There is something very unique about Amanda, the founder and designer behind Baolyfe, a new ethical brand creating jewelry and accessories from recycled and natural materials by Kenyan artisans. Amanda started from the very beginning, learning to work with delicate materials to craft beautiful and one of a kind pieces. When she found herself in Kenya, meeting various local craftsmen, Amanda was inspired to start her own venture working with these skilled and under appreciated artisans; hence the birth of Baolyfe. Named after the infamous Baobab tree, commonly known as the tree of life, Bao was built on creating positive and lasting relationships with artisans while honoring the art of making by hand. Baolyfe’s heirloom quality, statement pieces are crafted in Kenya then assembled in Toronto, Canada.
Baolyfe has just launched online and the products are not only stunning, the community this brand has built is what truly brings out the beauty in every piece. My favorite: the Masai Cuff.
See below for a Q & A with the wonderful Amanda, founder and designed at Baolyfe.
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It seems like Baolyfe kind of began in Italy! Tell us about your experience taking up an apprenticeship-type course at a leather school in Florence.
Yes, absolutely, BaoLyfe was born in Italy. I had considered a few different leather bag making courses but all of them were held in a 2 hour class once or twice a week. Scuola del Cuoio offered a 5 day a week, 10am to 5pm course. It was exciting working out of an old monastery behind such a beautiful cathedral. It was intimidating when all of us students found out the entire course was in Italian but what an opportunity!
It was exciting meeting all of my fellow classmates, there were students from all over the world, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Spain, Denmark, Peru, Canada and of course, Italy. It was beautifully structured and taught by a Japanese maestro, Mao, who specialized in horse saddle making. It was amazing how many of us came together – some of us could not speak English or Italian, but as the course went on, we all began to grasp Italian, which allowed us all to communicate.
We began by making very simple items such as sunglass cases, and passport holders. There’s an art to creating clean edges, and stitching in a straight line. We all battled with the sewing machines, because, unlike stitching fabric, leather is unforgiving of errors, once that sewing needle has punctured the leather, the hole will be there forever.
We then graduated onto different versions of bags, which taught us a lot about patterns and pattern drafting, converting something that is 2 dimensional to 3 dimensional. Which finally led to creating our own designs, patterns and bags.
It was wonderful working in such a well equipped studio, surrounded by so much knowledge, experience, and great people. I ended up meeting some of my best friends in the course, as well as learning a new skill and finding a new life direction and purpose.
When you first went to visit your classmate in Kenya, was the idea of Baolyfe already sparked or did it happen organically as you began to create strong relationships with artisans?
When I first went to see Ruth, my classmate from Scuola del Cuoio, I had no idea what I was getting into. Haha! I am definitely the type of person who flies by the seat of my pants. I really didn’t have a clear direction that I wanted to go in.
I think that’s the beauty of life, it will give you hints and clues, and if you can be open to follow those nudges, life can take you on an adventure.
BaoLyfe began to take shape when Ruth introduced me to a number of skilled crafts-people in Kenya. As I began to work with different artisans, I saw how beneficial it is for people to earn their own money with their own hands. It gives people freedom to choose their life’s paths and empowers them to make their lives, and their families’ lives better too. I realized that together we could create beautiful, quality, handcrafted accessories and we could all make a living creating together.
What inspires your designs?
I have always been obsessed with interior design magazines. One of my favorites is the French Elle Decor magazine. It’s always so fresh, with bold colors and wild ideas. I love looking at how the shapes relate to each other, in combination of textures and what a room feels like. I am inspired by how a room, or an accessory can make you feel.
I love combining styles as well. I find that combining really great ideas from different places, creates the best of all worlds.
It is important to learn about the history and importance of an object or style. It takes the experience of that style to a whole other level that would be otherwise inaccessible. Its ultimately about sharing stories and history, connecting us to one another.
The resourcefulness of Kenyans inspires me too, the way that things are repurposed and given a new life, is definitely something we North Americans can learn from. Often times Kenyan artisans take something that in North America would be deemed ‘useless’ and make it into a new item entirely, creating something from nothing. It’s very inspiring and opens up a ton of possibilities for something entirely new.
Have you found it challenging for your network of artisans to help with crafting your pieces based on your designs?
There has certainly been a process of learning how to work with each other. Everyone is different and has their own way of expressing themselves, and ways of working, including myself.
Part of the fun was finding a way to clearly communicate ideas to each other so that we are all on the same page. For example, Jared, the cow bone and horn carver, loves making things that he has never seen in the market before, he gets really fired up about it, and it pushes me to come up with new ideas, so that we can both feel passionate about what we are making. Or with Jane, the woman who weaves all of the beaded strips. She works very independently and has an amazing sense of color and pattern. She creates her own patterns and color combinations, and in that case, I want to find a way to honor that gift and give it a platform by designing and making a leather strap or wristlet that her work can be featured on. Collaboration is key.
A challenge I think myself and all the artisans have to contend with, is the importing of goods made in China, and second hand clothing from North America and Europe. It affects the way business is done in Kenya, by forcing craftspeople to work quickly, sometimes at the cost of quality, in order to keep up, or to be able to compete with the low prices and volume of these imported items. It has taken effort on my part, and the artisans part, to start to work differently, knowing that it is ok to take the time to make something once, slowly and well.
I think that we are all working to reframe what handcrafted is, especially coming from Africa. The common misconception is that all handcrafted items are rough, unfinished, and ‘crafty’, which is commonly undervalued. When in reality, Kenya, and other countries in Africa, are making some phenomenal, high quality, handcrafted items.
What recycled and natural materials are you using to craft your pieces?
Nearly all the materials used in BaoLyfe accessories are natural or recycled. In the jewelry, we use recycled brass, which is keys, taps, locks, and so on, that are collected, and melted down, and finally recanted into a new object.
We use cow bone and horn, which is a by product of the beef industry in Kenya. It is also a material that has been used by humans for thousands of years for adornment.
On the Maasai cuffs, Grace cuts up old plastic buckets to use as spacers in between the columns of glass beads.
We use glass Krobo beads from Ghana, which are recycled glass bottles that are ground down into a powder and recast into a bead, which is then hand painted.
On the sunglass cases we use indigo and bogolan (bogolanfini), or mud cloth. Both of which are made in Mali, handwoven from cotton, which is then dyed with either, fermented mud, for the bogolan, or dipped in the natural indigo dye, 15 to 27 times.
On many of the tassels, there are ceramic beads made by a company called Kazuri. They employ single mothers, who hand form the beads from clay and then hand paint each one. Each bead is like a signature from the maker, because no 2 beads could possibly be the same.
All the leather handbags are made from secondhand leather jackets, which ends up being a lot of fun to figure out how to cut the pattern out of the jacket to reduce the amount of waste while making a really rad bag. The best part is, that every bag made from the jackets is one of a kind.
The handles on the totes are made from vegetable tanned leather. The tote bags are made from Kenyan cotton canvas, an industry that has vastly decreased due to imported clothing and fabrics.
It was very important to me that everything be of natural or recycled materials. I certainly feel that we as creators owe that to the planet that supports and supplies materials for our craft.
As you launch Baolyfe online, what is the one thing you are looking forward to the most?
I am excited to connect with more people! It seems that the internet really connects us all without the limitations of time or distance. I also cannot wait to introduce the BaoLyfe followers to all of the artisans- there is a page dedicated to them and who they are. I think its important to know who made your accessories. I guess that’s 2 things… 🙂
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I am a social entrepreneur. That means I use business as a catalyst for social goodness. I am deeply passionate about sustainable travel, zero waste living, ethical fashion and social good. I currently run North India's first zero waste guesthouse, Hara House, and am the Content Director at Causeartist.