Women to Watch Jewelry Designer
WILMA’s Women to Watch Awards are presented to women making a difference in the Cape Fear area. With the honor, winners are given a special bracelet designed by a local artist.
This year, the designer, CAROLINE FISHER, is using her partnership with artisans in East Africa to create a design to celebrate the mission of “empowerment, positivity, and community.”
“This is a cool way to celebrate women who are doing amazing things here in Wilmington and in East Africa,” Fisher says. “We are excited that we get to celebrate women in this way.”
Swahili Coast Cooperative is a 100-percent worker-owned cooperative that Fisher and her husband helped start in East Africa that operates as “a marketing arm within the United States.”
Their Swahili Coast store on Front Street in Wilmington and their most recent location in Asheville sell the handcrafted goods, and their Wilmington warehouse sells the goods wholesale around the country to help grow the business.
As creative director, Fisher speaks with artisans daily via WhatsApp, sharing designs, pictures, and videos.
“In terms of construction, they are masters. They are always thrilled that folks in the U.S. are interested and appreciative of the work they do,” Fisher says. “We help them to make money for the beautiful work they do, and Americans are typically down to pay a little extra, so it helps.”
Fisher helps to create the designs based on styles that are popular in the United States. Before the pandemic, Fisher would spend a great deal of time in Africa helping create samples alongside the artisans.
“Usually, we would go three times a year. We just went in June and July. My husband and I hit it at that magical time when it seemed like COVID was waning,” Fisher says. “It was lovely to see them and work alongside people again.”
One of Fisher’s latest initiatives through Swahili Coast is selling handcrafted face masks, and for each one purchased, one is donated to someone in Tanzania.
According to their website, “Face masks are handmade by artisans in Tanzania of 100% cotton kitenge cloth, a wax print cloth traditional to East Africa.”
With the recent addition of the store in Asheville, the goal of the Swahili Coast co-op is to continue to expand its reach. That means expanding the artisans’ skill sets and what they can make and offer in order to grow.
Recently the co-op has expanded into textiles including dresses and shirts, and the artisans hired someone to teach them how to make their own cloth for their clothing lines.
Sandals, home goods such as baskets, wooden serving bowls, and spoons, as well as jewelry and totes are available in stores and online at swahilicoastdesign.com.
Most of the goods are sold in small independent boutiques that Fisher describes as “unique and want to tell the stories of our artisans.”
They have expanded to sell in certain Anthropologie locations.
“It is a collaborative process. Folks we work with choose to work with us every day. We recognize that as Americans with privilege, we are on uneven ground,” Fisher says. “Most of our artisans have just a middle-school education, so we are giving back a lot of the power to keep each other honest and even the playing field.”
Part of the Swahili Coast philosophy is that “Empowered Women, Empower Women.”
“We hope to employ more women with gainful employment,” Fisher says. “That is the biggest, most important thing that it continues to be worker-owned and artisan-led. It is not our role to tell them what they need to do. They have agency as far as what they’d like to do and how to grow.”
Each year, WILMA selects a custom bracelet that serves as the award for the Women to Watch Awards winners. The pieces, this year crafted by artisans in the Swahili Coast Cooperative, will be unveiled and presented to the winners at the October 23 awards event.
To view more of photographer Madeline Gray’s work, go to madelinegrayphoto.com.
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