In high school, New York-based Michael Nelson gravitated to a group of girls from Kenya, who stood up for him when he was bullied. His line of handbags and clutches, which are all fabricated in a fair-trade cooperative and launch at Ikram on October 15, pay homage to this childhood friendship. Nelson’s handbags and clutches are always adorned with Maasai traditional beadwork, in which intricately woven tiny beads are layered flat with bright shapes and bold lines. Nelson blends the Maasai culture’s traditional colors such as red, green and black with a contemporary aesthetic.
Nelson’s lineup includes a mini satchel, a shoulder bag and a slouchy and laid-back tote. They are constructed in either teal French-tanned goat leather or black-washed Italian nylon. The French-tanned goat leather bags have beaded handles made from orange, black, and white beads. The nylon bags have teal, black and white beaded handles. All bags have rhodium-plated brass hardware. A standout is the Lydia Clutch, which comes in a striking chevron pattern. Eighteen-karat gold frames the clutch, while beads layer the front. The clasp is a hand cut resin push lock. The clutches come in a variety of color combinations, from teal, red, and white, to black, navy and white.
But what really stands out about Nelson’s work is the elegant and well-executed craftwork by the twelve women of the fair-trade beading cooperative. The women earn a wage that is four times the national average, which provides a sustainable income for their families. Nelson sets aside another ten percent of proceeds into a fund for healthcare and shelter for the village in which the cooperative is located. Along with the members of the cooperative, Nelson is developing plans to create a new central workshop with facilities for cooking and childcare.
In the Maasai culture, women have a deep history of being the creators of beaded jewelry and other garments with handcrafted beadwork. While many of the beads used are now plastic, in the past they were made from shells, seeds, sticks and glass. In traditional Maasai beading, each necklace represents an important event, such as a wedding. They often tell a story about the event, their age, or their favorite things like plants, a sunset or animals. Evoking these traditions, Nelson creates pieces that are both daring and respectful of their origin. (Audrey Keiffer)