Ethical Fashion | An Exclusive Interview with “A A K S” Sustainable Fashion Brand – Behind the Innovation of Woven Heritage Bags Made in Ghana

By Ghana Fashion & Design Week
GFDW ETHIKHA – A focus on sustainable fashion production for socio-economic inclusion.
11 June 2015

GFDW ETHIKHA went behind the A A K S brand to find out what it takes to impact lives through fashion and design, and the importance of Innovation in our heritage craft skills to design and produce sustainable “Made in Ghana” quality products.

Q. As the Designer behind A A K S, what inspired you to create a sustainable fashion accessories brand?
I grew up in the beautiful sunny Ghana; art was a love from an early age even though I also harboured a dream of being a pilot. Being top of the art class almost every year was a sign to me to pursue art in some form. So I left Ghana to London to study and expand my knowledge in art and design, be around other creative individuals to learn and develop as much as I could.

Like so many 20-somethings, it was a very intense period of my life. I was in a transition, coming from a family of entrepreneurs I felt this deep need to figure out who I was and where I was going, whose footstep to follow. The defining moment came when I thought, “Now is the time to make or break, to put myself out there and see what I am made of.” I knew I wanted to go out on my own and pull together all my passion and talents to create something unique that would be fulfilling both personally and professionally.

My main aim of studies in the UK was to broadened my mind in my field, gain a wealth of experience and finally come back to Ghana to support the creative art and design industry and build a luxury African brand. This happened quickly after seeing a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted luxury bags that will utilise locally sourced materials such as raffia coupled with traditional art of weaving, I knew I had something great to work towards and made the big move to fulfill my ultimate dream of owning my own fashion brand and igniting sustainable jobs in Ghana and Africa as a whole.

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Q. Your background as a designer begun with designing clothing, how did you transit from clothing design to designing handbags and why?

The transition into designing handbags came almost naturally to me after seeing a gap in the market for handcrafted bags utilising traditional methods of weaving and craft. I moved to Ghana to pursue it.

 Q. Your design process uses traditional Woven Heritage craft skills unique to the Northern region people of Ghana, why did you choose this design direction?

I traveled through out Ghana trying to find the perfect place to make my hand-woven bags. I stumbled across a small community on my travels that had the perfect tranquil setting. I could see myself living there and making bags for a lifetime. I decided to test the weavers skills and see if they could achieve what I vaguely had in mind at the time.

This was a tough journey, as the weavers had never used raffia that is a material that has great ethical value that I wanted to push forward in my brand. We started from scratch; I spent a year teaching weavers how to make the products to a standard and quality that I could tick off as luxury. The weavers on the other hand have taught me to slow down and appreciate their art and also the time and difficulty it takes to achieve a handmade product. I am also a keen learner of the art of weaving and in a great community of very talented women.

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Q. Your work projects unique weaving design skills, and bold mixing of colours, is this a difficult process to achieve?

It is a design process which I have learnt over time through high school and university to incorporate into my work. I have a love for colours and every process of creation comes with difficulty especially when it hasn’t been done before. I enjoy playing around with colour and shapes and my weavers are understanding and very experimental enough to allow me to explore different ideas

Q. What type of materials goes into the weaving and making of the products, and where do you source these materials?

A central tenant of my business philosophy is to preserve traditional techniques by combing them with modern design and usability. I wanted my dream basket bag to be almost foldable, more colourful with blends of colours that were tasteful and modern and completed to the highest standard of quality. Raffia is the only material that allows me to achieve these goals.

Initially, raffia proved to be the most difficult fibre to find in Ghana. Serendipitously, after travelling throughout the country in search of the elusive fibre I found it on our family farm in Southern Ghana. It was being grown minimally and only sold to string bead vendors. I immediately knew this was the perfect material once I felt it! The softness and strength was key and then when I started looking into its benefits I was completely sold on it. The fibres being an organic, natural, renewal and biodegradable fibre was an inherent ethical value, which was attractive to me and very much in line with the vision and ethos I had for my brand.

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Q. Who are the people involve in the making of the AAKS collections, and why did choose to work with these people?

I work with a group of artisanal weavers in the northern region of Ghana who make the AAKS bags. I choose them because they had a special skill. They could create objects or bags with their hands without patterns. This was truly unique and something I wanted to explore more on.

Q As an Ethical Fashion and Sustainable brand, how do you impact the lives of the local people you work with in Bolgatanga – Ghana?

Creating something handcrafted has always been the goal of my brand. Words such as empowerment, passion and lasting are what I feel these groups of artisanal weavers bring to each creation. Weaving gives the community the much-needed income to encourage and empower individuals to become independent and have steady jobs. I plan to have a permanent production base in northern region of Ghana. Through that, I would like to impact the weavers greatly by providing employment to the local community, ensure the continuity of weaving as an art/technique that can be passed down to the younger generation, and encourage weaving to be valued as a major income earner for many in the cooperative.

Q. How important is it to innovate existing heritage craft skills and resources in Ghana to make quality designed products like AAKS that can compete on the global market?

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 will go someway in contributing to the revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art. Additionally, we aim to renew some of these old skills and techniques by modernising it to meet international standards of design and hence compete with the best in the world. I hope this will make an impact in the fashion industry and promote made in Ghana products on the luxury market.

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Q. As a sustainable fashion brand made in Ghana, what lessons have you learnt that encourages you to carry on down that path?

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. We also struggle with infrastructure, simple things like telephone connectivity and electricity disconnection pose a large and constant of threat to our daily work.
Despite all this, the simple fact is the best Raffia and Raffia Weavers are here, and despite the challenges of operating in remote regions in Africa this advantage gives a superior quality.

Q. What advise do you have for designer entrepreneurs who wish start a social impact fashion business?
I would advice any aspiring persons to Start. It’s really easy to get wrapped up in the planning of your business and sometimes it’s okay to know what you want and just go for it.

Q. In 3 words how would you describe AAKS products?
Exuberant, fun and made by hand.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
www.twitter.com/aakshandcrafted
instagram.com/a.a.k.s
www.facebook.com/aakshandcrafted
website: www.aaksonline.com

– A A K S hand-crafted woven heritage innovative raffia bags are made in Bolgatanga – Ghana, by founder and ethical fashion designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, impacting social lives through sustainable fashion production.

Learn more about ETHIKHA at GFDW here: http://www.ghanafashiondesignweek.com/ethical-fashion

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