We meet Ghanaian accessories designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi whose woven handbags are finding themselves in retailers across the world.
What inspired you to start your own line of handbags?
I established A A K S after seeing a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted bags. I grew up around basket bags when I lived in Ghana, and used to give them as gifts as well as use them for storage. I remember having a lot of ‘I wish the bags were more like this, or more like that’ moments… I wanted them to be softer, almost foldable and also more colourful, with blends of colours that were tasteful and modern with a beautiful finish and detail. I couldn’t shake the idea,and so I started researching fibres. I knew raffia was soft and could be used to weave and create a different product that might work for me. More importantly, its benefits, being an organic, natural, renewal and biodegradable fibre,were an inherent ethical value which was attractive to me and very much in line with the vision and ethos I had for my brand.
Have you always seen yourself as an entrepreneur?
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, I grew up with the knowledge that working for oneself is the best route. I’ve always felt passionate about owning my own business, so I would say the progression came naturally to me. I moved to Ghana after studying in the UK. I was certain about starting my company and had a fair plan of how toachieve it.
Your bags are being noticed around the world – where is the most exciting place that has stocked them?
Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie in USA and UK, Maison Mara in South Africa, Alara in Nigeria and United Arrows in Japan.
Who are three women you’d love to see wearing AAKS bags?
Solange Knowles, Oprah and Lupita Nyogo.
You seem to enjoy collaborations – what is it about the act of collaboration that you love?
Bringing new ideas and creativity together from different brands excites me and it allows me to move out of my comfort zone and be exposed to new ideas and markets.
Can you talk us through the weaving techniques used in your bags?
The team that I work with to produce AAKS bags uses a traditional weaving technique that has been passed down through generations in Ghana. There are no machines used in the weaving process. Because the bags are handwoven by individuals, each one retains an inherent uniqueness, and this is what our handcraft entails.
The weaving process starts by twisting the raw raffia fibres by hand after they have been ecologically harvested. After twisting about 10,000 strands, we gather the raffia and prepare a dye bath. The dye bath consists of natural and a few chemical dyes mixed into boiling water. Sometimes natural tree bark is used in the bath to create good colour intensity. It takes approximately 10-30 minutes to dye each strand, depending on the colour we want to achieve.
To create the base shape of each bag, weavers maneuver the strands between their fingertips, skillfully handling the raffia until the bags take shape.
The woven body is then transported back to my studio, a 12-hour drive away, in Kumasi, Ghana, for finishing. This is where the sewing of linings (usually cotton or linen with closures), and hand stitching of buckles and leather handles take place to finish the bag. After a final quality control, the bags are ready to be posted to stores such as Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, and our clients worldwide.
How do you decide on your colour ways?
Through photography, researching into trends and observing everything around me.
Your product must be influenced by your home – can you tell us more about this?
Yes, very much so. There is a kaleidoscope of influences and inspiration that I feel is unique to Africa and of which I can tap into on my doorstep. That is a massive positive!
Advantages and disadvantages of starting a company in Africa?
Building a fully African-made luxury brand presents tremendous challenges which my team and I are overcoming everyday. The main challenge for us is logistics and costs of importing and exporting in and out of Africa. However, despite all these setbacks, we are persevering and making the best out of everything and taking a competitive advantage when the need arises.
What are your goals for this brand?
To be stocked in beautiful concept stores around the world and shine a light on African craftsmanship worldwide.
Read more at www.aaksonline.com