Michael Nelson is more than just a brand owner, his attention to details is evident in his work and he speaks very passionately to Fashion Business Africa about his artisans and the relevance of African designs in his brand.
MN: I am Michael Nelson, I am 32 years old, live in New York and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I graduated from Parsons School of Design in 2010, and shortly after, I interned at Oscar de la Renta. Two years after graduation, I went to Kenya and was so inspired by the people and landscape that I started my own line of African-made accessories.
She gave me a stack of papers with all of her contacts and suppliers and said, “please learn this industry and develop the collection from the ground up” and that was my crash course into accessories.
FBA: How did creating bags become your specialty?
MN: It sort of fell on me, I was interning at Oscar de la Renta and the economy was in the middle of a financial crisis. No luxury fashion houses were hiring- so there was a huge population of fashion school graduates that were looking for jobs. The only category that remained robust throughout the recession was the handbag market. After seeing my senior thesis, an evening wear designer approached me to design a group of handbags. She knew the market was changing and to save her business she needed to add accessories to the linesheets. She gave me a stack of papers with all of her contacts and suppliers and said, “please learn this industry and develop the collection from the ground up” and that was my crash course into accessories.
FBA: Your aesthetic is very distinctive and particular, what inspires you when creating accessories especially your bags?
MN: Architecture is a huge inspiration for me. It seems that wherever I go, I am always taking pictures of different structures and buildings so that I can surround myself with those images in the studio. Bags are a lot like architecture in so many ways- you need a blueprint to build both and they must interact with the client not just in an emotional way but a functional way as well.
In regards to the surface treatments on the bags- the inspiration comes from my team in Kenya. I may have an initial idea, but it is the artisans that take that idea and make it into something truly special. They hold the history with the materials and I respect that relationship when designing the collection.
FBA: You design in New York and produce in Africa, What are the challenges you face producing in Africa?
MN: The biggest challenge is accepting that Africa works on a different time schedule. For instance, the rainy season actually does exist and it does impact production schedules- employees just simply cannot get to work on time. So more often than not, we have our artisans stay at home during the rainy season and have motorbikes picking up the work and dropping it off at the factory. Understanding that there is a difference not just culturally but also geographically is fundamental to making things in Africa.
Making things in Africa was not an economical decision; it was about finding the beauty in African craftsmanship and knowing how to move that into the global marketplace.
FBA: Building a suitable income for your artisans is very important to you, how do you to sustain that giving that you are producing in Africa and how does that reflect in the cost of your product?
MN: Making things in Africa was not an economical decision; it was about finding the beauty in African craftsmanship and knowing how to move that into the global marketplace. Paying our artisans fairly for their work is the cornerstone of this brand. Tabitha, my director, is constantly gauging the Kenyan gross national income (GNI) and offering at least three times that average to our employees. The reason we do this is because we have some of the best hands working on the collection and they need to be compensated accordingly. The first time I was in Kenya, I felt there was a lot of exploitation on different levels- Tabitha and I both agreed that this brand needed to be different and become the forerunner in fair trade wages.
FBA: On the average, what are the margins on each products?
MN: The bags retail anywhere from $295 to $795 and the average wholesale price is generally $265. The cost (labor and materials) presently ranges from $100 to $125, which is a less-than-ideal equation within retail mathematics. We are working really hard to reduce the cost of materials; actively pursuing Kenya’s Export Processing Zone (EPZ) certification so that we will eliminate the custom and duties assessed on our raw materials coming in from Europe.
FBA: Who is your target customer?
MN: The target customer is a woman of any age who is curious about the world around her- someone who prefers travel to staying at home. She talks to strangers and loves discovering new things. Most importantly, she understands the value of our bags, which have been sourced ethically from start to finish.
FBA: How do you source your material?
MN: When I design a collection, I use the best materials from around the world. We are creating a luxury product that needs to look and feel special. For example, our bags are made from densely packed nylon that is washed five times before it leaves the factory in Italy. All leather comes from France, made by a tannery known for its exceptional colors and finishing techniques.
What separates our brand, however, are the components that originate from Africa. Our horn is ethically sourced from Uganda, where it is taken to Jack, our master craftsman, who measures, cuts, and polishes the material. The ebony wood on our bags is sourced and carved by a Fair Trade Cooperative in the Kenyan town of Machakos.
FBA: How do your find your artisans?
MN: Tabitha, has an amazing gift of hiring the most talented artisans to work on the collection. We generally hire one person that has an exceptional skill level to lead a particular group. This sets up a key contact who will train others and hold them accountable for their work. Not only does this increase productivity, it ensures quality control.
Sometimes we find people that are so talented and hungry for work they do the entire production themselves without hiring a single extra person. For example, Jack is someone we found at a Maasai market who prefers working alone and literally can make anything from his homecrafted machines. As you can imagine, we order hundreds of horn pieces from him throughout the year- all are perfect and delivered ahead of schedule.
FBA: How do you ensure quality control?
MN: When I first started working in Kenya, I had 3D prototypes printed so that we had a physical guide to follow to ensure production standards. As the brand continues to evolve, we have replaced the 3D prototypes with artisan managers. This gives a point person at the micro level to ensure quality control across the brand. I never ever worry about the quality of what comes from my cooperatives because I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by some of the best people in Kenya.
FBA: How do you handle logistics?
MN: Funnily enough, I am pretty certain that half of the motorbikes running around Nairobi are working for Michael Nelson. We have people that work on the collection whose job is solely to dispatch deliveries. We have wood carvers working in Machakos, which is an hour outside Nairobi, our messengers are constantly driving back and forth, bringing in the materials and delivering completed samples back to the factory. It is tough, but Tabitha monitors the entire process knowing as soon as we go into production, that it is necessary to have a production schedule that is manageable. It is like musical chairs, and as long as you have it on an Excel spreadsheet and you know where everything is at any given time (which Tabitha does), we are always in a great position.
FBA: How did you originally fund the brand?
MN: When I first started, I paid for my school fees by working retail. Throughout college, I worked at Miu Miu and made a lot of great relationships with my clients. One in particular, became a firm supporter of my work; she bought my entire senior thesis and to this day still says those clothes are her favourite things in her closet. When I wanted to start my own line in 2010 when money was tight for everybody, even for wealthy people, she wrote me a cheque for $20,000 and said ‘Pay me back when you can, but please go and make something greater than yourself.’ I had told her this idea of wanting to make things in Eastern Africa and I had met Tabitha and I thought it would be an incredible way to bring Africa to the luxury market, and that was it.
FBA: What are your distribution channels and how do you plan on pushing products out there?
MN: We sell at Colette in Paris and Browns in London. In the US, stores such as Ikram, The Webster, and Distractions all carry the collection. Additionally, we sell in South Africa at the concept store, Merchants on Long. We are actively pursuing collaborations and pop-up shops with e-tailers such as Fashionkind who specialize in ethically sourced goods.
FBA: What are your expansion plans?
MN: We are going to sign with a showroom starting in September, which will help us grow our business in Europe and Asia. Those two markets are essential to any brand and it is critical for us to expand our global audience.
By Kachi Udeoji