| Tokelo Motsepe
Abigail James has built up Soul Design Jewellery for the last couple of years, while working full-time as an interior designer for safari lodges, a job that's allowed her to travel regularly between southern and east Africa and offered her the inspiration and opportunities to start and nurture the bespoke and ethically handmade jewellery brand; read on as she shares her journey.
Q. What inspired the start of Soul Design and how did that come about?
A. I've always loved jewellery, even though I may have been working in textile design; I always had a love for jewellery and going to markets and finding little treasures. I remember how I used to work with beads when I was younger and was almost obsessed with beads.
I guess it really started when I created a little women's group while I was in Zambia some years ago1, to make beaded jewellery and though the style was very different to what I do now [we worked the Safari market] ..I made some nice pocket money from it and it really helped support the women in the group and we built houses and stuff.
When I moved here [to Cape Town], the type of jewellery I made became more trend relevant and suited this market. And shortly after moving here, I made a trip out to East Africa, where I came across a distinct brass making technique, which lead me to my working with a brass-smith there that now makes all the charms and and brass in the Soul Design range. And all the beadwork is made here in our studio by myself and Nonthemba.
Q. You travelled the continent working as a textile designer, what prompted the shift into jewellery and creating your own collection and brand? And did you study something fashion or jewellery related in tertiary?
A. I studied Fine Art and that helped in my design process earlier on, cause I would draw how I saw each piece coming together. I have taken some jewellery courses, but the brand has now become more about working with artisans, so it doesn't really require me to get into drawing the technical aspects of a piece.
My approach now involves gaining visual inspiration from books, markets, all things around me, doors, theirs shapes, etc; and I'll do a rough sketch, which I will work on with an artisan - a more organic way on working, which also speaks to the kind of person I am. And I believe that stems from having done my art degree, as opposed to jewellery design, which I feel would be more structured and very detailed.
Q. How did you come about the name Soul Design?
A. Years ago, I think about 10 years ago, I had finished up in Zambia [after 2 and a half years] and was in-between things, when my sister and I decided to look at doing something together. Having just come out of textiles and still doing the jewellery on the side, we wanted whatever we did to still be in the space of working with artisans, ended up going to Kenya and decided to do leather bags. We put together a simple range of hide bags and took them to London to sell; and cause we felt our souls were in Africa, even though we were living in England, we looked at calling the range Africa Soul/Soul Africa and it later got shortened to Soul. And I just kept with it when I really started doing jewellery.
Q. What do you believe sets your brand apart and makes it different?
A. Trying to be as personal as possible. In working with different people and artisans and how I'm constantly looking to expand on that; by going to different African countries and seeing what's going on there that could add a new dimension to the range or some leather work that could be combined with bead work in Morocco.
I believe my constantly looking to interact with people and craftsmen and bring their work together with my vision is what makes it personal, and that along with how I try to make the range trend relevant and interact with customers by allowing them to personalise the pieces they want, in the colours and lengths, interchange charms, etc. We encourage our customers to work with us to create their own look and add that personal touch.
Q. What would you say has been your greatest achievement since launching the brand?
A. Getting to this point where I feel I'm ready to leave my work to focus on the Soul Design brand full time. I'm proud to look at what has been built over the years, the partnerships with those I work with in the production process that have become crucial; I'm proud that I can continue to work with those people and that we are constantly growing and that it's supporting itself in its growth.
Q. What was most challenging in starting up the brand? And how did you overcome that?
A. I'd have to say marketing. I don't have a natural affinity with marketing - contacting people and telling them about my brand, producing a whole lot of stock and realizing you have nobody to sell it to cause you actually have to go and market it; all of that and working out how to work through that what a big challenge starting out.
And I got over that by just starting where I was here in Cape Town, going to the shops, talking to people that worked there and showing them my products; doing consignment, going to markets, trade shows, cause that period needs you to be quite flexible. In the first two years I probably lost quite a lot of money in the first two years, because I was making stock and putting it on consignment and you have to be prepared to try and find out what works.
It's an uphill battle and it takes time, I think I was really lucky that I had another career going, that was doing well and I could support myself and didn't have to put pressure on this new business to make money quickly and it could grow organically.
And in time I also found I grew too, it grew my confidence cause you learn where you would want your brand to be and where you would rather not be and you adjust accordingly. I found I preferred to not do as much consignment, unless it was a pop up or how maybe it's better on wholesale, etc. I learnt these things as I went along.
Q. Which African brand(s) would you want to collaborate with in future?
A. I don't have name that comes to mind, but I would love to work with someone who is quite out there, someone who doesn't even do jewellery and can come in with a completely different eye or perspective, like a textile designer or something, that will take an element and bring it in, in a completely different way.
Q. Does Instagram [or social media in general] play a big part in your marketing? How else do you connect with your customers?
A. Instagram he's really taken off for us in the last couple of months and has lead to a portion of our budget being set aside for sponsored posts, which have worked well for us. Otherwise, wholesale has been a big part of our business so far and I am constantly reaching out to wholesalers [who are also our customers], and have helped us expand to different markets.
Q. Where would you like to see Soul Design in 5 or 10years?
A. I would love to further grow into new global markets through wholesale; and to expand the range and create a retail space that is collaborative and all encompassing, allowing us to grow locally, strengthen or brands identity and in staying true to that identity, continue to find new ways to work with others.
Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?
A. By working in the same place that I live.. lol.. I think having my studio right here allows me to find time in between to relax a bit, but I am lucky to have Nonthemba who is efficient and I can rely on to keep things going and get orders out and stuff.
I also do a lot of other things that keep me creative, like an art class that I am apart of every week, for about 3hrs, which I've been doing for years, to just switch off from work, but still keep the creative feeling flowing; I also meet a lot of friends in the morning and I go swimming.
The lines can get blurred when you're doing something you love and are passionate about, but finding that time to turn off is necessary; though when you're doing what you love you can almost feel like you don't need it, it's good.
Q. Any words of wisdom for anyone looking to start up their own brand?
A. If you can have another source of income when you start, especially if you are on your own; it would help. Easing into things and take the focus off the making of the money from what you do at the beginning, and taking that pressure off, then I think it will help your business flourish more. Granted, situations are different and some people can rise to financial success quicker than others, but I just think it can help a lot to not have that pressure.
For more on Soul Design Jewellery - https://www.souldesign.co.za