Feel the Rainbow

Designer Akosua Afriye-Kumi: "A lot of designers take or find inspiration from  Africa, I want to do the same but actually be in Africa doing it."

Image by Akosua Afriye-Kumi.

I can not begin to describe the joy, lust and energy, I experienced when I came across A.A.K.S. handwoven bags on Instagram. I immediately had to know the who, what, where, why, and when of these amazing products. So, I did a little Internet research to find contact details, and sent a few questions to Akosua Afriye-Kumi, the “Color-obsessed designer creating a range of eclectic handcrafted bags in ritzy color spectrum of brights” who indulged us from Bolgatanga, a town situated in Ghana’s North East region, where her and a group of women have teamed up to birth these skittle shaming, eye-popping goodies.

On how she got started Akosua:

I have always had an interest from a very young age, scribbling, illustrating, collage work and painting as a favorite past time. To incorporate what I loved: art, colour, photography, patterns, illustration, I pursued a fashion program at Kingston University in London. I then followed my studies with interning at Peter Pilotto , Matthew Williamson and worked for William Tempest. This was a great foundation for me to work alongside young exciting brands and extremely talented designers.Their willingness to think off their feet, create new ideas, meet deadlines and control of style left me inspired. I knew I wanted to build something on my own, which would push me to wake up every day and give it my all. This thought process aided with the possibilities of creating in Ghana, my home, made it an easy decision to return and build a luxury brand which was proudly African.

 On what inspires her:

A lot of designers take or find inspiration from  Africa, I want to do the same but actually be in Africa doing it. It is of complete importance for me to contribute to the creative economy in Ghana, along with pushing a new conversation at how we innovate and design in Africa as a whole.With this in mind,  I wanted to create a product which utilises locally sourced material such as raffia coupled with the traditional art of weaving, this is what is most appealing to me as it fully informs my design aesthetic, and brand ethos. Weaving is a skill and an art which is passed down generationally to the women weavers of Bolgatanga who create AAKS handbags.

On her Eureka moment:

It all began with my yearly trips to Ghana to see my family while i was in London. Having  grown up around basket bags I use to give them as gifts and also use for storage. I remember having a lot of  ‘I wish it was more like this , ‘I wish it was more like that’  moment… I wanted it softer, almost foldable and also more colourful with more vibrant blends of colours, coupled with beautiful detail and finish. Taking on this idea, I started researching into fibres, I knew raffia was soft, malleable and could create a different experience in the type of bag I desired. More importantly raffia’s attributes of being an organic, natural, biodegradable fibre which worked with my desire of creating an ethical product.

On her dream team:

Finding my weavers was a tremendous challenge which I am still reeling from everyday. In my first year, I  traveled all over Ghana: from Kumasi, Accra to Tamale with raffia in hand looking for weavers. Most weavers had no idea what it was even after close inspection, nonetheless I was determined to find a group of women who would bring my ideas to life and push my design endeavour forward. I stumbled across a weaving community through my travels in the Northern region of Ghana -Bolgatanga and I knew immediately their skill set (which i’d never seen before) was beyond exceptional and was one bring my concept to reality. Though a language divide existed, I being a native Twi speaker and the women being Afrafra speakers their willingness and excitement to take on a new challenge of working with a new material, raffia (instead of  straw), together we form a formidable and evolving partnership continuously challenging each other creatively.

On the process:

The dying process in finding our A A K S seasonal colours are achieved by boiling raw twisted raffia in a  hot bath of water, the dyes of colours  are then dropped in mixing them to achieve bright or dark colours and seeing the natural colours come to life is exciting, I plan my whole collection around colour effects on the eye. The process is simple but intensive. We source natural organic dyes in Ghana and test them accordingly for fastness. Sometimes the very dark looking wood dyes changes colour and turns bright yellow or dark red. I love this part of my design process as I feel it is an endless possibility of beautiful colour spectrums.

On Life observed in Bolgatanga:

Bolgatanga is an unexplored dry land in the Northern region of Ghana extremely hot day to day temperatures can be as high as 37 or 40 degrees in the dry season which is 8 months of the year. Women, men and children sit under trees to get some fresh air and weave to subsist their farm work and provide additional income. So basically they tend to farm in the rainy season and weave in the dry season.The women walk for miles or on bicycles and motorbikes to neighbouring slightly developed towns and markets to sell their woven straw bags. Locals normally use the basket as everyday bags or storage and the bigger communities come together and weave for export to neighbouring towns and big cities in Ghana.

On sustainability:

A.A.K.S. is a purpose driven, lifestyle brand for the conscious and stylish consumer, who is is willing to invest in a beautifully, quality skillfully handcrafted bag in turn countering the perception of made in Ghana/ Africa products which always seem to have a charitable/pitiful tune.  We pride ourselves in creating unique and well crafted bags, backed by mindful production for social impact.

We can be placed under the ethical or sustainable umbrella because we use organically sourced raw materials, raffia which is biodegradable and renewable. Its an inherent quality and very important part of my business ethos as all the choices we pursue now will affect everything in the future. With hopes of contributing greatly towards the struggling textile and materials industry in Ghana.

On cultural preservation and future plans:

Weaving is a dying art in Ghana unfortunately. It’s been relegated to a small scale industry with few communities in the south weaving Kente cloth and in the north weaving baskets and bags using straw. I hope that our brand acts as a catalyst and contributes to a revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art. By renewing and creating demand for some these endangered old skills and techniques in turn preserving them, by innovating and modernising them to meet today’s standard.

In the bigger picture I plan on having a permanent production base in northern Ghana, which will provide employment, promoting weaving to be seen as a source of livelihood, instilling pride in the technique whilst  ensuring continuity of weaving as an art and that can be passed unto the younger generation.

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