Nicola Hankey-Onyango had life’s magical trifecta in the bag: success, happiness and a fabulous lifestyle. But she wasn’t done blazing trails. After 15 years in marketing, she switched over into a career in fashion and launched her jewellery brand Urban Artefacts in 2016. The brand name says it all. Urban, reflecting the fresh clean lines of her creations, while Artefacts taps into its traditional meaning of handmade. A brand that wants to give women an avenue to express their femininity in a thoughtful and conscious way.
TDS caught up with this new designer:
How did you leave a stable job to pursue art?
I was moving from London to Kenya with my husband, who is from here. I was even hired by one of the largest PR and Marketing groups in Kenya when I arrived, but then I got pregnant. Although I worked with them for a brief period, it led to my introduction to the Kenyan and African consumer; and thinking about things from that perspective. After delivery, the time I spent away from my son felt in some ways like lost time. So, I decided to re-examine what I was doing and if it was truly aligned with my values and goals. Before I got into marketing, I studied with Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London – did a minor in art history – with the dream of working in an art gallery. I even volunteered in a few art galleries. So, art has always been key to me. I see things like fashion, jewellery and design as an extension of art. I have always been interested in the ‘maker movement’ or ‘handmade movement’. It wasn’t necessarily that jewellery was my number one passion. I was also very interested in how people were making clothes and the use of textiles.
Clothes you said?
I was on a four-year journey before we officially started the brand, trying to work with different mediums and artisans in Kenya. I started off with textiles because I really liked African prints. I was working more with house linens and did projects like designing duvets and cushion covers. But I realised that finding the right seamstresses and tailors was challenging and I was also struggling with the way the textile works in terms of washing it, using it, the practicalities.
Additionally, I was working with horn and trying to do table dyes and stuff like that when I met a woman who was about to shut down her workshop. Her artisans were highly trained, [the previous owner] had brought over Italian goldsmiths to train them, and they had loads of equipment. I saw an opportunity. I felt that letting the talented artisans go would be a shame.
Everything is handmade right now?
Well, we use a combination of handmade and some technology, meaning we use investment casting to produce a lot of pieces. We work with bench jewellers (basically someone who isn’t a formerly trained designer but they have the capability to make samples; which is the hardest part.) Once you get that right you can simply reproduce. But a bench jeweller is a sophisticated enough artisan that they can do a strong sample because they are skilled in many technical art aspects. Apart from that, we outsource all our horn and beading work.
Did you have any doubts about using commonly known materials and how your brand would stand out from others?
Yes, we use brass, some semi-precious stones, horn, bone, and wood such as mvuli wood. But I think it all comes down to how you style it. The story of styling is what breaks things open. For example, horn isn’t a particularly unique material but I like to use it in a classic polished way. Even with our metal pieces, we opt for a more polished finish. Most are welded, which can make their surfaces rough and discoloured. So, we go through a cleaning process afterwards to give it that high degree finish. In addition, we test them, wear them for a while before we introduce them to the customer to make sure they are high quality. I think is an important thing for each brand to offer quality assurance so that if something is a little faulty, the issue is resolved or replaced. I like to treat customers the way I would like to be treated in a store.
And what style are you looking to communicate?
Right now, we have ‘the enduring women of style’ campaign on Instagram and I think that goes back to our ethos of sustainable and ethical (which is a very controversial word). But the way we look at it, it’s not just pushing people to keep consuming but instead, buying things that will endure through time. So, essentially, our aesthetic is classic, or vintage inspired. These are pieces that endure past trends. Another description would be feminine. Don’t get me wrong, every woman has their own style interpretation, but what attracts me is a level of femininity coupled with strength; fierce, soft and feminine.
Ethical brand you say… how do you manifest this in your operations?
I believe sustainability is also about creating employment on fair terms and wages. That’s why we wouldn’t sell anything below KSh3,000 because of our production process and because we are a sustainable enterprise.
We also have a strong stand against the throw-away culture. It’s the antithesis of fast fashion. Our ethos is that we don’t want you to buy something that you will throw away. It’s not about consumption in a wild way but being thoughtful about it. Look at the piece and really want it because it means something to you or to the person you’re gifting it to.
We also embrace upcycling when it comes to our horn and bone products. We use Ankole-Watusi cow horn which are quite incredible even before processing.
How does a ‘slow fashion’ premise affect your collections cycle?
I would say we do a collection every six months, but we also do some ad hoc. We are a little slow with the collections, part of that being because we produce for other people. Sometimes we can get tied up with large production quotas for export.
The number of pieces we incorporate per collection largely depends on what the inspiration is. I’m working on one now that has six and seven pieces so it’s a capsule collection with unquestionably vintage elements to it. I’m in love with history and so I do look back to the classic period of the 40s and 60s. I think that there are certain women, like Lauren Bacall, of that time that would throw things on and they were well thought out. It’s something I refer to as effortless glamour and some of these pieces are inspired by that.
We also keep items from the very beginning on the website based on interest.
So, you also make bespoke pieces?
Yes… the process is very organic. Some clients come ready with ideas and examples of the different elements they want incorporated in their designs. Others need more prompting from us.
Most memorable collection for you so far?
I really like the current ‘Urban Nomad’ collection. It’s very minimalistic but the simplicity of the lines communicates a lot. And then it’s also the fusion of the brass with horn to give you this contrast, like our lulu drop earrings and the hexagon earrings. That collection right now is light, easy to wear; which is very important.
What’s next for you?
This is going to be a year of consolidation. Ensuring that where we are being stocked at locations such as Wasp and Sprout, Republi.ke and at TDS Two Rivers mall, and that we are servicing them well. If we’re servicing a pop up, we will be making sure we’re executing it in a thoughtful way. Last year was all about growth. The focus this year isn’t about making a million outlets. This year it’s about putting out interesting collections, and a happy customer experience
(You can also find them online through their social media pages such as Instagram or from their website -where you can put in an order and they will deliver it to you).