When In Doubt Head North

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“A A K S was founded by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi with the goal of introducing the world to her favourite weaving techniques done by the women of Ghana while also creating and igniting sustainable jobs within Africa. Handcrafted in Ghana, A A K S creates bags in styles that maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts characterised by bright exuberant colours.”

I interviewed Akosua a few weeks ago at the London Design Fair in the Old Truman Brewery where we spoke about her brand, the ideas behind it and its future goals.

How and why did you decide to use weaving for your bags?

When I lived in the UK I worked part time in a boutique store in Chelsea while studying. They stocked woven bags from various brands. I remember it feeling so familiar to what we had in Ghana but the boutique didn’t stock any bags in colour. This is where my initial idea came from to create something a little different.

Were they raffia coloured bags?

Yes they were natural coloured raffia bags. I remember asking myself why nobody in Ghana hadn’t done anything with the basket techniques we have. I felt I could take this idea forward and do something new with it.

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Have you always known Ghana has weaving skills?

I have, I lived in Ghana the majority of my life until I came to London. I used to buy baskets as gifts for my family and use them for storage at home but I didn’t know I would end up working with a community of weavers. I thought I could simply find someone in the UK or Ghana to make my creations while I lived in London.

How did you find the weavers in Bolgatanga?

Through a lot of research and kind of going around in circles! I went all around the Northern part of Ghana in search for weavers.

Only the North?

To begin with I asked around in Kumasi where I’m from and Accra but through recommendations I was guided to the Northern part of Ghana. I was baffled when I got there as the materials the weavers use to weave weren’t from  the same place. To this day I still don’t really know why the weavers use materials that aren’t from their region but they can weave amazingly well with it.

What materials do they normally use?

They use straw and I use raffia, which is completely different in quality and feel. Straw is harder and breaks easily while raffia is softer. It’s not easy to make modern shapes out of straw as it’s so tough. Raffia rather has a more luxurious feel to it.

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Did they struggle physically working with raffia or simply because it was new to them?

Both. They questioned why I asked them to make shapes that they found difficult and to use a completely new material they had never seen before. They didn’t really understand my vision but they do now.

What’s the process in creating a bag?

I do all the designs and research myself in my studio in Kumasi then from there I take my work to the weavers in the North of Ghana to be made. We build shapes out of my designs through weaving, sampling and basically practicing a lot. I work closely with the weavers to ensure they know what they’re doing through shapes, colour and dying. The weavers help me a lot with the three-dimensional side of things too; as all the work is done by hand sometimes my designs can’t be translated because the weavers aren’t able to make them.

Have the weavers taught you anything new about designing?

They’ve taught me how to design to fit into what they do. When I first started I drew bags that were impossible to weave!

Now that you’ve built a relationship with them do they feel they can approach you with ideas?

Sometimes but they’re not creatively inclined so it’s very rare. They do have a willingness to learn and through lots of practice we will be implementing some of their ideas and colour combinations soon.

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Have you always known that you wanted to help local artisans?

I wouldn’t say it was my initial plan. I kind of fell into the sustainable route and started to see it more in depth. It made me rethink my structure and approach to business. In the beginning I was on a business mission and when I got there things changed for me after meeting the weavers and developing relationships with them. I realised that it’s not always about work; it’s about human relations 80% of the time.

So apart from Bolgatanga where else would you like to travel to find weavers or other sources of textiles?

Maybe Kenya; I’ve visited before and had a glance at the weaving there. I’d like to go back and look more into how their techniques are different to weaving in Ghana. I will be heading to Burkina Faso soon; the weavers there work with threads. I think it will be intriguing to learn more about their woven baskets with the materials they use.

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Have you learned how to weave yourself?

Trying my best everyday, it’s so difficult! I can only twist the raffia and that’s it for now. The weavers pretty much learn to weave from infancy. The women carry their babies around at the center and keep them close by while they work so children pick up techniques from birth.

Do they have other jobs?

Weavers predominately weave full time and farm during raining seasons. They weave for financial gain mostly. I’m trying to learn about how weaving all began. I haven’t found a lot of history yet.

Kente strips have a strong historical narrative. Would you ever work with the technique?

Definitely I love woven Kente. I’d like to make fabric in Ghana and use it as lining.

What other products would you like to make?

I made woven lamps with PICHULIK for Maison Objet in a collaboration that we showcased in Paris last month. The lamps are made out of straw, raffia and finished off with roping accents. PICHULIK is a South African based design brand and they came to Ghana to mentor me. After my mentorship we decided to collaborate together. I’m really fortunate to be sponsored by Design Network Africa and to be able to collaborate with designers I look up to.

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Are there any other designers or brands you admire?

I am fond of Safomasi and Yinka Ilori.

Do you personally work with any kinds of textiles or techniques?

Cotton and linen generally and hoping to go into other textiles while the brand develops. I sew all the leather parts on my bags myself after the bags are woven. It takes a long time to add them, especially when I have big orders. I have to do a lot by myself from emails to managing a team…

What do you like about working in Ghana?

Waking up to the sun everyday! On a personal note not having to cook, clean or walk around a lot like I do in London. Having those things cut out of my daily activities really helps me to stay focused and not become exhausted. Here in London travelling takes up a lot of time.

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Akosua in Paris last month with bags and PICHULIK lamp collaboration.

Yeah, it would be very expensive to have the same luxuries in England as you do in Ghana.

Exactly. The good thing about working in Ghana is having the weavers geographically close to me too. It’s much easier being able to talk to them about my work and designs.

How long did you live in England for?

Eight years. I was born in Ghana and came to England to study Fashion Design at Kingston University but realised after completion that I wanted to start my brand in accessories. I travelled to Ghana every year when I lived in the UK so moving back wasn’t anything new but working in Ghana has been a different adventure.

When you first started the business how did you know how to price your bags?

Through market research and looking at the price points of other products. Looking at what consumers were paying for similar products.

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Would you ever branch off into other accessories or shoes?

Right now I’d like to move more into home interiors such as lamps. As I’ve already tested the market with my last collaboration I believe it would be a good direction to go in. I would maybe go into woven chairs, wall hangings and tablemats.

 Who would you like to see with one of bags?

Solange!

I knew you going to say her!

Of course, she’s so cool and colourful. She fits in with my brand aesthetics. I love Oprah too and would like to see her in a special custom-made bag. I’ve been watching her show since I was a kid, she inspires me.

What do your parents think of your business? When I told my dad I wanted to study fashion and textiles he didn’t quite get it.

My dad didn’t understand my business model and how a fashion business could evolve from a product such as a woven bag but now he is right on board which makes me happy. My mum on the other hand has been extremely supportive from day one. Without her I wouldn’t be able to do this.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start his or her own textiles focused business?

I would advise any aspiring individual to have no fear, go out there observe their surroundings, find a niche, follow their passion and take the opportunity of starting out in their own stride. It is really easy to get wrapped up in the planning of your business but sometimes you have to know what you want and just go for it.

You can follow the A A K S journey here and shop the bags here.

 

 

 

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