Margaux Rusita. Photo: Courtesy of Margaux Wong
“I’m very big on tools,” says Margaux Rusita. Growing up in Guyana, South America, she would help her grandfather service his bike and build furniture in his tool-filled garage. Today, she’s usually the only woman at the hardware store in Bujumbura, Burundi, constantly looking for equipment to help streamline the production of her handcrafted jewelry label, Margaux Wong. Calling East Africa home since 2009, Margaux’s continent switch began in Europe where, while taking courses at the London College of Fashion, she met the man she’d wed and follow to his home country, Burundi.
The Margaux Wong brand was established in 2001 as a resort wear label, selling airy printed caftans and maxi dresses. “I started designing jewelry soon after because I couldn’t find accessories that matched my style of design,” says Margaux. After the move to Bujumbura, she quickly realized she was spreading herself too thinly across product categories: in order to achieve excellence, something had to give. So, after a thorough assessment of her business, Margaux chose jewelry. It made sense from a practical point of view (there are fewer logistics around sizing, and samples are easier to transport).
Moreover, it coincided with the “explosion” of inspiration the country ignited in her. “I found all the inspiration was here,” she says. “Moving to the continent, I realized that, wait a minute, Africa is quite contemporary. It opened up my eyes and helped me to create pieces that are inspired by the traditional African aesthetic, but that is more on the contemporary side of that aesthetic.” While bold in scale, her designs are also an exercise in reduction, favoring clean lines and geometric shapes that adorn the body like minimalist sculptures.
“I found all the inspiration was here...Africa is quite contemporary. It opened my eyes and helped me create pieces that are inspired by the traditional African aesthetic. ”
Margaux credits her outsider’s perspective for identifying the central material in her designs: cow horn, of which there is an abundance in Burundi. “Many people are so shocked,” she says when they see the comparison between the raw cow horn and the finished product. “Like, ‘This horn has been hanging around this country for so long, and nobody thought to do this?’” The Amazonian zero waste values on which she was raised are an integral driving factor. “It’s an innate part of me. Those values grew into my personality, the way I perceive the world, and how I work. Being a creative and a young person who needed to earn a living, I became independent at a very young age. I learned to use whatever was around me to create beautiful things. I think it’s a gift, and I suppose it helps that I didn’t have a choice but to use what was given.”
A sense of the individual is integral to the brand’s DNA. Wong is Margaux’s birth name, passed down from her great, great, great (“I might have missed a great somewhere”) Chinese grandfather. Coining the eponymous label was a sort of declaration of independence at the age of eighteen, her strategy to leave a lasting legacy in the world. Now a married mother of five, Rusita values personal agency in her workshop hierarchy. She’s not a fan of the term ‘artisan’ as she feels it detracts from an individual’s identity as an artist. Thus, her core team consists of eight artists who collaboratively hone and grow their skills. “It’s very important that everyone has a voice and an identity,” says Margaux. “I’m trying to create a space where everyone feels like they’re part of a team and that they have something special to offer that no one else has. Because our designs are evolving, new skills are being acquired as we work. If we come up with a design challenge and someone is not sure how to go about doing it, we educate ourselves.”
Working as the head artist who has to oversee creative and business direction is a challenge all independent designers without business partners are forced to face. It prompted Margaux to apply for the Ethical Fashion Initiative’s first Accelerator Programme. Her label was selected alongside three others from the continent for a mentorship and business support program culminating in a transformative presentation at Pitti Uomo in February 2021. The experience served as a healthy confidence booster, empowering Margaux to structure her collections in the formal ways necessary to communicate to media, buyers, and investors. As a result, her brand’s business side, which she refers to as her “back office,” is now in the best shape it’s ever been.
Glorious Belt and Glorious Ring. Photo: Courtesy of Margaux Wong
Glorious Body Plaque. Photo: Courtesy of Margaux Wong
Shield Bracelets and Ring. Photo: Courtesy of Margaux Wong
Margaux believes the brand has benefited from the fashion world’s heightened regard for craft since March 2020. Her business has grown over the pandemic thanks to greater consumer appreciation for her products, increased media attention, and her EFI business training. As a result, the brand is primed for growth, which in the social media age of global reach can feel at odds with the reality of a small team of artists producing products by hand. “We’re all online, on Instagram, creating content. If you do that very well and are doing well sales-wise, you have to meet a certain quota for production. Let’s say we reach one million people, and I can only sell to fifty because that’s my capacity—it doesn’t make sense.” Margaux is eager to use tools like laser cutting and digital design programs to help upscale her product output, but only to an extent. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far: Incorporating traditional techniques and encouraging artists not to lose those skills. I’ve heard a lot of clients say they feel a certain energy when they wear the jewelry, and I think I know where that comes from—it’s the human touch and the interaction and the spirit with which the designs are created.”
This year, the Margaux Wong brand celebrates its twenty-first birthday. Looking to the future, Margaux is excited to develop a symbiosis between handwork and technology, admitting with a chuckle, “I think I’m becoming a techie girl,” and is eager to work with artists who can diversify her product offering with precious metals and stones. “It’s also my intention to take it back to where it started, in Amazonian Guyana. You know, go full circle and see what we can come up with—I feel like there’s so much that started there, and then I left. We need to come back and create a global space where the brand is not seen as African or South American but as an international brand that has a global mindset and hopefully will become very successful in everything we do.” No doubt, the same principles that led her to this point, prizing ethical production and the artist’s value, will light the path to where she wants to be as the Margaux Wong brand evolves once more.
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