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Art Comes First talks Community, Connection and Impact

Without the community, it’s like you don’t exist. Obviously, there is strength in numbers, and connecting with them helps us and encourages us...
Sissi: Can you speak to why is community so important to you? Why is it so embedded in your brand DNA?

Shaka Maidoh: Without the community, it’s like you don’t exist. My upbringing just knowing fully well is the whole theme around the global village. In a village, you have a doctor, and you have a carpenter, and you have a postman. So every element is what contributes to the village and what makes the village functional and grow as a community.

So ACF when we first started, we pretty much thought we were alone, just because some of the approaches we had at that time weren’t very common. However, there were people all over the globe who also felt alone but had similar visions as we did. Through the power of the internet and our travels, we have been able to connect with these people. Obviously, there is strength in numbers, and connecting with them helps us and encourages us to continue pushing the craft forward

Sissi Johnson: Can you further speak about how you engage with local artisans and suppliers when you produce your collections abroad? What is that engagement like and how do you guys work together?

Sam Lambert: It’s quite an interesting one because I often, when I travel to a country, I make sure I frequent the local market. If you look at places such as Latin America or Africa, most of the artisans are at the local market. That’s actually where you learn about the craftsmanship of the country or the region.

So we tend to do huge research in terms of what kind of product that country makes great and how we can edify and bring it to our work. So using the abilities of their skills, and us being able to bring our touch in the design to create something new, is another part of “the alchemist”: mixing both ends.

I think we learn so much from working that way that it became almost a thing we wanted to do every collection. I remember the first time we ended up going to Dakar, seeing how every Senegalese man had beautiful rings they were wearing, and the contrast with their skin, and how the design was so particular to that region.

We then went to the market, met a couple of silversmiths to understand how they work, and how we can bring our design into it. It’s a beautiful learning process!

Again, that’s where we apply one of our mottos: “Traditions are meant to be kept, rules are meant to be broken”. So we kept their tradition of how they make those things but we break the rules by bringing innovation into it.

Often they look at us like “you guys are fools” – and then, once the product is being made by themselves, and it’s beautiful to see how things have developed, they say “Wow, I never thought about it this way”.

I think that’s where you also sharpen their skills. Showing that you are also capable of doing so many things but you are so caught up in doing only one work routine, because this is what tradition told you. But we come into power, you break the rules and you can keep the tradition.

Sissi Johnson: So you kind of introduce them to different ways of doing their work?

Sam Lambert: Yes, we introduce them to different ways of doing their work, but by using the best of their skills. Because these are people who have been doing this for decades, and they are more skillful than anyone else doing their jobs.

But I think the design process is never part of their world, they just want to make things as good as they can make it. But when someone else comes with a design like “instead of stripes, let’s do checks and dots”, they say “but we’ve never done this before!”

That’s when you break rules and it becomes a win-win situation. For us, if it’s not a win-win situation, we are never interested. Now he has the chance to say “whenever that next customer comes, who might come up with some crazy ideas, I’m not gonna push it away. I have already learned to work with someone who can break the rules”.

Sissi Johnson: You mentioned Senegal quite a lot. So for the jewelry side of your brand and your collection, this is where your jewelry is made?

Sam Lambert: that’s one of the points where our jewelry is made. For us, metalsmith is huge for our brand. We started with silver for the buttons we use for our garments, the key fobs, we make sure there is a representation of the metalsmith in our work.

It shows the alchemy part, the strength of building the armor, but also the tooling, the accessorizing. Senegal was actually one of the first countries we went to to make our jewelry. Our first inspiration of wearing rings actually came from Senegalese men, I see often in Europe. I was so interested when looking at the different types of jewelry they were wearing.

Then I came to find out it was part of the Tuareg culture, which has so much in common with the metalsmith world. So we went to Senegal to discover that, and to actually be able to work with the silversmith and to mix both worlds.

I think it was beautiful, because we didn’t go there just to say “we were just going to try”. We went there saying “we are going to do a collection here”.

We were lucky enough to find the family of a dad, uncle, and a son, where the father actually used to make ethnic jewelry for Louvre, and moved back to Senegal. So when we came with all these different shapes and ideas, he was like “Yes, I love a challenge, this is what I have been waiting for!”.

Once we started working together, we realized if he actually used to make all these pieces here in Europe, we can’t pay him the local fee. We paid him as we would any manufacturer in Italy or Portugal. By working with them, we also discovered that every time we travel to a different country, if they do silversmith, let’s also make a connection with them.

So same thing when we went to Bali: we were traveling, they showed us a silversmith. We also found a family who worked with silver, we made a collection there. The same thing when we went to Mexico. We always try to do it in places where we find a strong silversmith culture, but it started in Senegal. We still do it in Senegal, Bali, and Mexico.

Shaka Maidoh: Every time we travel, we look at places and what they’re very good at. It is important to us to bring business and work with the locals. Not just being in business, but bring a design perspective and challenge them to inform our design. The reason I said Mexico, is because they are very good with silver and leather. So we have been to Mexico 3, 4, 5 times and researched. We found a silversmith in León who we work very closely with to develop some of our ring collection.

Sissi Johnson: You’ve been engaging with your community during this pandemic specifically “No music no life”, the [live] series you started on Instagram as a way to nurture your community during these times.

Shaka Maidoh: During the pandemic we noticed that obviously, we weren’t traveling, we weren’t out there, we weren’t doing the pop-up. We wanted people to still see the journey and what the brand stands for, so we did “No Music No Life.” Obviously, we spoke about how music and audio is very important to the brand’s DNA, and we also have a working relationship with a lot of these artists. But it was really more to uplift the community. It’s that emotional connection that we managed to establish in a pandemic.

Of course we listen to music, but what is the artist behind this music doing during the pandemic? What inspires them? And even from our side, we also wanted to reach out to let people know that regardless of the pandemic, we are still working on a collection.

So it was more of a conversation, but also more of a movement so the community can realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sissi Johnson: Can you speak further about how the Art Comes First global community, or “global village” as you call it has expanded, or evolved during the past 10 years?

Shaka Maidoh: When we started, the people that were really into Art Comes First were pretty much our age mates, and people more around creative industries. Over 10 years, it’s expanded in such a beautiful way because people, younger generations still have a connection to the brand, but not just younger generations.

People of different professions like doctors, lawyers, women. It’s that emotional connection that we have managed to establish within the brand that people relate to. So regardless of what their field is, regardless of what their background is, there is always something they can take from the brand.

So it’s grown on a digital scale, but also when we go to pop-ups, we’ve met people, they get to see us and realize there’s people behind the brand. They get to understand the deeper meaning of why we do this. It’s grown on so many different levels outside of fashion, which makes it really inspiring.

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Art Comes First: Exploring the Intersection of Style and Identity

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