August 1, 2005

Paris designer takes African crafts to the catwalk

By Rebecca Harrison

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A top Paris-based designer has
teamed up with Bushwomen from the Kalahari desert to turn the
ancient art of making jewelry from ostrich eggs into haute
couture fit for the world's best-dressed women. Mickael Kra
launched his "Pearls of the Kalahari" collection this weekend
at South African Fashion Week after toiling for three years to
help San women in Namibia and Botswana perfect centuries-old
techniques and bring his designs to life.

"Designers have been inspired by Africa for a long time,
but in Paris people still think anything made here must be low
quality," he told Reuters. "I wanted to produce a top notch
African product."

Kra's past projects include a crown for pop star Michael
Jackson fashioned on those worn by 17th century Ghanian kings,
and jewelry for top French designers like Yves Saint-Laurent,
Louis Feraud and Pierre Balmain. Born of a French mother and
Ivorian father, the tall, dreadlocked designer says he is the
only African in the elite world of Paris fashion and wants to
use his influence to promote and preserve the continent's
culture and traditions.

"I was so inspired when I saw what they did," Kra said. "It
is so beautiful but it's slave work. These women crush the eggs
with their feet then smooth them down by hand. They have skin
like cardboard."


Kra's jewelry -- to be shown on catwalks in Paris, Milan
and Berlin -- is based on the traditional designs of the San,
or Bushmen communities, who have lived for thousands of years
as hunter-gatherers in southern Africa's arid Kalahari.

A small group of specially trained San women make Kra's
necklaces, bracelets and belts by hand from material either
found in the bush -- ostrich eggs, leather, animal hair and
porcupine spikes -- or made locally, like glass beads.

Some feature complex bead work while others are made
entirely of pale scraps of ostrich eggs. All pieces are wound
around the neck, waist or wrist to avoid fasteners.

German aid worker Annette Braun, who helps San communities
market their crafts, launched the project after tiring of
selling the jewelry to souvenir shops for a pittance.

"The idea was to keep the tradition and the ancient craft,
its serene quality, but to fuse it with a cosmopolitan touch,
with Parisian flair," she told Reuters.

Kra, who has spent three years training the women to make
sure the final product meets the tough standards of Europe's
fashion elite, says distribution will remain small.

"It will remain selective," he said. "A product made from A
to Z by hand is haute couture. ... I don't want to create a
Chinese sweat shop out in the Kalahari.