Society & Success

Making feather fancy

Ambica Shah who makes jewellery from feathers at The Alchemist, Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Ambica Shah who makes jewellery from feathers at The Alchemist, Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

The single feather earring hangs from the ear of one of the models at a photo shoot. Unique and colourful, the asymmetry of the piece seems to create a balance without having a partner piece.

This is one of the feather collections from Kapoeta by Ambica, a jewellery line by designer Ambica Shah.

The tribal feathers, as she describes them, serve as a medium and as an inspiration for her pieces that have featured on runways, photo shoots and are a favourite for stylish Kenyans.

Her line is not really driven by trends but it is aligned to what is relevant. She had been making collars for a while when she saw one of her biggest design inspirations, Alexander McQueen make an incredible feather collar for one of his collection using multi coloured feathers.

“I am not driven by fashion but my work is aligned with international standards,” she says.

Her collection features elaborate feather earrings including the signature single earing, the feather collar, ear cuff and the smaller pieces, all individual pieces colourful and unique.

It was by chance that the International Communications graduate stumbled on her jewellery-making in 2010.

She picked Kapoeta, a South Sudanese name, by chance as it was captivating, and captured the essence of the brand.

“When it rolls of the tongue, it sounds like capoeira, a Brazilian martial art and Kapoeta which is Africa. My work is an embodiment of kind of tribal feathers that orient from African culture, South American and Native American,” explains Ambica.

“I think feathers have not been explored enough.” She says.

Feathered collar by Ambica at the Made in Africa store. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Feathered collar by Ambica at the Made in Africa store. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

During her travels across Europe, North Africa, America and India, she visited bohemian markets where feathers featured a lot.

“They caught my eye. It was as simple as that. A simple single feather on an earring fascinated me,” she says.

It was here that she realised that they had not been explored enough and began her exploration of the medium with moulted feathers.

Using the jewellery skills she had been using since she was a young girl, she combined the beads, antique pieces she had been collecting over the years with the feathers.

Every time she would travel out of the country to other cities such as London, New York, and Italy, she would carry her pieces, selling them to friends and approaching shops to stock them.

From the first day, she knew it was a good idea to be international. This, she says, was also due to the fact that the local market had a threshold.

“Kenya for sure is my largest market. I stock in New York, Prague, London and also some small shops in the US. Kenya is big also due to the tourism factor,” she says.

Using feathers and being sustainable and ethical is a challenge for her when it comes to sourcing.

“I would not use feathers from a bird that has been killed specifically for its feathers,” she explains. With the world focus being on environmental sustainability, sourcing feathers has been a network building process.

Chicken feathers are the most readily available as a by-product of the meat industry while pheasant feathers she gets from UK, where the bird is hunted sustainably.

Locally, it is illegal to hunt birds, so she gets the feathers from collectors and recycling and keepers of peacocks and guinea fowls, which shed feathers occasionally.

Her work has also featured on runways, collaboration with designers like a bag charm or key charm, fashion videos and designer collaborations including with Katungulu Mwendwa and Deepa Dosaja.

“Deepa has been a great influence (as a designer). The collaboration with her happened effortlessly. Her designs are colourful and hers is also an ethical brand so most of her materials are raw and she hand-paints onto them with a lot of colours and flowers,” she says “so that came together naturally. And I have accessorised for her in a couple of shows.”

Her pieces are priced on the mid to high end range of the market, which she explains is due to the artistry that goes into the individual pieces, the ethical sourcing of the feathers and creating unique and quality pieces.

Her collection is available at the Made in Kenya store at the Alchemist in Westlands, on her website and at Langata Link.