Meet the ethical accessories brand celebrating and preserving traditional Swazi weaving techniques.
Oct 14, 2020
Founded in 2014 by New York-based designer Sapna Shah, her partner Philippa Thorne, and social entrepreneur Zinhle Vilakati, Khokho Collection is an accessories line out of Eswatini (the country formerly known in English as Swaziland) that’s putting a distinctly modern and luxe spin on the classic basket bag. Named for the siSwati word for great grandmother, the brand’s ethos of preserving the spirit of traditional craft is inspired by powerful women from the past and the present, and is one that is guided by the teachings of their own mothers and grandmothers.
“Myself, Zinhle and Sapna, we all had this very strong connection to the women in our family,” Thorne tells us when we catch up with her over the phone. Shah, she says, first got into handcraft after becoming captivated by the quality and preciousness of her grandmother’s collection of handmade Indian saris, while Vilakati’s (a master weaver) passion was instilled in her by her mother and grandmother. “As for me,” Thorne continues, “my grandmother was really creative and eccentric, so she’s always inspired me to emulate that kind of individuality. All of it just came together to create a really authentic brand story.”
Characterised by subtle, muted colours of ivory, tan and beige, Khokho Collections’ designs are rendered in lutindzi grass—a sustainably harvested grass indigenous to Eswatini—and locally grown sisal fibre. Each bag is constructed using an ancient Swazi grass-weaving technique that combines this fabrication method with genuine, handcrafted leather. The durable and sturdy creations stand out from other standard woven styles thanks to their spiral-like appearance, sleek leather handles, and round forms. Featuring a canvas lining, Italian gold-tone hardware and South African vegetable-tanned leather, these touches collide to create an authentic expression of craftsmanship and design. And though the woven style is one many consider to be strictly for the summer, Khokho Collection’s sculptural take adds an air of sophistication that’ll serve its wearer right through the year.
According to Thorne, the team views the landscape of Eswatini as an integral source of inspiration: “Our color palette really responds to the seasons we experience here and how we see natural shades emerge in the soil, flora and fauna. You can also see this in the contrasting textures: the rich leathers and the high end metallic hardware that we use creates this beautiful contrast when merged with the texture of the weaving.”
At the beginning of the Khokho Collection journey, Shah had been in the luxury fashion game as a handbag designer for over ten years, boasting a résumé that lists some of the biggest names in the business, including Calvin Klein, Coach, Oscar de la Renta, and Rag & Bone. But it was while searching for a new endeavour through which to challenge herself that she discovered Nest, an NGO that connects skilled professionals with artisans in emerging economies, providing them with support and facilitating the exchange of skills and education. It was a discovery that led to Shah packing her bags and heading to the Kingdom of Eswatini where she, Thorne and Vilakati would begin to build the Khokho Collection brand.
There, in the landlocked southern African country, the three set about bringing what was a shared vision to life. Vilakati, who trains local women in developing artisanal skills, was tasked with teaching a group of women different weaving techniques, while Thorne and Sapna set up a leather atelier for the construction of bags (they’d eventually bring in Italian craftsman, Carlo Bisceglia, to train graduates from the local upholstery college). Today, woven panels are made by the Buhleba Khokho Weaving Association and are constructed into handbags at the Khokho Atelier in Eswatini.
“And for the local women who study this method of artisanal production, there is benefit in their work as part of the Khokho Collection team beyond the creation of a globally appealing accessories brand: they are also growing their skill sets and financial empowerment. ”
“At the time [we started], the artisans were mostly creating home goods, which are very popular in the local market and with tourists but Philippa [Thorne] and I wanted to create a more elevated, luxurious product that had a higher price point, and handbags were the natural choice,” Shah told American Vogue in 2016. Thorne herself is quick to echo this sentiment to Industrie Africa during our call: “So much skill and so many hours are put into just one piece, and where internationally people really celebrate something like the craft of an Hermès bag, consumers typically [bargain] in Swazi markets on their price, not really approaching it as something with similar value to a European creation.The idea therefore was to combine this amazing skill with a beautiful and functional contemporary design aesthetic so we can showcase the skills and make it a really functional and beautiful piece for the customer that’s not too traditional but uses the same techniques.” And for the local women who study this method of artisanal production, there is benefit in their work as part of the Khokho Collection team beyond the creation of a globally appealing accessories brand: they are also growing their skill sets and financial empowerment.
A brand that champions craftsmanship, authenticity, and ethical values in their production, one of the most important aspects of their business is the work they’re doing is to create income generating opportunities for local artisans in Eswatini. In addition to their standard annual earnings, the artisans receive a percentage of each sale, an income that helps them in the development of their own communities and business ventures. “The team behind our brand is so important to us,” Thorne says. “We really want them all to feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the brand, and to grow into leadership positions.” It’s also the goal of the women behind Khokho Collection to increase the global and local awareness of luxury crafts originating from the region and to retain the essence and character of traditional local techniques. “Our priority has always been the celebration of traditional skills and the promotion of sustainability,” Thorne says, “but going forward it's going to become more about connecting with consumers, particularly those on the continent, and making sure they too understand the value of craftsmanship.”
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