Michael Nelson, a designer at Rift Valley Leather in Nairobi is currently making a special bag for a member of Kenya’s most wealthiest families.
He has sold some of his bags in Italy where they were fashioned into very ornate clutches that fetched $2,000 to $3,000 (Sh200,000 to Sh300,000) a piece.
“It was a beautiful collection that looked like mini works of art. Once you buy one, you do not come back to buy another,” he says.
Mr Nelson, whose works have featured in Vogue and Instyle fashion magazines, is now into micro-bags.
Women are ditching big purses for tiny bags and the designer says he hopes this new trend will soon catch up in Africa.
‘‘In New York, almost everyone has a micro bag. Totes and large bags were popular maybe five years ago,’’ he says.
He is making micro-bags that have a cross strap that you can wear throughout the day. In the evening, you can take off the strap, make it a clutch as you go for dinner. The micro bag is just for essential things such as a phone, keys and mascara.
Mr Nelson says he knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a designer.
‘‘I wanted to create masterful pieces while living in Africa,’’ he says.
His thesis at Parsons School of Design in New York was about African textiles but using them in a modern context and when he presented his bags, a woman in the panel bought them all.
“She then asked me what I wanted to do. I told her that I wanted to design things in Africa. I did not know where or how. She then asked me how much money I wanted and I told her about $20,000. She told me ‘‘fine I will write you a cheque,” Mr Nelson says.
He came to Kenya and started working on new designs for a handbag collection.
“We started working on the beading patterns and we launched a collection where all the bags were made of Italian leather with different beaded designs on them,” he says.
The collection was immediately picked up by Browns, a high-end designer store in London and they bought the whole collection.
‘‘That was a good moment for me. The fashion store taking everything was like a stamp of approval.’’
So how was he able to put his brand out in events organised by Vogue?
“You might not believe this, but I relied on the kindness of strangers. I showed a collection to Neiman Marcus, a huge fashion chain store in the US. I met Ana Maria [the fashion director]. She loved the collection but said I was new so she couldn’t buy the collection right away. She told me what I needed at that moment was the press and she gave me e-mails of top editors with an introduction,” he says.
He left the meeting without being bought by Neiman Marcus which he says was depressing but the silver lining was that he received e-mails from Vogue, Instyle among others.
How he works
His designs are first sketched down followed by the beadwork which is mostly his signature look. They then go through row after row of the beadwork to check for imperfections. If the beads are not perfect, they are pulled out and redone.
For Mr Nelson, bag-making is an art. Sometimes he uses coconut and ostrich shells, then complements them with leather. Although he uses raw materials readily available in Kenya, he gets the textile from Europe.
‘‘Most of these materials are top-quality and used by international fashion brands like Prada, Louis Vuitton among others,” he says.
Why doesn’t he use textile from Kenya?
‘‘I create a luxury product, do you think Italians only use Italian products? No. Why should Kenya be any different? If we are going to create a luxury product let us get the best of the best,” he says.
His one flaw? ‘‘Perfection,’’ he says.
‘‘If the finishing requires painting, like the edge painting, it has to be very consistent and also no crooked stitch will be accepted.’’
But that doesn’t mean their bags have not been rejected. He is currently working on a collection that will be released in about four weeks’ time.
‘‘It is one style and also unisex. It is a cross body bag and we are working on the zip pulls.”