THREADED: Mikuti’s Eye Candy Harbors A Sweet Story

ColumnFor fashion label Mikuti, it’s a family affair.

Bombarded with beautiful beaded bangles, there’s an inexplicable awe that comes through observing the brilliant outcome of a designer’s process. Sifting through images from designer Erika Freud – the creative behind breakout accessory label Mikuti – on her most recent journey in East Africa, was like living inside a rainbow. Sourcing materials and producing Mikuti’s adornments through cooperation with artisans in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, Freud has an eye for the standout colors and designs that make a statement.

Growing up in a family of culinary artists, that also held an interest in designing homes and gardens, Freud has creativity flowing through her veins. After spending 3 months in Tanzania with a small group who were working on some economic development projects, Freud and her team realized there was a way to create a bracelet out of banana bark.

“When I saw there was a potential market for it, as well as an opportunity to create jobs for the individuals I was working with and possibly myself, I ran with the idea of starting a company,” Freud tells EcoSalon.

In a few short years since Freud began her business endeavor, Mikuti has quickly become an attention-grabbing accessory brand for fresh fashion designers. Labels such as Mara Hoffman, AFIA, and ChiChia London, have all embraced Mikuti’s bangles as an enhancement for their recent lookbooks and runway events. What do they all have in common? None of them seem to be the least bit intimidated to throw blasts of color and print into their collections.

When Freud journeys to East Africa from her NYC home, she lives her every moment abroad to the fullest. Working on several collections on the same trip, Freud is developing two small, limited edition summer collections focused on color trends – Neons & Neutrals and For The Love Of Fuchsia. “I love color, especially these. It’s a small, fun collection that I think everyone will really like,” Freud says.

The limited number of summer pieces are being created in Kenya from recycled aluminum and beads. “I’ve worked with both materials before, so since I’m familiar with it, it’s made it easy for me to develop new ideas around it,” Freud says.

Working with talented artisans has influenced the creation process for Mikuti. Freud tells EcoSalon about how her beader is a standout individual. “She’s incredibly skilled and really knows how to execute my ideas. Whether it’s going bead shopping or going over color combinations, I genuinely enjoy her. Plus, she has a lot of good ideas for future possible designs. I think creativity breeds creativity. Once you get going with someone, the ideas just start to flow.”

Freud was definitely fed creativity at home growing up, and that knack for imaginative resourcefulness has only evolved in a collaborative relationship with her father. As Freud does the majority of her framework designing in the U.S., having “samples” to share with the artisans abroad can be key.

“By trade, my dad is a highly skilled builder and designer. The week before my trip, my father and I sat together in the garage many nights, cutting pieces of wood from my drawings for me to use as molds,” she explains.

These wood carvings are an ideal way to relay the design direction and aesthetic to her collaborators abroad. Having now worked in East Africa for about 3 years, Freud is quite methodical on how to communicate her ideas. The process begins with a pattern that she sketches. Then, her father creates a model of her design using thin plywood. Freud explains, “I do this because it helps me see the actual size and feel of something and let’s me imagine it to a point in my mind.”

When she travels to East Africa, she brings all of her plywood pieces and shows them to the artisan she has been working with. “He then creates it with whatever metal I choose and together, we fine-tune it. Sometimes this happens in one try, other times it takes 5 tries. It depends on the complexity of the piece. I really value his opinion and genuinely enjoy the collaborative experience we have,” Freud says.

In addition to the fabulous fuchsia and neon/neutral pieces for summer, Freud is also producing her Fall/Winter collection along this journey in East Africa. Inspired by Native American culture, Freud visited an array of museums and exhibits, while extensively researching traditional Native American dress and adornments over the past months.

“There’s something about old cultures and traditions I’m very drawn to. I like learning about them and then taking things from them to create a piece of jewelry. I recall visiting the Native American Museum in Washington, DC to do some research, where I was in awe of all the different shapes of arrowheads exhibited. I also loved looking at the totem poles and pulling ideas from them,” Freud explains.

Mikuti’s Fall/Winter collection has a material focus of horn and brass, sourced from Kenya and Uganda. Having never worked with either of these materials, Freud has found it exceptionally helpful having worked previously with this artisan in Kenya.

“He’s highly skilled and I enjoy working with him through the product development phase. He excels at taking my drawings and seeing them to fruition,” Freud says.
For the horn pieces, Freud is working with a few different artisans in the Kampala region of Uganda. An agribusiness byproduct, the horn Mikuti features is recycled from local butcheries. For Freud, venturing into Uganda has been a new opportunity to integrate “another sustainable, eco-friendly angle and to work in a new region and support the local artisans.”

Continuously melding innovative angles into her designs, Freud’s creations have depth. She expresses an inspired enjoyment in learning about the spirituality woven into Native American culture.

“Like many old cultures, jewelry played a role in this. So, a lot of my ideas were formed around their spirituality and I tried to bring that to each of my pieces,” she says.
Emotionally, Freud is excited about her upcoming Fall/Winter collection.

“I’ve really stepped out of my comfort zone and feel as though this collection brings everything full circle.”

While many aspects of Freud’s supply chain and design inspirations may have come full circle for her, it seems Mikuti’s distinct presence on the fashion circuit has only just begun.

Kestrel Jenkins

Kestrel Lee Jenkins currently resides in New York City where she writes a weekly column covering the sustainable fashion world.