The average person would welcome a life in London, especially if it was one filled with a great career, supportive friends, and Europe’s many cultural conveniences. But for Ghanaian-born fashion designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, that life didn’t fulfill her passion for creating an international luxury brand. So she decided to move back home to Ghana to create her handbag line A A K S, the fashion brand of her dreams. Now her bags can be found in London, Cape Town, and Paris, and will soon be sold in two major store in the United States.
“It’s my aspiration to see every woman out their carrying my bag,” Afriyie-Kumi says.
A A K S’ bags features Afriyie-Kumi’s favorite weaving techniques done by Ghanaian women and also creates sustainable jobs within her country. Handcrafted in Bolgatanga, A A K S creates bags in bright, exuberant colors and in styles that maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts.
As glam as it seems, Afriyie-Kumi tells us building her business hasn’t been easy.
Your designs are vibrant and inspiring. What or who has been your biggest source of inspiration?
I take inspiration from almost everything I photograph or come across on my travels around the world, be it sunsets, nature, architecture, or people. My main inspiration for my brand was to create my own basket bag with a twist after buying them for friends and family, [something] foldable, almost leather-like, so I could travel with it. I also wanted something colorful to reflect my energy.
After much deliberation I settled on raffia, although it initially proved to be difficult to find in Ghana. After travelling throughout the country I found it serendipitously on our family farm in southern Ghana. It was being grown minimally and then sold to string-bead vendors and others to basically tie animals [up] on small farms. I knew this was it once I felt it! The softness and strength was key. When I started looking into its benefits, I was completely sold on it! It fit into my brand ethos.
Describe your creative process. What must be in place for you to create at your best?
My design process is slightly complex, yet simple at the same time. I start by establishing a mood that fits with my clientele’s lifestyle and my design aesthetic. After drawing and deciding on a set of ideas, I take my design sheets with spec measurements, colorways, and finishes to my weavers. I brief them on my inspirations and ideas for the season. Weavers also bring their technical knowledge [on] how each bag would be executed.
Preparation normally takes three to four weeks before weaving can begin. We begin by twisting the raffia, dyeing the strands with organically certified dyes, [and] then leave [them] to dry in the open sunshine. Weavers then start making three-dimensional shapes of my designs [for] sample shapes for the season. I bring the samples to my studio—a 12-hour 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 and stores.
Work-life balance is something that we’re all trying to master these days! How do you manage?
I try to have a good work and life balance. Sometimes I don’t work over the weekends, as I want to relax, rethink, and re-energize for the week ahead. In the morning I listen to a lot of relaxing music in the studio, which helps to calm me down for the day’s work ahead. [But] I am also slightly addicted [to my phone], which is not good when I am trying to snooze off. I could do a phone detox!
Many business owners have an “aha!” moment about their craft before actually starting their business. What was yours? And were your family and friends supportive of your idea?
I had my “aha!” moment while working in fashion. [I] wondered why my favorite type of weaving hadn’t been explored widely. I moved to Ghana to work on this idea further with a lot of hesitation at the beginning, as a lot of individuals weren’t quite receptive to the idea of me leaving London to start up a company [in Ghana]. They knew the difficulties involved in starting up a brand [especially] in a country such as Ghana.
[But] a lot [of people] were also extremely supportive and wished me well. I knew I had something great to work towards and made the big move. Now everyone is on board, and I am delighted to have their support from an early stage in my career.
Any advice for women who are fighting to live their dream?
I would advise any aspiring designers out there to find a niche or something unique that hasn’t been done before. Or even if it’s been done before, have a new twist on it, take the opportunity, and follow your passion. It is really easy to get wrapped up in the planning of your business, but sometimes you have to know what you want and just go for it.