Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, the glamourous Ghanaian behind gorgeous new accessories line AAKS, likes to say she is fond of sunsets. Her love for color is abundantly clear from her vibrant Instagram feed as well as her line, AAKS. The bright-colored AAKS raffia handbags range from deep indigos to bold raspberry and sunshine yellow. However, the beauty of AAKS lies not only in its lovely handbags, but also in its commitment to improving the livelihoods of rural Ghanain women. AAKS’s handbags are produced by a women’s collective in the small village of Bolgatanga in northern Ghana. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Afriyie-Kumi about a few of her whims and wishes for the present and future.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Friendly, fun, and a perfectionist.
When did you develop your interest in fashion design?
Art was a love from an early age 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. I left Ghana to London to study and expand my knowledge in art and design, and be around other creative individuals to learn and develop as much as I could.
Like so many twenty-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 broaden 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 fulfil my ultimate dream of owning my own fashion brand and igniting sustainable jobs in Ghana and Africa as a whole.
Who are your favourite designers?
I have many favourite designers from fine artists to fashion designers. I like the work and techniques used by Kehinde Wiley in his paintings. I adore the print design works of Mary Katranzou and Peter Pilotto, I also like the mix of colours by Roksanda in her clothing, and the mundane artwork by aspiring artists by the road sides which have an edge.
To my understanding, the location in northern Ghana where the bags are produced is quite rural. How did you decide to set up production there?
I traveled throughout Ghana trying to find the perfect place to make my handwoven bags. I stumbled across a small community on my travels which had the perfect tranquil setting. I could see myself living there and making bags for a life time. 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, which 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.
Why is weaving a dying art in Ghana?
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. This is because these skill sets are not valued. I hope that our brand will go some way in contributing to the revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art.
How does working with AAKS help improve the lives of rural Ghanaian women?
Creating something handcrafted has always been the goal of my brand. Words such as empowerment, passion, and lasting is what I feel the group of artisanal weavers bring to each creation and we hope our customers get that sense by the love and ownership put into each bag. Weaving also gives the women and men a much-needed income to encourage and empower them to become independent through making a good and steady work. It has helped me to see a different light to my designs and I have learned to slow down and appreciate beauty in everything around me.
What’s your design process like?
My design process is slightly complex but simple at the same time. I start by establishing a mood that fits with my clientele’s lifestyle and my design aesthetic. I seek inspiration by visiting my favourite places and exploring new environments through travel. I am an avid sunset photographer so I normally pick beautiful hues from pictures I have taken from travels which then form part of my colour palette. I draw my bag designs from photographs, historical and contemporary fine art, and fashion photography pictures which resonate with me, and also architecture.
After drawing and deciding on a set of ideas, I take my design sheets with spec measurements, colour ways, and finishes to my weavers where I brief them about my inspirations and ideas for the season. Weavers also bring on board their ideas of technical knowledge and how each bag would be executed. We then begin by twisting the raffia, we also dye the strands with organically certified dyes then leave them to dry in the open sunshine. Preparation normally takes three to four weeks before weaving can begin.
Weavers then start making three-dimensional shapes of my designs with critical attention to detail and then we achieve sample shapes for the season. I bring the samples to my studio twelve-hours’ drive away from the weaving community and start putting together finishing touches such as linings, trims, labels, leather handles, and buckles. I go through each piece to approve quality and I pick the final pieces which are then presented as my final collection for a customer or a store around the world.
How did you decide on raffia as the primary material in many of your bags?
A central tenant of my business philosophy is to preserve traditional techniques by combining them with modern design and usability. I wanted my dream basket bag to be almost foldable, more colourful with blends of colours which were tasteful and modern, and completed to the highest standard of quality. Raffia is the only material which 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. Being an organic, natural, renewable, 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.
How do you achieve such rich colors in your bags?
We use different blends of natural colours and tree leaves and barks with a long boiling process to achieve our seasonal colours and colour intensity.
Have you learned how to weave yourself?
I am in the early beginner’s stage as weaving is passed down from generation to generation; it’s not a technique I can learn in a short time. It may take me a couple of years before I weave unguided.
Do you think you’ll ever expand beyond handbags?
I would love to move into clothes and print design as it’s been a great passion of mine. Nonetheless, I am very keen to explore the accessories and home interior area in fashion, too. Bag design is still a new venture for me as I only started my brand this year and have already been featured in Vogue Italia as an emerging designer from Africa which has boosted my confidence in what I do. I am enjoying it so far and will be doing bags for some time now before anything else.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer?
I would love to be a pilot or an athlete.