Born and raised in Kenya, of Indian heritage and now living in Singapore, Chetna Bhatt’s eyes light up when you mention her home country of Africa. Inspired to bring a slice of the beautiful continent to Asia and showcase its unique, artisanal craft skills, she took to designing a label that would do just that. The result — her jewellery and lifestyle brand Ashepa — celebrates the craft and culture of Kenya, where she works directly with a small team of male and female artisans who handcraft each piece. Every design is a work of art, yet versatile and a joy to wear.
We caught up with her at The Lounge, our pop-up concept store, to hear about her journey, her passion for all things handmade and the nuances of working directly with artisans.
Tell us a bit about you and your background.
I was born in Kenya and have always had a creative bug. I pursued a career in advertising, firstly in the UK and then back in Kenya. One thing that’s always been constant is my deep passion for the wealth and craftsmanship native to my country. Throughout my travels, I’ve become fascinated with its array of tribal culture and the distinct yet soulful crafts they produce.
So, what inspired you to take the leap to start Ashepa?
The spark happened when I moved to Singapore for my husband’s work. I’m so proud to be Kenyan and everywhere I went in Singapore, I was asked by people about what my home country was like. I remember the intrigued reactions when I told them about how beautiful and happy a life it was. I came to realise that there was a lot of interest in Africa but people didn’t have a way to connect with it beyond what they saw in the media, which is not often positive news.
That’s when I made a decision to connect my home country to Asia through the medium of handcrafted jewellery; a brand that would showcase the great skills we have locally, as well as the diversity and beauty of the African culture. That’s what Ashepa is about; showing and sharing with the world the great talent that exists in Africa.
How do you go about sourcing and creating your pieces?
Our craft is the core of our business and we’re a partnership. I work directly with our artisans (who are both men and women), first providing them with drawings and sketches of jewellery or homeware pieces we’d like to create, followed by doing up samples.
All the magic happens in a tiny workshop, where I often sit together with them for hours getting things right. There are times we may have a few challenges that require some creative problem solving to produce what we want, but we always get there in the end. Anything handcrafted well takes time and patience. Only if you sit with the artisans will you know how many hours it truly takes to produce a final sample.
“All the magic happens in a tiny workshop, where I often sit together with our artisans for hours getting things right.”
You’re on opposite sides of the world — is communication a challenge?
Ah yes, the logistics can be tough as we have a five hour time difference. Most of our communication is done via phone, WhatsApp and video calls! Things were more difficult at the start. It was a cute challenge, though, as my artisans didn’t know where Singapore was, they just knew it was far away so the concept of a time difference often went out the window! I used to get calls at odd hours of the morning to confirm product designs. We have worked around that now.
Why is handmade such an important part of the Ashepa story?
So much of what we buy today in the world is mass produced. Now, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that — some things are manufactured in big quantities to fill a worldwide demand for them. But, it’s wonderful that more people are beginning to embrace things that are made by hand in small quantities and with genuine passion.
I love handcrafted jewellery because each piece is unique. Artisanal crafts are passed on from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, father to son. Each piece is the sum total of their ancestors. It carries their DNA. I feel that passion when I wear their pieces.
At Ashepa, each design carries a human story. We do everything we can to make sure that our artisans are paid well enough and have the independence they need to continue this passion for design and craftsmanship.
It’s admirable that you place so much focus on ethics and lifting them up.
Thank you. We’re not officially fair-trade certified but we practice the same values. Our artisans are paid a fair wage, which is over the local minimum wage and provides them with a higher income than what they would normally earn. We work directly with them; there are no middlemen. All materials for our jewellery are locally sourced and eco-friendly materials, too, including recycled brass and reclaimed cow-horn and bone.
For me, there was no question about being an ethical company, it was a must. If you’re good to a customer, your colleagues and your community, it’s always good for business. This guiding philosophy shapes every decision we make. For example, we make a point not to tie our artisans to exclusive contracts. We want them to be able to grow themselves as artists and as a business. It would be hypocritical to make them work exclusively with Ashepa. This isn’t about me or ego. This is about the ecosystem.
“We make a point not to tie our artisans to exclusive contracts. We want them to be able to grow themselves as artists and as a business. It would be hypocritical to make them work exclusively with Ashepa. This isn’t about me or ego. This is about the ecosystem.”
How far has your multi-cultural identity influenced your outlook?
Naturally, my heritage has informed the brand’s direction massively, as I’m born in Kenya and of Indian heritage. Cross-culture is at the crux of today’s sustainable competitive advantage. The pieces we produce and the people we have met on the way have opened my eyes, often in a nostalgic way, to what I grew up surrounded by.
So, what’s your take on the sustainable fashion movement and where it’s headed right now?
For me, fashion should be about having fun and should also celebrate peoples skills. Movements like Fashion Revolution have really highlighted how modern economies have tended to be more about profits and short term gain, rather than looking into the social cost, economic, societal and cultural cost. To me, sustainable fashion is about representing fashion in a good way, with values and integrity.
Any sustainable fashion designer needs to work on reconnecting the consumer back to the product, and show them what goes into making the piece. I also think it’s the responsibility of every one of us, including journalists, media, businessman and shoppers to feel that they can do more to raise awareness and adjust our own habits.
Name your biggest entrepreneurial challenge.
I wish I knew more about running a business and realising how much money to invest in it in the initial stages. The other challenge is that we are a very human business. There isn’t a factory or a big workshop. We work with a small artisan team and as a result, sometimes things happen in life that set us back. But that’s why I started this, so the label can give people a chance to rebuild their lives.
Finally, what keeps you driven?
Seeing the encouraging progress from my artisans back in Kenya, always. Their excitement is contagious. Each project is different, but they relish the responsibility. Seeing positive responses to the products and knowing that what we are doing is hopefully changing the way people see the art of handcrafted pieces and consumerism, matters. This is my biggest motivator, and makes me want to push the company to the next level.
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.