When tribal trinkets meet cyber chic


IN THE world of fashion, accidents at times trigger a trend. And they, like Mawi, claim some of the hottest bodies on earth – Jennifer Lopez, Kate Moss, Sharon Stone, Elle McPherson, Scarlett Johansson, Kylie Minogue, Lindsey Lohan, Sophie Dahl and Tori Amos to name a few.

Margaret Thanmawi Keivom – Mawi, popularly – never expected jewellery designing to be her calling. She had studied Fashion Design in Auckland, New Zealand and graduated there before interning with American designer Isaac Mizrahi. There was never a grand plan to design accessories; it happened quite organically.

“Not having a jewellery background was a blessing in disguise, and I began experimenting with Victorian lace, buttons, velvet, old coins, pearls, etc. It’s been a huge learning curve, and being self-taught has been a bittersweet ride to creating a new space for jewellery,” says Mawi, hailing from the unlikeliest of places to inspire a designer – militancy-ravaged Manipur.

Mawi’s journey to jewellery had begun accidentally, when she designed a handbag for herself. She ended up designing seven more using vintage fabrics, embellishing them with trinkets, charms and Victorian lace. The Cross, one of London’s leading lifestyle outlets, snapped them all up. Department Store, Selfridges, ordered a complete collection, displaying her handbags alongside super brands such as Prada, Gucci and Chanel.

The bric-a-brac embellishments encouraged Mawi to experiment with jewellery. And she came up with a style blending tribal trinkets with cyber chic. Her tribal roots – “I draw and pillage from my Indian and Hmar tribal heritage” – and sojourns in tribe-rich countries like Kenya, Myanmar and New Zealand with her diplomat father helped. So did her decision to park in Dalston, East London. “The area is a healthy mix of Turkish, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani and Indian people besides the fashionistas,” she says. No wonder, she and husband Tim Awan set up their studio – “a 400-year-old stable with lots of character and charm” – there post their marriage a decade ago.

The eponymous Mawi brand of hybrid jewellery and accessories was an instant hit. “Due to the runaway success of our debut collection at London Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council awarded us the New Generation Award for three consecutive seasons since 2003,” says the designer. The London Female Owned Business of the Year 2005 award followed. The business graph of her company – Mawi Ltd at Islington, London – has been heading northward ever since, with her products sold by most major boutiques and department stores in Europe, USA, Australia and Japan. A couple of up-market stores in Mumbai display her range. “Creating a label was easy, coping with the huge demand was anything but,” she says.

An “incorrigible experimenter”, Mawi had sometime back launched a menswear jewellery line titled ‘Sir by Mawi’. It is exclusive to Harvey Nichols in the UK and certain boutiques in Japan and around the world. Recession notwithstanding, fashion outlets are looking forward to her two-category offerings for 2009. “In the Industrial Luxe Collection, tribal trinkets meet hyper technology and ancient totems meet progressive architecture in hammered boxes, giant Swarovski crystals, industrial box chains and domes. The Heirloom Collection, on the other hand, comprises teardrop pearls, velvet and metallic ribbons, ornate clasps, crystal teardrops, cameos, crystal encrusted pendants and chunky chains,” she says.

Mawi says she owes a lot to her husband Tim and father Lalthlamuong Keivom, who retired as joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. “He came from humble beginnings and became a writer, composer, diplomat and humanitarian,” she says, and adds: “My mom was instrumental too in nurturing my creativity? When I was little girl she would send me off to all her friends to learn crochet, knitting and embroidery whilst my friends were out chasing boys.”

(This was commissioned but not used by Hindustan Times in February 2009)

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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