pandemic, things have never been busier, Since launching Sukeina  in 2012, his has been a giddy, upward trajectory. Critical acclaim and impressive press notices, including a multi-page editorial in the prestigious US Vogue September 2020 issue, iconic supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Natalia Vodianova as early adopters  of his signature pieces and stockists globally, point to him having created a fashion house with firm commercial and creative foundations, that is built to last. But unsurprisingly, that is not the whole story and he is refreshingly candid as we speak in the company of Dimeji Alara, who is not only his fashion director but his aesthetics collaborator and visual touchstone, about the making of this thoroughly modern African luxury brand.

Tocca Jacket, SS2021. Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Tocca Jacket, SS2021. Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

“What I was really interested in wasn’t creating a fashion brand, it was telling stories.” Initially Salam was on a path to film-making, but he abandoned his movie ambitions when he noted the inherent and structural prejudices built into the industry. He expands “two years into my programme I realised I no longer want to be in screenwriting,  because the opportunity wasn’t given to all and only a handful could really get a platform.” With clothing he saw an alternative form of communication noting “fashion was quite interesting at an ornamental  level but mainly I was drawn to how quickly every single person was able whether they were conscious of it or not, to tell  stories about how they felt at that very moment through dress.” It is an oft noted trope that what we wear is the most potent non-verbal communication we share with the world and also with those we meet on an inter-personal level. Even an active disinterest is a statement of intent. For Salam, the idea of rather than convincing people to part with two hours of their time in a darkened auditorium to engage with his vision, but instead co-opting his vision to reflect something of themselves was far the more intriguing direction to pursue. Indeed, film’s loss has proven fashion’s gain, but not without some similar principles in play of narrative arc, dramatis personae and heroic quests being sewn into each piece he creates.

Butterfly Blouse and Delta Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Butterfly Blouse and Delta Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

Of Origins and Mandates

Fashion loves an origin story, and in fact often demands that ones involving people of colour are even more dramatic. Who can forget the (very much debunked because it patently wasn’t true) rumour of supermodel Iman having been plucked from obscurity in her previous role as a tribal herds-woman? She is in fact the daughter of well-travelled, educated and urbane Somalian diplomats. Salam has been both lauded and somewhat misrepresented in the bid for editors and writers (often western based or educated) to place him in a neat box assigned to black creatives in terms of both their roots and their consequent influences.  `’I am so happy  that you are giving me the opportunity to perhaps try being a bit more clear. I often get asked what influenced you? What inspired you? And while it has become such a normal thing to ask a creative or a designer and we rush into answering… There are many many things that come with you that are prior to you and are sometimes beyond your understanding of understanding, So I just want to put it out there that I am an African man that was partially raised in Europe  that in adulthood is working in the American space, that speaks Wolof but also speaks French but also speaks English, that works with customers that are Japanese but also some who are Arab and American and European and I am very very enthused and curious about the world.” Dimeji is silently nodding in agreement at what Salam is boldly articulating –  that Africa and Africans are not one singular entity or set of experiences and levels of exposure. That not every African’s background includes abject poverty, a paucity of educational opportunities and knowledge and, spoiler alert, requires a dash of fairy-dust by way of western media acknowledgement. If anything, that Salam still finds himself being viewed as an anomaly, speaks to unconscious biases that still exist, in spite of the Summer of Race Reckoning that was 2020. Some writers have been too speedy to place him in Senegal or their own ‘tribal’ version of it, when there exists  layers of nuance that are blithely ignored due to his race. The multiplicity of locations both for himself and also for his inspirations is not the exclusive domain of a designer living in a particular locale, or colour. It is in fact reflective of the 21st century, where prior to the pandemic affordable travel coupled with the digital capabilities to travel anywhere via your phone means that inspiration can and is picked up anywhere, that curiosity can be readily sated by all, and that clients can and will come from far and wide.

Celio Jacket SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Celio Jacket SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

Sukeina is in fact named after Salam’s mother and he adds there are further etymological roots of the name itself: “ when I would ask  my grandmother the question what does Sukeina mean she would say it means ‘bright light’ and I would be like okay. And then she would say, ‘When a room doesn’t have a table it is table-less but you can still sit, when it doesn’t have a chair, it is chair-less yet you can still  stand’…and she talked at length on the importance of perspective and perception and she felt that when there was no light everything goes missing. But when there is light in the room you can see where the chair is…where everything is and only then can you see the value of all. And I was fascinated by the kindness of it [of the light and it’s role]…That notion kind of stuck with me when the time came to create a company. Not only did I like very much the wording and meaning around it but also the person that I got to know very early in my life was kind of that. While my father had a very important position in the UN and in government and whatnot, my mother was kind of the glue behind it and added things, removed things, strategised. In the end she made him shine.” But beyond being a personal eulogy to the essence of his mother, Salam expands his thesis wider adding : “Sukeina is shining a light on what women truly are and have always been and aren’t always perceived as .They jump very quickly into the everyday motions…and don’t get a chance to turn the focus on themselves and say who am I, what am i, what am I outside of what I do? And what Sukeina is trying to be in a woman’s closet is to create armours, to create outside shells, create directions, create stimulus that remind a woman how incredibly necessary, how incredibly pivotal, how incredibly important and how incredibly key she is, has been and will always be.”

Kyte Cloud Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Kyte Cloud Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

With a brand mandate that is more closely aligned to a broader manifesto of equipping women with the tools for self expression, providing them with aesthetic permission to explore their many selves, and most critically of all, demand that they are fully celebrated as a result, it would be easy to ask pithily how do such lofty ideals and goals translate into apparel. But Salam is not one for hyperbole or empty platitudes and in the collections one sees his creative aims and cultural objectives being fulfilled one piece at a time. Initially lauded for his occasion wear, he steered clear of obvious cliches such as using classic luxe fabrics exclusively. Many of the pieces were made of a silk neoprene. It was an interesting choice as neoprene is often utilised in protective garments  and Salam’s decision could be seen as both a comment on a woman requiring her apparel to act as the aforementioned armour, but with the choice of silk blend, still needing to feel luxurious. Contrasting and compelling juxtapositions are another notable feature in Sukeina collections: pieces are sometimes adorned with ostrich plumes, adding flamboyance and an unapologetic celebratory air to proceedings. For Salam whether one is off to a Red Carpet event or celebrating a milestone birthday with family and friends, the pieces act as a frame for the memories made, but must elicit an interior emotion in their movement, feel and ultimately the wearing. Furthermore, in an age where women not only demand but also expect sexual autonomy, even the more overtly sexy pieces hint at revealing oneself on your own terms with tea length dresses with cut aways at the hip bones and sheer panelled body suits with opaque ribbon effect panels. The overall thesis is one of exploration and as Salam says of the Sukeina woman, “she is someone curious about herself but more curious about the world than she is judgmental of it.” It thus follows that clothes that play on silhouette, notions of opaqueness and transparency and hint at power and vulnerability would become wardrobe staples for such a woman.

Cloud Jumpsuit SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Cloud Jumpsuit SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

Curiously, the ‘Sukeina Woman’, compartmentalising and deconstructing her further, is something that Salam has intentionally avoided, both in his head while designing and in interviews. Like his own personal journey, he does not see customers fitting one sort of lifestyle, location, age or interests. Proof of such was a private soiree held in his honour in Lagos in 2018, when he showed at GTB Fashion Weekend,  that intriguingly brought together a cross section of the city’s fashion tribes and beau monde all of whom were as keen to see the clothes and purchase them. For him, the brand does not ascribe to a narrow set of normative concerns and nor does its clients. What he does however, return to are the evolution of notions of self and identity: “I use as the cue the area of emotional  dimensions of a woman. So we go back to the woman and ask, is she sexy? Is she straightforward? Is she strict?… My job is to avail myself as a translator of what a woman feels or wants to feel…to display the rhythm of the woman or the vibrato around that woman, whether she is feeling sexy, or feeling motherly or wants to be covered or elusive.” Seeing women as multifarious indicates that Salam is following a recipe that guarantees longevity as many brands get stuck in a design brief silo, speaking to an increasingly smaller set of people or disconnecting altogether with the wants and needs of clients both existing and potential as their lives evolve and locus of concerns changes accordingly. In widening the lens of moods and actively not ascribing to the ‘African fashion’ tag, which in many instances, particularly its most recent iteration, can prove problematic, Sukeina has deftly sidestepped a creative and commercial cul de sac.

Bassari Turtleneck Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara
Bassari Turtleneck Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara

Watchwords and Future Plans

We alight on Salam and Alara’s partnership – one which has seen them working together to build upon Sukeina’s initial success and widen its reach and appeal. Although hailing from different disciplines in the fashion system: Alara is Nigerian and was the former editor in chief of Elle South Africa and a noted fashion stylist in his own right whilst Salam has operated firmly in the design space, there are clear synergies: both men are West African Parisiennes now situated in New York City with a clear sense of self and a shared passion for steering conversations forward on African design and aesthetics via Sukeina.  One recent move has been  distancing themselves from the demi-couture and couture labelling that followed the brand from the outset. Alara expands “We are exploring daywear. Because a sweater, a simple white shirt or a pair of pants can be special.” To buttress the point Sukeina recently  created a capsule winter collection entitled Silex that saw them reinterpret winter-warmers for the woman who cares for silhouette and construction as much as she does for heat retention. It was an expansion of a day-wear exploration that had already been seeded in the Spring/Summer 2021 collection that were an immediate hit. The Boyfriend Sweater gets a luxe formal makeover with contrasting copes and sleeves and stiff white collars, mesh pencil skirts could be as easily worn to a meeting or cocktails and leggings are removed from planet basic via the clever inclusion of vertical panels – a trick that also lengthens and slims a leg’s appearance.  It also chimes with Salam’s wider mandate of being able to enter a woman’s consciousness and propose ensembles that reflect her mood or greater intent.

Bpyfriend Sweater and Pencil Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Boyfriend Sweater and Pencil Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

“I have seen so many collections, so many shows but I think seeing Sukeina for the first time was a big surprise.” Alara reminisces, adding; “I felt it wasn’t just something that you see and you forget. The level of craftsmanship and the level of work that is done on the clothes compared to a lot of the brands that we have out there today, African designers, European or American designers you know…that is what drew me to the brand, and what drew me to Omar is his mind and his level of thinking and the way that he works.” Their collaboration is more than a mutual admiration society. Alara is keen for Sukeina to optimise all the current green shoots in the company’s line of sight and for Salam he now has a professional, creative journeyman who understands the brand’s DNA and his own personal desire to never compromise. Craft, a capstone in much of his work, remains centre stage, but in Alara’s interpretations it is modernised and made relevant for women today.

Bassari Cardigan and Chiffon Pant SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara
Bassari Cardigan and Chiffon Pant SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara

Although the brand is young, Salam is still mindful of legacy building and of Sukeina upholding its core values for years to come. Fashion’s woeful reputation as one of the environment’s worst abusers and contributors to the climate emergency has prompted him to rather than clumsily jump on the sustainability bandwagon, champion mindful purchasing, something which is at the heart of how his collections are conceived and how he anticipates women will wear them. He expands “By going back to creating products that you don’t need to have hundreds of but just ten of because they mean  something to you [and], by going back to true craftsmanship with integrity, the true meaning of clothing,  clothing that perhaps won’t cost the price of a salad but won’t be exhausting and polluting the planet less will be upheld.”  Buying less and only what you will love forever is a mantra that not only those wedded to minimalism can afford to adhere to in our current times, but in Salam’s hands, perhaps because of the kind of pieces he creates, it doesn’t feel like a sentence to be endured. But arguably the most enduring of all Sukeina’s legacy building projects, beyond the brand’s commercial ambitions is challenging dated and inaccurate notions of what a fashion house with an African creative director should be producing or have as it’s central design thesis. Salam adds, “We don’t need to flex and say we are better than anyone. It is not about being better it is about being true to who we are. We are asking politely but firmly for the opportunity to share that with the world as our contribution to humanity.”

Neo Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara
Neo Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara

The last few years has seen a steady expansion in terms of numbers operating successfully, and celebration in terms of media coverage, of African fashion brands. Furthermore, in response to the growing appetite from consumers globally for African fashion, online retailers  such as  Industrie Africa,  Onchek and Avivere have launched. Africa has gone from being ‘hot right now’ to being ‘too hot to ignore’ and it is a trend that has traveled across other creative disciplines beyond fashion to include jewellery, music and fine art . But for all the commercial wins there is still a darker reality for brands that have African roots, brands such as Sukeina, and it lies with notions of respect, perception and positioning. Throughout our conversation, Salam, a measured, intellectual man of the world, did not talk of a fashion system ‘out to get him’, or of a desire to be on any of the hastily compiled lists of black designers  and black owned businesses that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, but he has had to be deliberate and consistent in his upending of assumptions and crystalline clear in how he presents his brand across all touch-points. There is a growing cadre of creatives who are choosing this modus operandi rather than slogans, hashtags and call out culture to make a name for themselves and their brand, and more pertinently to create a space for existence, without the historic  pejorative noise that is the mood music of being black from a global systemic and socioeconomic standpoint. Salam is firmly of the school that his oeuvre will speak for itself. That his raison d’être of being the aider and abettor of women discovering and displaying their many selves and feeling powerful and magnificent in the process is enough. For Salam, real validation doesn’t live in the land of likes, but in the closets of the growing number of women who choose Sukeina pieces as the lens to illustrate their passions, peculiarities and truths

Tocca Gown SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: DImeji Alara
Tocca Gown SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: DImeji Alara

Ute Decker: Jewellery Artist and Activist

“I grew up thinking I was not creative at all and it took me probably all the way into my thirties to overcome what I had been led to believe at school.” Ute Decker, jewellery artist and ethical jewellery activist is reminiscing about her earliest creative memories and I am surprised that there isn’t a strong biographical artistic thread. For an artist who since formally launching her brand in 2009 has experienced immense critical acclaim and commercial success with her work being described as ‘wearable works of art’ by the auction house Christie’s, and acquired for the permanent collections of both the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, it is somewhat puzzling that there were no early indications in her childhood of what was to come. Our Zoom meeting, which takes on the energy of a stimulating conversation with an intellectually curious friend who is as engaged with the world around them as they are with their craft, doesn’t feel like ‘work’ at all. In fact, we both agree that the whole interviewing business would be greatly improved with a glass of Grüner Veltliner, a wine we discover we both love. As our conversation progresses it becomes clear that Decker is so much more than an artist or a pioneer and early advocate of ethical jewellery practises; she has that rare quality of being equally a thinker and a doer. Her sculptural pieces possess the physicality of being made by her own hand, yet her ideological beliefs are imbued in the fact that the materials she uses are wholly ethical and traceable. We discuss her beginnings, her methodology and why she hopes that more in the industry will truly embrace ethical practises, especially if the jewellery industry is to truly shed some of the negative connotations that linger to this day.

Portrait of Ute Decker wearing the Orbit Ring in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Portrait of Ute Decker wearing the Orbit Ring in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

A Fearless Point Of View

Decker is unabashed about her beginnings; she says with a smile “I used to call it ‘winging it’ but of course nowadays I would say I am an autodidact…I went to evening classes just to have access to tools.” There is a pragmatism in her rationale for attending evening classes, but it also reveals a creative who is governed by process, knowledge accumulation and self-mastery, indicative of her previous job as a news journalist and researcher. That she came to her craft, via it being a passionate hobby also allowed her a more expansive, unburdened, relationship, something that she is quick to point out: “Making jewellery for myself [resulted] in me making it stronger because I didn’t come out of university with a jewellery degree and then have to earn money. I was completely creatively free.” Then as now, her pieces are not obvious ‘crowd pleasers’ but rather require a wearer who has an equally unapologetic approach to aesthetics as Decker. Indeed, bestsellers such as the Infinity and Orbit collections sit comfortably on the nexus of sculpture and adornment, and could easily be at home on a mantel shelf as they are on a wrist or finger.

Infinity Spiral Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Infinity Spiral Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Modern life has made many industries increasingly youth focused. We have become conditioned to saving our noisiest praise for young prodigies. Subsequently, creatives of all ages lose sleep thinking of ways to capture the eyeballs online and the money in real life of young consumers. However, Decker took a different approach: first and foremost she ensured her honoured her truth and pleased herself, she adds cheerily “I made very large sculptural pieces that commercially are a complete no-no..but I already had my own character, my own language. I didn’t want to please anybody.” This approach proved critical in tapping into a powerful and oft ignored demographic “ A lot of my clients are mature strong women” she notes when I ask her about who is drawn most to her work. By appealing to women like herself she ironically reflects our contemporary love affair with ‘relate-ability’, but in Decker’s case it happened organically rather than as part of a marketing strategy. Most pertinently, it has resulted in cementing, relatively quickly a client base that is neither driven by trend or, because they statistically earn more money, governed entirely by cost. Among her early collectors was the late architect Zaha Hadid, and the former Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones was another admirer of her work. But beyond attracting celebrity clientele and creative cognoscenti acclaim, her work connected on a meta-level. Formally launched in a group show in 2009, and significantly after the 2008 economic crash, it reflected a global yearning for jewellery that had depth of meaning. It also came at a time when there was a desire for original voices who could create something that stood apart from the offerings in the high jewellery meccas of Paris and New York.

Two Unicorns Rings in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Two Unicorns Rings in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

On Inspirations and Methodology

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Decker’s atelier is situated in London’s Cockpit Arts, a jewellery and design hub tucked between the city’s historic jewellery district of Hatton Garden and the leafy legal heartland of the Inns of Court of Holborn. Decker, who is originally from Germany was drawn to the space because of its sense of artistic community in a large sprawling city. However, although self-taught her design process is influenced profoundly by principles drawn from eastern traditions: “Are you familiar with Ensō?” She asks before continuing “I try to work as with Japanese calligraphy, with the Ensō  it is a circle that you draw…you have to be an apprentice and practise it for twelve years before you can put your name to it. I think that kind of practice is how I work. When I start off with the garden wire, I work until l have something that speaks to me and I am happy with and then I keep making the same piece, over and over again in brass. I work it out until I no longer have to think of the process and my hands now know by themselves. Once I have an intuitive feel, rather than doing and thinking through a lot of things, I make the final piece in metal, in one go. Like calligraphy, it needs to have that flow and dynamism and a natural end. And even if a client said I would love that brooch in gold or smaller or bigger I would still go back to the brass, to get my hands in the flow again. So it might take a few days. Sometimes the lines won’t speak to me and I will work on it for months and then just by chance I walk past a piece, pick it up, do one thing and there it is.” A process such as this is seemingly at odds with the western driven bottom line, one where a bestselling design would be churned out with celerity with the maximising of profits at the forefront of all activities. But like with much Decker does, it is challenging but ultimately rewarding. Supreme self-discipline in the repetitious nature of initial work is coupled with a spiritual harmony of intrinsically knowing when the piece is ready. As with the Ensō, the goal is mastery borne out of a lack of inhibition.

Chaos Neck Piece in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Chaos Neck Piece in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Warming to the conversation on eastern philosophies and beliefs she continues: “I am very interested in Zen Buddhism and I have tried meditating but I am not a practising Buddhist. In Zen, it is very much the idea of creating with an empty mind. So I sit there without any preconceived ideas. Without thinking, without an aim and without a goal for the end. My work is much more about a sentiment or a sensibility so I never have a concept in mind before, it is only later something might come.” She also invites her collectors to embrace a similar notion, where preconceived ideas are left at the door and instead they engage with a piece ‘empty’ and wait to respond to the emotions it might elicit. It is poetic and places Decker’s work more in the jewellery-artist category than the conventional jewellery designer. Of the distinction between the two she adds: “I don’t say I am a jewellery artist because I feel it sounds slightly pretentious. I tend to say I make sculptural pieces…or I hold out my hand or my neck and say, that is what I do. I try not to define it…If you consider that art it is art if you consider it jewellery, it is jewellery. It is about bringing your own perspective.”

Shadows Earrings in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image: Jamie Trounce
Shadows Earrings in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image: Jamie Trounce

Perhaps because of her circuitous route into jewellery, Decker steers away from labels or classifications being applied to her work. When I ask her of influences she pauses before responding “I admire the Padua School who are also quite minimalist but I don’t see myself as part of an artistic creative or jewellery school. But I would see myself as part of the ethical jewellery movement.” The Padua School under the unofficial leadership of Mario Pinton were at the vanguard of experimental gold smithery in the 1950s and 60s and like Decker, members such as Giampaolo Babetto were drawn to creating exploratory pieces that could be seen as both sculpture and jewellery with a minimalist sensibility. Intriguingly, the Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki also provides ideas that fuel her work: “I have read‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and although it has several political issues there are certain sentiments in the book that I agree with. Tanizaki describes how when you go into a Japanese house it is so empty but then the play of shadows is so powerful. Something so minimalist: the wind rippling through the trees, a gentle wave rolling in the ocean, looking into the fire…Those are the simplest smallest minimalist experiences…and because the process is so condensed and reduced that makes them the more powerful.” Relating it back to her practice she concludes: “I think quite often with jewellery people are thinking of where can they put another little diamond or another little swirl. For me, when a piece is done I am thinking what else can I take away to make it less busy.” This doing away with, condensing, distilling, until, one is left with a piece’s true essence is at the heart of all of her designs.

Curling Crest of A Wave in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Curling Crest of A Wave Ring in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

The idea of embedded energy is another concept that for Decker has great resonance, citing Alexander Calder she expands “…what really gives me joy looking at his work is you see little images and videos of how he makes things and that joy that he brings across. And every time I look at one of his pieces I see that maker’s smile.” Making and the physicality and personality she brings to pieces is what posits Decker’s work most in the jewellery-artist category. “My hands think in three dimensions so I need to actually make and experiment” she says adding “I never draw anything. I couldn’t draw this (she gestures to her wrist, where she is wearing an iteration of the Orbit bracelet),…I just play and experiment and by the end of it something completely different will fit.” She is happy to see her pieces as wearable sculptures but it was only when the opportunity of making a large scale piece for a client came about that she realised how wedded she was to her particular process: “It was a wonderful budget and I thought ‘Yeah, I always wanted to make larger sculptures and here is an opportunity, someone is commissioning me!’ But I must say that the process was less satisfying because I had to hand it over to a fabricator. I was no longer the person…for me it is really important that my hands, that I am involved, it is that joy in the creative process.” Just as with Calder, her energy, her essence, indeed her joy, are intrinsic to the completed work. “I don’t think I am a designer because it can’t be replicated. I can’t give it to someone else never mind do so myself.” Again, she resists easy categorisation: “I actually find it very difficult with the nomenclature thing as well, and it seems to be [more about ]what people are thinking.” And as already explored Decker is loath to allow external gazes to qualify or quantify who she is or what she does. She smiles before finally conceding “Jewellery artist is probably the closest term. There is an artistic expression. There are some thoughts and constructs and concepts that while not at the beginning of my process are certainly part of it…that is probably the main reason I would say jewellery artist. But I am definitely also a maker.”  Indeed, her work is represented at one of London’s most renowned galleries for jewellery-artists, Elisabetta Cipriani.

ManRay Swan in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image Courtesy of U Decker
ManRay Swan Ring in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image Courtesy of U Decker

 

Activism and Jewellery

Jewellery was never going to be just about adornment given Decker’s background. “I am very politically interested, I studied Political Economics at the University of Hamburg, lived in Paris, and spent some time at the UN in Vienna and was involved with the climate talks” Unlikely to content herself with trotting out superficial statements to her conscience or her clients’, Decker wanted to ensure that her jewellery was as equally imbued with her values as it was with her aesthetics. She expands: “Being part of a bigger picture, working with fairly traded gold, being part of the whole earth and community is important to me. I don’t just want to make art for art’s sake. I like to express certain sentiments but also be part of the solution of the issues that are important to me…When I studied there was a whole course on the meaning of work. Who am I in this world? How do I fit in? Do I fit in to the anonymous production or do I want my work to be more meaningful to myself and to the greater context?” It was these questions, coupled with her news journalism background that prompted her into deeper investigations on ethical mining, sourcing and production. The private endeavour resulted in a rejection of using gemstones: “The Kimberley Process ( the global agreement that came about in light of negative publicity on so called blood or conflict diamonds) is not worth the paper it is typed on. There are no ethical diamonds, there are no fair trade diamonds, there are some that are better than others like Canadian diamonds with more traceability, but…” She trails off and shrugs, incredulous that the general public has by and large swallowed the notion of ethical diamonds when many gemstones for the most part, still come from parts of the world which have either historically or are currently in the midst of political, socioeconomic and human rights tumult. It is for this reason that Decker herself continues to not use gemstones in any of her collections and subsequently focused her investigations on precious metals.

Calligraphy Rings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce
Calligraphy Rings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce

We alight on the first online ethical jewellery directory that she created, that was previously housed on her brand’s website but now has a permanent home on ethicalmaking.org which is a partnership between Decker and the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, Scotland, she adds: “Metals have an incredible footprint, it’s an incredibly dirty business whether it is from the environmental perspective or in terms of human rights and exploitation…It’s an absolute horror story. And when I read about that horror story my first reaction was ‘Oh my God, I cannot be part of this. I cannot use these materials.’ Surely there must be some gold or some silver that has been mined in a more environmentally friendly fashion… I didn’t start off thinking I am going to build the world’s most comprehensive ethical jewellery directory. It was just one piece after the next piece…I put it all online and that opened up conversations.”

Chaos Brooch and Earrings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce
Chaos Brooch and Earrings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce

This is not to say that her activities were met with universal support within the jewellery community. In spite of sustainability and ethical having recently not so much become buzz terms as mantras that all must adhere to, there was push-back. Reflecting back on those early beginnings she relates: “I talked to other jewellers and some of them were like, ‘Yeah, I might be interested.’ But at the beginning there was a lot of hostility from other jewellers because once you start talking about ethical you open up a can of worms…. If you say ‘ethical’ [jewellery] there must conversely be unethical jewellery. So the jewellery world didn’t like it.” Of the ongoing trend for jewellery houses both small and independent and large conglomerates to tout their ethical credentials she warns that consumers should be “aware of ‘greenwashing’, which I now think is the biggest danger… what we have now is a proliferation of claims and the Responsible Jewellery Council which already sounds fabulous and if you go on the website you would think you were on the website of Greenpeace… but in fact it is just an industry association…all the big mining companies and a lot of the big diamond companies are in there and now everybody says ‘our diamonds are sourced responsibly Kimberley Process and our metals whatever are also responsibly certified or we are getting it from a Responsible Jewellery Council source.’ Both of them are utterly meaningless but as a consumer you think ‘Oh, fantastic all of them are sourcing ethically.”

Rolling Waves Moonlight Brooch in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Rolling Waves Moonlight Brooch in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Clarity of information is something of particular importance to Decker who in addition to her jewellery practice lectures and continues to lobby for greater traceability of where metals are from for both creatives such as herself, seeking to be ethical in their sourcing and consumers who want to be assured that what they are choosing to purchase is truly ethical. On her own journey one pivotal connection was with Greg Valerio an agrarian, artisanal mining and ethical trade activist. “Someone told me about Greg Valerio who really is the hero of the whole story. He comes from a human rights background and started an ethical human rights shop…. he also found out about a small mining co=operative in Columbia called Oro Verde – and they worked on the same values and principles such as re-foresting and such… And then he went to the Fairtrade Foundation and said ‘guys you must get on board, we must have something certified…because there are so many ethical claims’. So that is how the first fair trade gold came about.” Decker is also eager to qualify the difference between Fairtrade and fair-trade, something most consumers wouldn’t immediately differentiate between; “It is also very important to note that the word fair trade with a hyphen or small letters is not protected. But Fairtrade one word and capitalised is…Fairtrade standards involves women’s rights and also economic rights, strict environmental standards and the money is invested, so we are paying a fair price but we are also paying a Fairtrade premium. And that premium the community can then decide what they need….So it is the community that jointly decides what they need most. It is investing in schools and people need to understand it is not some kind of ‘aid’, it is paying a bloody fair price.” Her and Valerio continue to raise awareness and campaign, often appearing on panels together.

Rose Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce
Rose Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce

Empowerment, Conscious Consumption and Future Plans

For Decker empowerment does not stop with elucidating stakeholders of the ethical jewellery movement. It also comes via her invitation to wearers in the co-creation process. “I give my pieces relatively abstract names. I have a thought of what they make me feel or what they remind me of but then the title is abstract enough to invite others in.” She uses her collection Orbit to illustrate the point asking me what I think it reminds me of before concluding, “So when I said orbit, I was thinking in terms of the solar system but you were thinking of chemical elements and atoms and that is beautiful…individual empowerment and individual expression combine in my jewellery.”

Orbit Bracelet in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Orbit Bracelet in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Occasionally, with her private clients the tables will be turned. She reminisces, “There is one wonderful collector in New York who commissioned me for a piece…her brief was ‘wild and abandon’ but I have to be able to type in it’.” The process took a year but it was precisely because Decker had a plethora of ideas that she explored fully before settling on the one that she felt was best. Inevitably, she returned to her eastern philosophical principles adding: “There is a concept in Japanese philosophy aesthetic called Ma, which could be translated as emptiness…for us in the west emptiness is a negative. But the concept there is if it is empty, it has all the possibilities opening up.” Allowing time to be inspired, to play, to dream and ultimately make are key in her creative process, as she waits on ideas to have their full fruition. Clients in turn are encouraged to exercise patience and trust that the beautiful synergies and work will emerge. It can also ultimately result in a less exhausted earth as we are all forced to consume less and not expect every desire and whim to be met immediately.

Silk Folds Bracelet in Recycled Silver. Image: Elke Bock
Silk Folds Bracelet in Recycled Silver. Image: Elke Bock

As our conversation comes to an end I pose to Decker whether she sees jewellery as another pit-stop in her portfolio career or the arena in which she intends to stay. She pauses before responding: “We could say jewellery is totally unnecessary, we have enough stuff in this world and with the materials and the issues, do I need to make jewellery? But I think making very few pieces, making pieces that count, that are not just in and out of fashion before you can blink, is worthwhile. Sometimes clients come and say ‘oh yes, I bought this at your very first exhibition and I have been wearing it all the time’, and hearing that gives me so much joy.” Decker has a mind that is so agile and a seemingly insatiable curiosity and desire to share knowledge and beauty, that it feels unlikely that jewellery in and of itself will be an adequate framework for what. Has already been a considerable body of work. However, jewellery redefined and deconstructed within her broad locus of concerns and passions has become a much more nuanced proposition in and of itself. All creative disciplines need a dose of disruption to truly evolve, Decker is doing this for jewellery one sculptural, beautiful, ethically produced piece at a time.

Articulation Neck Piece in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Articulation Neck Piece in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Rabun The Radiant: A Career Observed, Part 2

“The most important thing that you can do is strengthen your design language. It takes time. It takes a lot of patience and practice, sitting down and asking yourself the same questions; why am I designing jewellery? Why do I do this and what do I want to say with my work?” It is mid afternoon on a surprisingly hot early Autumn’s day in London and Jacqueline Rabun, is in a reflective mood as our discussion moves on from her beginnings ( which you can read more about in the previous post) to legacies, impact and the work still to be done. When I ask what is the raison d’être to why she continues three decades on to design and create jewellery and objects for her legion of collectors and fans globally; unsurprisingly for an interview subject who has proved both profoundly sensitive and ethereally gracious, it is not a case of making adornments for the sake of. “I believe that it is important for jewellery to make you feel empowered, uplifted and calm. It needs to make you feel inspired and that’s really important in my work. [Subsequently] I also try to keep my energy in a certain place because I know when you are creating something, the idea needs to be born with the right energy. And when an idea is born out of the right energy, the world will embrace it.” It is a truism that would resonate with many creatives, the proverbial reaping what you sow, and thus the need to sow with the right ‘head and heart space’ but Rabun’s assertion goes beyond the jewellery she designs to the spaces it inhabits both before and after purchase. In this second part of a special retrospective, we look at the myriad of ways in which she has played the role of pioneer in the jewellery industry, how recent conversations on inclusivity have brought challenges and opportunities and how she sees her contribution evolving in the years to come.

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Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun, Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun, Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

Changing the Marketplace

Think High Jewellery and one’s mind wonders to rarefied rooms upholstered in tasteful creams and beige with impossibly coiffed assistants hovering to attend to your needs and discretely placed security, ensuring you don’t do anything dastardly. For the habitual client this set up with its unsaid codes of conduct might be easy to navigate, but for a freethinker like Rabun it was stifling and desperately in need of change. In many ways reflecting the seminal 1998 essay “Welcome to the Experience Economy” published in the Harvard Business Review by B Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore which stated that ‘An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage and goods as the props to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.’ Rabun’s stand alone jewellery store in Belgravia ( a first for a person of colour) was very much a retail event. Situated in a converted mews house, the interiors riffed on the domestic luxury experience, with a hanging canopy of plants, and jewellery positioned in unexpected places, such as inside an antique desk, ready to be ‘discovered’ by the browsing client. The store itself did away with the burly security guard at the front door and customers could wander around with a piece on their body and get a ‘feel’ for it in a seemingly homely setting. The space also opened its doors to artists with exhibitions, dinners and talks all part of the calendar of events. She adds “I wanted the store to be welcoming and a place where you were transformed the minute you walked through the door. I wanted the overwhelming feeling that you took away to be a sense of well being. A lot of clients would come in and they would say, ‘ooh I don’t want to leave and go out into the world’ because it was very calm. We were very conscious about everything, we always burned sandalwood for instance as sandalwood purified the air, basically it was about touching all of the senses in every way.” Of course now, we have gotten used to this sort of set up: from the Matches.com townhouse in Carlos Place in Mayfair and the Burberry flagship store in Regent Street and countless others in other global cities with their gallery shows, concerts and cups of tea and wine dispensed as much as any item we  might wish to wear. However, actualising this in the mid noughties, Rabun was arguably one of the first, and particularly so in the jewellery sector.

Interior of Jacqueline Rabun Store, Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Interior of Jacqueline Rabun Store, Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun is passionate about architecture and it has had a profound effect on her jewellery practice, both in terms of inspiration and how she presents her work. “I really love John Lautner…If you live in a John Lautner house it represents living as a free spirit and that is my attraction to it.” She notes of the Californian architect whose light flooded designs have inspired many since. She adds “Richard Neutra gives you the same feeling, it is that school of architecture that was centred around case studies about how we live , and how are we going to live in the future, [and] that is how they were thinking. Now when you look at those houses they are just as modern and so many architects have been inspired by that way of living. However, ultimately those houses for me represent freedom, serenity and the ideal way to live.” In her own way, Rabun has enthused similar concept into her retail spaces. When she moved operations to her loft-cum-atelier in Clerkenwell, the guiding principles of light filled spaces that were simultaneously welcoming and calm, was adhered to. And as is the way when what you’re offering is truly special both spaces had extensive features in World of Interiors and Rabun herself was invited by the global design and furniture pioneer store, Habitat to curate a space in their store that reflected her design aesthetic.

Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio: Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio: Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio, Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio, Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Finally, another area where Rabun is considered a pioneer is in the popularising of naming collections and not just ‘star turn’ pieces, suites or the gemstones utilised themselves. Reflecting on her long-term collaboration with Georg Jensen she notes that “Nicholas (Manville, Chief Creative Officer at Georg Jensen) said I was the first designer to start naming their collections and he said that you’re the only designer at Georg Jensen that has a story to tell that is emotional around your work. No one else does it.” In seeking to put a name to the emotional landscape that a jewellery series inhabits and the feelings it solicits and not just the gemstones involved or the pieces created, Rabun charted new ground for what has become standard practice today.

The Mercy Series. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
The Mercy Series. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Challenging Seasons

A career as long as Rabun’s does not occur without incident. Both on a global level; witnessing recessions, pandemics, conversations on racism and gender parity and inclusivity, as well as on a personal level: building and maintaining a business, raising a family and spending many years away from home. Inevitably, we alight on the topic of race, an issue that has been re-ignited with the murder of George Floyd and the unprecedented protests that occurred in its wake, but as Rabun points out, none of this is new: “African-Americans particularly have always had it hard because of the history of slavery in America. We really have had to fight for equality and the right to simply express ourselves. We have had to fight for the bare minimum.” When I ask her about how the recent protests, online debates and discourses affect the jewellery industry and the challenges therein her response is refreshingly frank. “I think that it has to start with us.” Expanding on her thesis Rabun adds “We have to develop our voice around our work. It has to be emotive… I think that is the big starting point…Also I really believe it is your experience and the road you travel down that actually develops your design skills and even those things that are negative such as rejection and being overlooked can actually be the most powerful fuel.” A lot of the discourses have been about inclusion based on past injustices and structural prejudices that work against people of colour. However, Rabun also points out that once space has been found at the proverbial table, the offering has to be compelling if it is to be successful long term. It is a piquant reminder that getting attention, press, accolades and even public apologies is very different to building a commercially viable and successful business. In our age of chasing likes, fame and mentions her approach which puts the work, development of a unique voice and building the client base back in the forefront feels almost novel.

Black Love Ring in Oxidised Silver. Image, Courtesy of J Rabun
Black Love Ring in Oxidised Silver. Image, Courtesy of J Rabun

This is not to say that her work has not been influenced by or responded to race and racial issues. Her ‘Black Love’ series ,designed in 2015 “was a symbolic gesture around the injustices met out to African Americans and was a response in particular to 2014, when so many young men were being murdered. It was also focused around the idea that we as black people simultaneously bring so much actual love, creativity and joy Into the world but also need to find space to live and to find the beauty in that struggle, which is not easy.” To evoke these varied notions Rabun reimagined the classic heart classic motif: “It is made from two seed forms as the seed is also a symbol of new beginnings and life itself. The seeds come together to form a heart shape and when they come together they cradle into one another.” The series is available in oxidised silver which takes on a black appearance, yellow and white gold, and in light of the tumultuous events of this year has gained added poignancy. She also hoped it would encourage greater self-love for black people, who could wear the pieces as one would a talisman, reminding them of how amazing, precious and valued they are in a world that systemically is designed to often make them feel the opposite.

Black Love Pendant in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Black Love Pendant in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun is quick to correct a misconception that hers has always been a charmed existence, thus making her out of touch with practitioners, particularly those of colour, currently struggling. “I was thinking about this, this morning. When I was younger, I remember that with my parents we never left the house unless we were immaculate and shiny which is quite a lot for a small person….[but] 1960s America was very racist so if we walked out the door looking our let’s say Sunday Best, that was our armour. They could hate us if they wanted to because we were black but they couldn’t get us on anything else…. So I obviously can understand what people are feeling, younger designers…I will speak about the jewellery world because in some ways it is a little bit more challenging than fashion as an industry. I think the art of patience and perseverance is really important and I think developing a strong design language, a strong voice, and imagery around your work is crucial. Fortunately, we now have amazing social media channels where you can do that. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune and I think that is what is so great about the moment that we are living in; you can have your own vision and your own world and you can express it on your platform and no one can stop you from doing that. And you can find your customers directly too. But I do think the most important thing is just developing your very strong identity so that when people see your ring for example they know it’s you. They don’t need your name. If you just put a piece of jewellery on the table they know. That is when you are winning to me.”

Beautiful Ring in 18kt White and Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Beautiful Ring in 18kt White and Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Regarding the 2008 recession which hit hard in the jewellery industry community, she reminisces “Yes, it was a challenging time for me and my business but it was also great time for me to focus on my intention. On how I move forward with my business. Also I had more time to create new collections and I also took time to just research and come up with a new way to approach my craft. But I did have a few collections that were quite commercial and they kept my business going which included the Alphabet Series and also the Wyatt and Beautiful Series. I think with any business there is always going to be ups and downs and challenging times. It is just a case of figuring out how do you ride through the storm to get to the sunshine? I think that is the challenge, and if you do it gracefully all will work out as it is meant to.” In many ways it takes courage and tenacity to not be overwhelmed or fatigued by structural injustices, but Rabun’s whole career has been underpinned by a determined pursuit of excellence regardless of the obstacles she may find in her path. When I ask her of who in the current crop of black jewellery designers she is enamoured by she replies with a smile; “Emefa Cole is great. When I look at her work you can feel a lot of emotion and you can feel that she has a very distinct vision about jewellery, that she is really focused, that she has got her own thing going on she has a very clear language and you can see that she is developing it and it is beautiful.”

Alphabet Series in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Alphabet Series in 18kt Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun also cites a memorable event where she met the feted jewellery designer Vivianna Torun as giving her a sense of perspective and a real life exemplar of resilience and its power. “I met Vivianna Torun during the centenary celebrations for Georg Jensen in 2004 and at the time she wasn’t very well so we weren’t sure she was going to be attending the press conference and later that evening the gala…Other jewellery designers were there including Nana Ditzel but then suddenly you could feel this very beautiful energy near the door and we all turned around and looked and there she was. She had such an amazing aura that the whole room went silent and…this powerful positive spirit just came in to the room.” She pauses, before adding “Some people have that ability to shift energy when they walk in the room and she was one of those people one hundred percent. I met her and and I met her daughter Marcia who is amazing as well and we had a lovely moment together where we took a tour of the exhibition that was being held at the National Museum in Copenhagen.” Torun’s work was featured prominently in the centenary exhibition celebrating the Danish heritage house, as were other designers including Rabun herself. She concludes: “It was just beautiful… the three of us at the exhibition…It was one of those moments where you know it was meant to be.” The meeting was especially poignant for Rabun as she had long admired Torun: “The only designer who I have actually bought their pieces is Vivianna Torun, I think for so many reasons I connect with it. I love it aesthetically, I love her work ethic and I love that she was courageous. She was a Swedish woman who married an African American man in the 60s and lived in France when that wasn’t such an easy thing to do. She had mixed race children and they got a lot of abuse and through all of that she continued designing. It would have been so easy for her to just stop, of course…and I know that she struggled..but she just persevered through it all and then left to live in Jakarta and set up a studio there whilst still designing for Georg Jensen and at this studio they created all her pieces so the community was thriving too.” Purpose and fortitude are a running theme and preferred connection point for Rabun, who in many ways possesses the same qualities.

Wyatt Love Cuff in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Wyatt Love Cuff in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

A Living Legacy

With numerous professional achievements under her belt, and zero desire to rest on her laurels, Rabun has been paying a lot of attention to her legacy and leveraging her influence to assist the next generation. Prior to the spread of Covid19 and the ensuing global lockdown, a trip to India precipitated a spiritual re-awakening, one which gave her a vision of how she could best use her talents to serve the greatest good. Collaboration and the power it has to unlock talent, create wealth and break down barriers to inclusion was at the forefront of her mind. She elaborates: “I do feel a responsibility to the next generation and mentorship is something that I do with a few design students…but we can definitely do more, particularly between African-Americans and Africans. I think that it’s very important that we collaborate on ideas that empower us and other people of colour in the world.” She has visited Senegal frequently and a recent trip to Nigeria and a trip to Ghana that was sadly postponed due to the pandemic were the beginnings of a framework she was creating to develop greater opportunities for cross pollination of ideas and expansion of opportunities.

Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

The season of self-reflection has also brought a strong tug to her country of origin, which is on the cusp of a potentially seismic change politically [since this interview took place, Joe Biden has won the US Presidential Election] She notes: “This is an important time for us politically. It is a very difficult time, it is a very challenging time but it is also the time for the work, for our creativity, for our talent, for our skills. I think that this is the moment. We are seeing changes and I am going to remain optimistic and say we will see more.” She is currently re-evaluating her own potential role in that story and is in touch with a number of her peers who share a similar vision such as architect David Adjaye who returned to Accra after decades spent in the UK and US: “I think it is important that David has gone back to Ghana, to be part of that new story, and it is my intention to spend part of my time in America as well. I have been in England for thirty years but I think it is an important time for me to perhaps inspire the next generation of young jewellery designers or young women that probably have no idea that it is possible to enter this realm. If I can open that door for them that [would be] very powerful and I think it is my duty to do that.”

Carl Aubock X Jacqueline Rabun Collaboration for SigmarGallery. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Carl Aubock X Jacqueline Rabun Collaboration for Wallpaper Handmade and Sigmar Gallery. Image courtesy of J Rabun

Although it has always been about the jewellery, and her work in its development, refinement and expansion of parameters speaks to this, Rabun has paradoxically always been so much more than a jewellery designer. For designers younger than her, she is an emblem of  what it looks like to be at the top of your game, without compromising your vision or pandering to systems or individuals that might think less of you by virtue of your gender or colour or both. Her humility regardless of her position as the world’s most famous and lauded black jewellery designer, is seen in how she neither courts or is occupied by the trappings of fame. She is grateful  for recognition but her eyes visibly light up when talking about the work itself, how it has developed or the themes explored in particular series. She is equally animated when speaking of the. transformative power jewellery has had on clients’ lives, how a piece has become a much treasured family heirloom, or takes a wearer back to particular point in time when they were happiest. She also loves setting herself a new challenge, as her continued interest in designing objects illustrates. She has always designed objects for her own personal use, but the remit has expanded, and was seen most notably in a collaboration for Wallpaper Magazine’s Handmade Project with the Vienna based studio of Carl Aubock overseen by Nina Hertig of  Sigmar Gallery. The finished pieces were first exhibited at London Design Festival in 2017, and Rabun is set to do more projects in a similar vein in the future. Tellingly, her Instagram biography describes her as an ‘artist’, and this feels the more accurate nomenclature. Jacqueline Rabun is an artist and jewellery just happens to be her preferred medium. Henri Matisse famously said “Creativity takes courage.” and courage has anchored the ethos and governed the methodology of Rabun’s career so far. It takes guts to move continents, without a golden parachute or a bulging contact book and build a successful business doing what you love. Coupled with undeniable talent and a quiet confidence that destiny was guiding her steps and she became an unstoppable force. Personal preferences aside, the best art and the greatest artists attempt to express truth and share truths with the world. Rabun, ever generous invites us to do so twice; first in the selecting of the truths we wish to reveal with our jewellery choices, and secondly in inviting us in the wearing, to share those truths with others.

Rabun The Radiant: A Career Observed, Part 1

“I started designing jewellery that spoke to me, because there wasn’t much jewellery I wanted to wear…I wasn’t really sure where it was going of course, but I knew it would find its place” reflects Jacqueline Rabun in the first of two Zoom calls in which we discuss her three decades and counting career in jewellery design. Immediately evident in her opening answer is the power of intent married with application. The impetus for designing began with her, she was neither creating with an ideal client in mind or at the mercies of a ‘market’ to court or appease. This unapologetic approach has brought dividends although not without challenges along the way. Rabun is motivated by a passion and desire to actualise an alternative design offering, one that is rooted in her own experiences and values. It is this distinct point of view that has seen her contribution to the jewellery world not only unequivocal, but also a catalyst for opening the doors to wider participation in the industry as a whole.

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Mercy Ring, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Ring in White Gold , Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Of course, it is easy to eulogise from the vantage point of a career of her length and breadth which contains within it the ‘holy grail’ of commercial success, critical acclaim and continued resonance in the here and now from peers and design aficionados alike. But Rabun’s is a story that is first and foremost anchored by jewellery that found it’s way onto the bodies of many and intriguingly varied clients; from rock stars and supermodels to business leaders and members of royal families all over the world. Coupled with this is her prodigious work ethic and a tenacity that hasn’t let setbacks, curveballs or racism, derail her from her goals. Rabun is softly spoken, with an accent that sits squarely in the mid-Atlantic but without any of the international-jet-set affectations that many have come to associate with such. Dressed in a deceptively simple yet perfectly cut white tunic, her hair pulled back, skin clear and eyes animated, she appears the embodiment of a woman seated confidently and elegantly in her power, who hasn’t been discombobulated by the uncertain, pandemic ridden times we are all living in. When I note this she laughs: “I carry on as I always have” which for her is working largely from home as she straddles her work for her eponymous brand and her long term collaboration with Scandinavian heritage jewellery house, Georg Jensen.

An Autodidact Finds Her Voice and Place

Rabun surprisingly did not train as a jeweller: “I studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute in San Francisco, that was the world I always thought that I would be a part of… My mother taught me to sew, and I actually knew how to cut a pattern and make my own clothes from a really early age. But as I was studying fashion design something came over me and I felt as though this wasn’t my world anymore… the fashion industry is amazing but I guess I was quite sensitive at the time…so I stopped and by pure accident I started working at a jewellery gallery, a very beautiful one in Los Angeles , called the M Gallery and it was like no other space I had ever been to.” In many ways the M Gallery was the perfect training ground for Rabun’s own as yet conceived design practice. Proprietor Michael Dawkins had a curatorial approach, with collections by jewellery-artists, architects and other interdisciplinary practitioners that didn’t fit the classic high jewellery mould, finding a home in his destination space that attracted an eclectic clientele who were drawn to contemporary and directional pieces. At home, inspired by what she saw, Rabun started experimenting: “I started teaching myself: first how to design and then how to actually make. I am a better designer than maker, but I can do it if I have to” she adds laughing.

Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Romance precipitated a move to London in 1989 and it was here that her processes and her ideas solidified. Her first collection, Raw Elegance, launched in 1990 was a commercial triumph with Barney’s New York an immediate stockist – unheard of for a new designer, never mind a female black one. Rabun herself is uncomfortable with using the term ‘collection’, with its undertones of ‘in today, out tomorrow’, and prefers the term ‘series’ which hints to a continuum of states and a revisiting and exploration of themes, a notion that ties in with both her first and all her consequent bodies of work. Speaking of what it was that drew in a retail behemoth like Barney’s and the slew of luxury stores around the world to stock her immediately she expands: “I think it was because it was unlike any other jewellery they were stocking at the time. It was quite masculine but there were feminine undertones. It was very organic and natural using shapes and forms that follow the lines of the body and it was just very different for that moment.” Crucially, Raw Elegance coincided with the genesis of reimagining gender boundaries in fashion and beauty and that was to be a hallmark of the 90s: Calvin Klein’s unisex fragrance CKOne, was the scent of the decade, Jean-Paul Gaultier had a mixed gender fashion show in Paris for his Spring/Summer 1994 collections and indie bands with effete lead singers such as Blur with their anthem to blurred gender role boundaries Girls & Boys ruled the airwaves. For the jewellery world Raw Elegance was an early presentation of similar ideas – themes that many jewellery brands have since explored and developed.

A Selection of Pieces from Raw Elegance Series. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Selection of Pieces from Raw Elegance Series. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

London in the 90s was arguably the coolest city on earth, with a creative renaissance not seen since the swinging 60s. It was the decade that saw the dominance of British fashion designers with John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloe dictating how the world dressed. The Young British Artists or YBAs as they were collectively known, all featured in Sensation, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997 that placed fine art at the heart of pop-culture. In the jewellery world, Rabun alongside Shaun Leane designed pieces that were in diametric opposition to the ostentatious 80’s aesthetic and resonated with subcultures in what was then an edgy East London and bourgeois West London bohemians alike. Looking back at the cross-pollinating and dynamic energy of the city then Rabun remarks “when I first moved to London in about a week I met Judy Blame through a friend and he loved my work, so he immediately used a couple of my pieces for Neneh Cherry.” The fortuitous meeting with the legendary uber=stylist brought her into contact with others luminaries. “It all happened very organically, I have to be honest. It was all very word of mouth because of course we didn’t have social media, but pretty quickly I was connected with a few people at I-D Magazine and I had some articles in I-D, The Face, Dazed, thinking back I had a lot of publicity” The coup de grace was landing the cover of British Vogue’s September 1992 issue with Linda Evangelista adorned in pieces from the now extended Raw Elegance Series. “I guess that was one of the little signs that were a cosmic okay, you’re moving in the right direction. Because actually when you start off in a career where you haven’t actually studied and trained and you have taught yourself, you always question whether you are doing the right thing.” From there, her star was fully in ascendant, with musicians particularly drawn to her work. Madonna, Whitney Houston, U2 and Lenny Kravitz were just some of her many A List clients. Living in London, which at the time was the de facto laboratory of new ideas across multiple creative disciplines had an undoubtedly positive effect on Rabun’s own practise.

September 1992  British Vogue Cover. Image by Peter Lindbergh
September 1992 British Vogue Cover. Image by Peter Lindbergh

Distilling Her Design Language

Rabun is unabashed in her love for design and it seeps into every aspect of her life. The slither of her home visible on the screen, is dotted with beautiful artwork and artefacts picked up from her travels. She relates that her passion for mid-century furniture has resulted in a considerable collection, some of which is in storage. It is illustrative of a woman for whom aesthetics across all touch points are of profound importance. But for Rabun it is more than surface level prettiness informing her. “When I speak about design language it is about the shape and form of a particular object but it is also the story behind that body of work. For me, my whole design language is about the human experience…each one of my bodies of work is definitely inspired by what I am going through in my life which is probably what everyone else goes through as well,”.In many ways the clues are there in the names of the series of work: Love Distance  for instance features two rings with corresponding curves that unite when together but look equally beautiful on their own speak to a long distance relationship. And her first collaboration with Georg Jensen, Offspring, was inspired by the birth of her son: “Offspring is about the unbreakable bond between mother and child and a lot of women go through this…[and] the actual shapes of the pieces are taken from an egg form and eggs are the beginning of life, so it is symbolic of new beginnings. When you have a child your life begins anew and there are challenges but even when it is difficult you’re still in it. It is unbreakable.”

 Love Distance Rings in Yellow and White Gold. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
Love Distance Rings in Yellow and White Gold. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Love Distance Rings in Sterling Silver. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Love Distance Rings in Sterling Silver. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Bracelet in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Bracelet in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Bangle in Sterling  Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Bangle in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Earring in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Earring in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Her collaboration with Georg Jensen is how Rabun is perhaps best known. Indeed many wonder how an American based in London came on the radar of the Danish heritage house that has been seen as the custodian of Scandinavian design. As with much of Rabun’s story serendipity met with an impressive body of work, she relates “I have a friend who is in fashion and I went out to dinner with her and her partner and they invited Mark Olm who is a Danish photographer and he mentioned that Georg Jensen were looking for designers and he thought my work would be perfect and he happened to know someone there, So he basically spoke to them the next day, gave them my telephone number and we emailed but it wasn’t a thing. I got a telephone call the next day the design director from the jewellery came to see me and then gave me a brief and we were working together.” The whole process from dinner to commencing work took ten days. Astonishing by any measure. But when I gasp in exclamation Rabun adds that she views it as manifestation for both parties as Jensen were looking for someone and she too was seeking to expand her horizons after by that point, nine commercially successful years in business. Most critical to the speed of engagement was her design language which she notes “has an equal dose of Scandinavian and African influences and interestingly there is a lot of Scandinavian jewellery where you can see the designer is very knowledgeable about African jewellery.” Certainly the collaboration which commenced in 1999 with Offspring launched in 2001 and then rebooted for 2018 has been beneficial for both parties. Offspring, is as time of publication, Georg Jensen’s bestselling jewellery collection.

Mercy Bangle in Yellow Gold. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Bangle in Yellow Gold. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Mercy Rings. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Rings. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun continued to plough the myriad of human experiences and emotions for other series with the heritage house. Cave launched in 2002, a series celebrated amongst jewellery connoisseurs globally who are clamouring for its re=issue, featured concave circular forms occasionally with pave diamonds in a hollowed form. It was a comment at the need to sometimes retreat and find a place for quiet contemplation and reflection. Mercy was launched in 2019 but Rabun notes “I started developing it fifteen years ago and then Georg Jensen asked kindly if they could launch it under their brand. Originally, it was designed for them but we were working on so many projects that it just never happened…but if you think about the time we are living through now it really resonates…we need a lot of mercy. There is a big need for compassion and empathy for others and to walk in somebody else’s shoes for five minutes. It is about not being selfish. It is not that moment now.” To encompass those sentiments, the sculptural forms look different from each vantage point, for both the wearer and those viewing the pieces on the wearer’s body, resulting in an exquisite metaphor for Rabun’s intention. As ever with Rabun, diamonds when utilised are done so discretely, something that some assume given her African-American heritage is unusual as African-Americans and their biggest cultural export, hip=hop are intrinsically linked with the maximalist ‘bling-bling’ aesthetic. She laughs in recognition at what is ultimately a lazy assumption: “My design language is minimalist, but actually there is a lot of African design that in itself is quite minimalist. From art, to furniture, to jewellery. As with me, there is a lot of use of organic forms and that is my link. I draw more from my African heritage, rather than the popular media stereotypes of what black glamour is. I draw more from African jewellery and African art.” It is a reflection of what for many years have been the silos of expectations creative people of colour have oftentimes had to work in. The assumption that one voice, one style, one set of experiences fits all, when in actuality, things are more nuanced and varied.

Cave Ring in Sterling Silver, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Cave Ring in Sterling Silver, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Cave Ring,  Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Cave Ring, Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun’s eponymous line has continued to expand on her thesis of jewellery that reflects, documents and harnesses the human experience. A recent special series A Beautiful Life for the PAD Fairs in London and Paris in 2018 included a re-imagined Beautiful ring in aventurine and yellow gold as well as one featuring rutilated quartz crystal and yellow gold. There was also a pendant with a yellow gold vessel form in which a removable aventurine sits, giving the wearer the choice of removing it and holding it in their hand for on-the-go meditative purposes. The choice of gemstones for these pieces was deliberate “my work always has to be honest, I have to like the stone, I have to feel an affinity with it otherwise I cannot work with it”. In the instance of aventurine Rabun was drawn to its historical healing properties which is said to aid the nervous system. Green aventurine in particular is known in the Hindu Chakra system as a heart healer that dissolves negative thoughts for the wearer. Rabun adds “jewellery can give you a sense of security [and] If you walk out of the front door without it you feel like something is missing, I think everyone has had that experience who wears jewellery, and so it is a form of armour and I think if we take that into a spiritual realm it calms you and it gives you comfort.” When we speak of her attraction to rutilated quartz, whose beauty lies in the visible inclusions that sometimes have the appearance of spun gold thread left to form a messy  yet captivating pattern, she adds “When you look at these stones you think wow, how did that happen? How did all that imperfection arrive in that stone? I like those imperfections. Because I think that is what we are inside we are not perfect.” It is in many ways a radical proposition, especially as there is a whole sector of jewellery that is dependent on gemstones of almost supernatural perfection that will imbue their wearer with similarly polished, beguiling powers. Rabun is offering wearers to feel comforted and empowered but also vulnerable and open enough to show and share their authentic self rather than a carefully crafted facade. If the gemstones can be honest so can we.

A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

Present Realities and Future Series

Whilst many creatives have been emotionally buffeted by the ‘new normal’ that Covid19 has heralded, Rabun true to form has observed the peculiar needs the season has brought with it and created solutions. “I have been quietly working on some objects for the home and some furniture.. because the home has obviously become so much more important to everyone in the world.” Expanding her canvas from the human body to a room is a natural progression. She has also used the time to reflect on how she wishes to present herself and her work moving forward. She states “I definitely prefer to be known as an artist because whilst of course my speciality is jewellery, I have designed objects furniture and sculpture.” She pauses, before adding “This word designer, I think when you have worked for a long time and you have a specific recognisable look and feel to your work it takes you in to the space of being an artist.” Her oeuvre is ever evolving, but as with many artists, it is doing so on her own terms

A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

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We close our conversation with a question that Rabun is initially a little hesitant to answer, “you answer it” she challenges me jokingly, and that is how would she describe the Jacqueline Rabun aesthetic. She expands “A lot might say or think that my jewellery is organic and minimal. But it is important for me that those shapes and forms have meaning. I don’t design for design’s sake. I really need to have something to say when I am designing because there is an awful lot of jewellery in the world.” Suffusing jewellery with her own spiritual practises and beliefs is of paramount importance to her, far more than sales figures or public acclaim. “I really hope my work will have some sort of a positive impact on someone’s life, whether they feel empowered or inspired or comforted or cured. Recently, a woman who had cancer wrote to me and said she used one of my pieces as a talisman to get her through her cancer treatment. To me that is why I do what I do.” None of us fully knows how we will be remembered, but for the fortunate few such as Rabun, a body of work that speaks to her truth and resonates in such visceral and powerful way with her clients, provides a validating clue.

The Lustre of Melanie Georgacopoulos

In her 2007 Royal College of Art MA Degree show Melanie Georgacopoulos made modern jewellery history when she reimagined a string of pearls by doing something that at the time was sublimely subversive – slicing them. Reflecting back on it she notes:”It was a very instinctive thing. I wasn’t thinking conceptually what am I doing ? Why am I doing this now and what does it mean?” Her understated comment is typical of the London based Greek native who has been credited with reviving pearls as an option for the contemporary jewellery wearer; a gemstone that had hitherto felt preserved in the visual aspic of portraits of aristocrats and maharajahs, suddenly feels incredibly modern and appealing in her hands. With an eponymous line launched in 2010 and a successful and groundbreaking long term collaboration with heritage pearl house Tasaki now in its eighth year, her contribution to the 21st century jewellery canon seems secure, but like all great living artists, she continues to push boundaries and ask questions of her work, the material she has chosen to work with and the emotional energy and fiscal value we place on pieces made from these treasures from the sea.

Sliced Necklace M/G Tasaki (image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Sliced Necklace M/G Tasaki (image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Craft Mastery and Pearl Discovery

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Georgacopoulos’ love of jewellery has been life-long. Growing up in Greece she reminisces: “I remember a lot of school trips we would always go to museums and in Greece all of the museums are filled with gold jewellery and artefacts.” Home was a creative one, with a French Interior Designer mother encouraging artistic endeavours although jewellery was at her brother’s suggestion: “I was always making things and leaving them around the house. We had a big desktop computer that had fallen apart and I found all those microchips that were inside and I started making smaller pieces with it and my brother said Why don’t you turn it into jewellery at least you can wear it and not leave it lying around. And this is how it started really.

Formal training began at the Mokume Institute in Athens and was in her words  “three years of intense and traditional jewellery technique learning. Not only were we hand-making pieces but we also [learnt about] production so we did casting, diamond setting, granulation, mokume-gane, all these jewellery techniques that we don’t really use  these days but it is very important to know..I  am very grateful for those years, although I didn’t enjoy all of it at the time” she adds candidly. Sadly, the Mokume Institute has closed, a victim of the Greek Sovereign Debt crisis of 2009 that ravaged the economy. However, the comprehensive training equipped Georgacopoulos for launching her own line in 2010, as unlike many of her contemporaries, she was able to do much of the  practical work herself, outsourcing for specific technical purposes only.

Tiles MOP Loop Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Tiles MOP Loop Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Although now associated with pearls, Georgacopoulos’ gravitation towards working them was gradual. Post Mokume, she took a step away from jewellery design, embarking on a BA in Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art. However, sculpture expanded her curiosity regarding materials providing a wider remit for exploration, “[with] sculpture you are, just working with the material and figuring out what the material gives back or tells you or what you can do with your hands… You don’t start with a design in the same way that one might start in jewellery. You might have a design but you cannot force it, instead you treat the material in a certain way so that it translates into your design.”  Her methodology,  one that is simultaneously respectful of the materials involved yet at its heart is untethered to established norms and rules allowed her to be boundless in her ideation processes. Alighting on pearls was serendipitous, once enrolled on the Royal College of Art’s prestigious MA in Jewellery Design, one of her tutors noticed that many of her designs featured rounded forms that would lend themselves well to pearls and suggested she explore it. Critically Georgacopoulos adds “sculpture gave me the hands on approach and a certain degree of fearlessness”. And if she had thought too deeply about the act that precipitated the Sliced Collection?  “I would have been too scared to cut a pearl, because you’re not supposed to do that with gems in general, you are supposed to enhance their beauty and cutting something in half can feel like you are destroying it.” Or indeed rebirthing it as she did.

Sliced Bracelet, M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Sliced Bracelet, M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

From that much talked about Degree Show, Georgacopoulos settled into a dual professional life, one that she admits as a recent graduate in super-competitive London she was fortunate to find herself in: doubling up as a design assistant for Antoine Sandoz where work included designing for companies as varied as Boucheron and Tom Ford and continuing to fulfil orders from her steady stream of private clients. By 2010, a mere three years since graduating she was already stocked in Dover Street Market and met the renowned jewellery curator and agency owner Valery Demure, who immediately suggested they work together. The meeting proved to be a career turning point “I thought okay, I have to decide. I am either going to carry on designing for other people or I am going to jump in, create my brand and focus on pearls….redesigning them and reinventing them.” The three years between graduation and launch allowed Georgacopoulos to refine her initial thesis, dream of new possibilities for the gemstone and critically do market research, “people had just forgotten about pearls. They just didn’t want to touch them and they didn’t know what to do with them,” This perfect storm of early critical acclaim, prestige  retail stockists and a unique niche were all she needed to proceed.

Stretched Stud Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Stretched Stud Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Georgacopoulos’ methodology and ethos is reminiscent of the jewellery-artists of old, figures such as Rene Lalique, who she cites as an influence and other interdisciplinary practitioners such as Margaret De Patta, who like her had ambitions of dismantling the elitism found in jewellery design because it limited wider participation. When we speak about nomenclature and whether she perceives herself as an artist, jeweller or something else she expands “It is only in the last year or two that I have allowed myself to see myself [as a jewellery-artist]. I think before I was really keen to prove that I was a good designer” Influences on her own design journey are varied; “Of course all the big houses but also Greek jewellers like Lalaounis, Zolotas and Fanourakis.”  She also has  high regard for another female pioneer at a heritage jewellery house, who also worked extensively with Mother of Pearl during her tenure at Tiffany and Co., Angela Cummings; “I think she did everything before anyone did anything. And she has not really been credited, I am not quite sure why, but I absolutely adore her work.”  Going back further to the first female creative director during the Art Nouveau movement in Paris she references the House of Boivin which was at the forefront of it adding “Yes, I am a fan of Suzanne Belperron like everyone else but at the same time I think I gravitate towards jewellery that is not obviously expensive.” 

Tiles MOP Bracelet (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Tiles MOP Bracelet (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Given the trajectory her own work has taken, it is craft jewellery she returns to for inspiration: “Munich Jewellery Week or Schmuck for example, I find them much more stimulating.” The craft jewellery scene, particularly now, is where one often sees the most experimental work, with creators unburdened by the history, commercial demands and the sales and marketing expectations of large jewellery houses. For Georgacopoulos stimuli comes in many forms, “I tend to be drawn to work where I am not quite sure how it was made… For example David Bielander, his collection called Cardboard…it looked exactly like cardboard but it was actually made with silver and gold…I  also like pieces from certain people…like Taffin and Caroline Broadhead who was the head of department at Central Saint Martins for many years. I guess it is more about specific pieces rather than one designer’s repertoire for me.” What consistently appeals to Georgacopoulos and is echoed in her own work is a certain intellectual vigour either in concept or execution and crucially a singular point of view that translates in the pieces.

MOP Cube Stud Earrings (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
MOP Cube Stud Earrings (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Democratising Jewellery and Celebrating Materials

Whoever thought that jewellery collections cannot involve an intellectualism or speak to deeper questions would find a riposte in many of Georgacopoulos’ collections for her eponymous brand. For someone working with pearls, hitherto considered one of the most conservative of luxury gemstones there are streaks of bold commentary and rebellion in her work. There is also an outright challenging of aesthetics and notions of value particularly in her work with Mother of Pearl as seen in the collections, Nacre, Tiles, Gemstones and Cube. Explaining the genesis of her ideas she relates: “It started as a very spontaneous response to the jewellery auctions that I was observing at the time, very big gemstones, coloured diamonds, the Blue Moon of Josephine ( a rare blue diamond that fetched $48,468,158 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2015) , I don’t know the other ones names,  but all these massive diamonds were fetching a ridiculous amount of money.” The auctions were happening around the same time Georgacopoulos was exploring ways that she could utilise Mother Of Pearl, hitherto a waste product of the pearling industry in her designs. “I feel about Mother Of Pearl the same way I felt about pearls ten years ago, which was what is going on and why was no one doing something interesting?” Unlike pearls, which have always held a high monetary and aesthetic value to collectors, Mother of Pearl has not. She adds laughing “Philip Sajet who is another jeweller says everyone always talks about the pearl but no one talks about the mother…[But] once I realised that I wanted to make a comment about all those crazy jewellery auctions I thought what is the simplest design I can create that people will immediately recognise and identify with, and that was the most common jewellery cuts. Which were the brilliant, the cushion and  seven other different cuts and I decided to make a mosaic of all in Mother of Pearl. The resulting Gemstones collection completed in 2016 challenged conventional thinking. What makes a faceted ‘stone’ covetable and desirable, is it provenance, cost, colour, rarity? And for those concerned with the environment, something that even the most reluctant have to concede some awareness of, isn’t using both the Pearl and Mother of Pearl a responsible and preferred way to consume jewellery? And surely in this age of inclusivity shouldn’t democratisation of participation in jewellery, as Mother of Pearl pieces carry less hefty price-tags, also be up for discussion? Georgacopoulos adds “There should be a cap in my mind on how much things can cost [as when prices get this high] … it almost doesn’t feel like jewellery anymore it becomes something else”

Gemstones MOP Emerald Cufflinks (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Gemstones MOP Emerald Cufflinks (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Gemstones MOP Cushion Cut Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Gemstones MOP Cushion Cut Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

With Nacre, designed in 2019, Georgacopoulos has given the clearest indication of where she is heading both as a jeweller and an artist, with this deep meditation on the soul of the pearl resulting in a bold and uncompromising collection that hint at her  time at Edinburgh studying Sculpture. “I always joke I am trying to return the pearl to its oyster” she explains of the pieces that see pearls set in correspondingly coloured Mother of Pearl seemingly disappearing back into their shell. The collection represents Georgacopoulos granting herself the permission to surrender fully to where her artistry will take her: “I accept what the piece comes out as without putting restrictions; whether they are monetary restrictions, or thinking Oh, who is going to wear this? Or it needs to be a bit smaller or it needs to do this or it needs to do that. The Nacre pieces…can stand as small sculptures in a space. So it is that line between jewellery looking like jewellery, having jewellery elements but also being an object. And I think that is why it ends up being more expensive because one needs for example a thicker piece of gold as you need that balance for the piece.” The collection alongside Cube (designed in 2018) which also features a pearl juxtaposed with a cube of Mother Of Pearl have not only opened discourses around a material which was hitherto disregarded but also allowed Georgacopoulos to play more with proportions and task herself with a new challenge. “What people consider a beautiful and valuable pearl is usually perfectly round, no blemishes, perfect lustre to the point that it looks fake especially if it is a really large one . I thought it was a good idea to reunite the pearl to the oyster to show that this is actually quite amazing even if it is a cultured pearl, as it is still a little animal creating this.” In her able hands she fashions that reality into adornments that are evocative of this particular truth.

Nacre Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Nacre Double Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Double Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

This is not to say that Georgacopoulos is satisfied with her pieces being worn by habitués of PAD Fair, Frieze Art Fair and the Front Row at major global fashion weeks, although her work has an obvious appeal to people working in the creative industries and those who already have strong aesthetic sensibilities. She expands “I want to keep the jewellery open enough design wise that it appeals to a wider range of women and not just have one specific art or design lady who earns a lot of money and has eclectic taste as my client. I think women, people, are more diverse.” Furthermore, Georgacopoulos is determined to take  pearl jewellery out of the for-special-occasions-only silo adding “I intentionally want to have very wearable everyday pieces that people can buy without having to save up money for them ” To this end the Essence collection designed in 2014 and aforementioned Cube fit the rubric as they have an informal feel without compromising on Georgacopoulos’ design language. She adds “I don’t want to lose that connection with people who like the pieces I design but are not able to spend five figures on them” 

Essence Rings, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Essence Rings, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Co-Creating with an Innovative Heritage Brand

Recounting how her long-term collaboration with Japanese pearl heritage house Tasaki came into being, the predestined qualities of the story shine through. “The director of Tasaki was in London and saw my pieces in Dover Street Market…And I think they tried to locate me through my agent and I got an email saying that they wanted to invite me to Japan to meet with them over a week but  they didn’t really say what it was about.” What ensued was a creative courtship, with Georgacopoulos recalling  “They took me to Nagasaki to their pearl farm where I opened some oysters, I found some pearls inside and then they took me to Kobe where their production facility is and I was completely blown away. I remember thinking I am in Japan, I am talking to a Japanese pearl jewellery company, they are interested in my work, how crazy is this? I am basically a Greek girl, designing pearl jewellery and I have a giant of the pearl industry contacting me.” What the comprehensive tour indicated, was that the team at Tasaki had identified the talent that would assist them in creating collections that clearly positioned them as the avant-garde alternative to their main competitor  Mikimoto. Furthermore, they were willing, in spite of their history as an established heritage house, to humbly court her until she acquiesced. For her part, Georgacopoulos, on signing her contract in 2012  handed her breakthrough  degree collections: Sliced, Drilled and Arlequin to be extended and produced under the new marque they created  for the collaboration M/G Tasaki, in 2013.

Drilled Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Drilled Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Arlequin Bangle, M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Arlequin Bangle, M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Georgacopoulos is remarkably calm about what many might perceive as giving away her trademark work, she adds: “I was thinking, well, through my agent, and through me wholesaling I can probably sell five or ten of these [pieces] , but Tasaki can sell hundreds of these. Which means that for hundreds of customers, maybe thousands over time, they will have embraced something that is to a certain extent quite radical.” Additionally, from a creative perspective “it forced me to say okay, I have done this but now I move on. I want to test myself, challenge myself. I don’t want to repeat, just because it works. I don’t want to do this for the x amount of years I am going to work as a jeweller.”

Wedge Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Wedge Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Subsequent collections have followed the same commercial success and the collaboration has availed Georgacopoulos with the opportunity to have two parallel careers in the same industry.  Tasaki provides production and development facilities that a smaller brand can only dream of, whilst Georgacopoulos continues expanding on her mandate of reimagining pearl jewellery, but keeping a keen eye on commercial considerations, such as using diamonds and other gemstones. Collections of note have included to name a few Segment (2016), Grain and Woven (2018)

Segment Ring M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Segment Ring M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

For a company steeped in history she reports that neither her gender or her not being Japanese have impeded her progress or created logjams.“It is by far the best professional experience I have had in my life. Not because it has been easy but because it has been very straightforward from the beginning. They chose me because they liked my jewellery voice, so they never imposed anything. Whenever I am supposed to do a new collection…I receive a plan with certain price points and a list of what has sold well in the past. But they never give me any directions in terms of design, so I come up with the design directions, I send a huge amount of drawings and they tell me okay we feel this is right for us this season and we will develop that.” It speaks positive volumes of Tasaki’s corporate culture and in many ways future-proofs them for the 21st century. With call-out and cancel culture catching many a jewellery and fashion behemoth in the crosshairs, the arrangement between Georgacopoulos and Tasaki is one where mutual respect is forefront, exploitation and discrimination is entirely absent and she is availed the technical support and expertise to deliver products that customers will love. It is a collaboration template that many will no doubt seek to emulate as increasingly discerning customers seek out jewellery that is  both beautiful and made by brands that share their values.

Woven Necklace M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Woven Necklace M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Authenticity and the future of Jewellery

“I am very excited to see students working with pearls.” Georgacopolous says. As a Visiting Lecturer in the BA Jewellery Design course at Central Saint Martin’s, she works  principally with final year students. She is also quick to encourage them to be as audacious as she was adding “We should always try to imagine something different. There is no point in repeating the past… fine, it is not easy for anyone but what will make you stand out ultimately is your individual expression.” Authenticity, has become something of a buzzword in the worlds of jewellery and fashion with brands large and small, devising multifarious plans to engage and attract customers in an ever crowded marketplace. By teaching students to chart their own course early, Georgacopoulos hopes to provide them with a blueprint for a successful existence that stretches beyond the jewellery bench. And generous to a fault, she uses her own Instagram handle as a means of amplification, posting graduate and recent graduates’ work to followers.

Grain Double Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Grain Double Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

We close our conversation considering the luxury space in light of the Covid19 pandemic, which in addition to claiming lives, has laid waste to businesses globally. What does she feel this time means for the future of luxury and jewellery in particular? Georgacopoulos’ response is emphatic. “Whether it is fashion, jewellery, or objects , I really hope we are going to embrace more craftsmanship, handmade things and not just buying something that is made five thousand times and paying a premium because it has a nice big logo on. I just cannot identify with that for my own life.” `Conscious consumption aside, lockdown has also been  a season where Georgacopoulos has not only embraced the juggle of parenting, homeschooling and designing, but also questioned the way jewellery is currently marketed and the myth-making that goes hand in hand with it. She notes “I feel this moment is generally translating into people showing a bit more of themselves and not the image they think they have to project.” Discussing her forthcoming campaign imagery she expands “I really don’t want the beautiful woman with the perfect nails looking absolutely stunning and wearing matching jewellery pieces which is the typical stereotype…. I think as women we are relaxing a little bit more [in regard to] how we show ourselves and this idea of perfection that essentially men have imposed on us.” Pearls as the ornamental armour for the woman who is in control of her own destiny, rather than a debutante or grand dame whose identity is contingent on her provenance or who she married? It doesn’t get more modern than that.

Nacre Bangle, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Bangle, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Georgacopoulos’ trajectory is a masterclass in the power of focus and determined application. Each creative chapter on her journey so far seamlessly feeds into the next: from childhood experimental maker to student silversmith, sculptor, jewellery designer and now jewellery artist. Whilst her ascent may appear speedy, having courage in her convictions has also played its part. Few would dare to present a degree show with such a fundamental rule broken  or indeed continue to challenge pre=conceived notions in high jewellery. Her design explorations and collaborations also indicate a creator who although fortunate to find her niche early, has still remained open to widening its locus and the modus operandi of execution, as seen in her work for her eponymous brand, M/G Tasaki and special commissions, exhibitions and shows such as ‘Le Cabinet de Curiosites de Thomas Erber,’ held in Paris in 2015. Her humility in light of her successes is indicative of a creator who still believes there is much more to explore as hubris is normally borne out of complacency which Georgacopoulos is the very opposite of. Before we part company she leaves me pondering a profound statement that incapsulates the emotional connection people form with their jewellery and by extension the jewellery creatives they admire: “People buy energy…You buy the energy of a piece, the energy that you take from it, the energy that it gives you, the energy that you feel when you wear it or when you own it.” Groundbreaking designs aside it is her enduring optimism and candour that guides her work: “I try to be as honest as I can and I like the idea of opening things up instead of saying ah, this is a secret and exclusive.” In this modern age of inclusiveness, collaboration and widening the remit of participation, her career feels built to last.

Thomas Erber Rectangle Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Thomas Erber Rectangle Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)