Written By:

Ten loves Isu Collections, the clever, conscious jewellery brand inspired by the traditional craftsmanship of African beading. The brand has just landed in Australia, with a mission to empower the women who make the jewellery and those who wear it. Isu’s epic beaded chokers, necklaces and anklets are created by a team of women across the South African Valley of a Thousand Hills and Kwa-Zulu-Natal regions, using Zulu (meaning Method) craftsmanship. The brand runs as a social enterprise project, with all net profits being put back into the communities to create more work for women. We spoke to Isu about Zulu craftsmanship and the sustainability factor:

When was the idea for Isu born?

"The idea of Isu was born 5 years ago. Having grown up in Kwa-Zulu Natal South Africa, I have been exposed to Zulu beadwork for as long as I can remember. It has always fascinated me and it has astounded me that the most beautiful, intricate pieces can be created by such tiny beads and a string of cotton. When I completed my studies in South Africa, I moved to London where I would wear simple beaded pieces gifted to me by special women in my life and received many compliments on the craftsmanship. This is when we came up with the concept to create a collection with women beaders and bring the work overseas to an international audience to support and appreciate. Alongside the collection itself, our focus was to document the process and the women’s stories who create them. Isu started as a passion project, involving pop-ups for our friends and social network to celebrate the beading ladies' work each season. Slowly but surely, Isu has turned into a growing Social Enterprise, which provides beading work to approximately 9 local women each season."

Why was it important for these pieces to be created by women?

"Beading is predominantly led by women in South Africa and being women ourselves and wanting to empower others, we deemed it important to nurture their craft and respectfully celebrate their skills. It is a privilege to empower these women to work from home, earn money doing what they love doing and continue the artform they have been taught by their elders - an incredible skill transcending generations! We also want to encourage the continuation of teaching the skill to other women wherever possible, being an artform which is unfortunately not taught to young women as much as it once was. Beading gives women the opportunity to be able to independently earn an income by being creative, doing something they love doing and are amazingly skilled at."

Tell us about the communities in which the pieces are being made.

"Most of our team are based in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and traditional villages within and surrounding it. This region is famous for its incredible history and being a hub for creativity and traditional craft. The landscape of Valley of a Thousand Hills is so spectacular, commanding views of the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean."

What inspires the designs?

"Isu’s designs are inspired by South African landscapes and flora, as well as Suburbia in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. The design process is a collaboration with the team and each piece that is bought by a client is signed by the women who created it. We provide the team with design guidelines and specs with an openness for them to combine stitches and weaves which they know well or want to try. We also provide colourway guidelines for the team to use, as the colour ways we work with are not traditional Zulu combinations. The nature of the work is that not all beads are available to the team all time and we remain flexible on this, as it is important for our teams to be able to use materials which are readily available to them. This means that a piece ordered may end up with variations or a different colour - we love and celebrate this aspect of the project!"

Tell us about Zulu craftsmanship!

"The reason we have drawn inspiration from this artform is really to nurture the existing skills of women beaders in our hometown, who have been taught these weaves and stitches by their elders and empower them to earn an income in doing so. Zulu beadwork dates back centuries as a powerful means of symbolic adornment and a way to communicate amongst tribes and communities. Although we use some traditional stitches within our collections at Isu, we work with the team on pieces that are suitable for a modern audience, using a combination of traditional beading techniques, contemporary elements, current colour combinations and non-traditional simple strings of beads for stacking pieces. 

Is sustainability an important factor?

Isu operates as a predominantly made-to-order Social Enterprise, where an order gets assigned to one of our teams to make and sent straight to the client. We sit on a small stock holding in Australia to avoid shipping across the world for our Australian clients and we keep the stock holding light, remaining conscious that we do not waste hours of work put in by our team. If we are left with pieces, which have not sold throughout a few seasons, they are given back to the team to reuse the beads or sell within their communities. In terms of the actual materials, we are proud to only work with glass beads and cotton string, purchased locally. We do not import clasps and components from other countries, as it is important for us to keep business as local as possible. In terms of packaging, our team now makes bags out of fabric they have at home, which is a great opportunity to pay them for packaging as opposed to another supplier.

What has been the most rewarding part of Isu so far?

"The most rewarding part of Isu has been the impact it has made on our team. Our clients’ support each season allows us to give more women work and increase orders, which means the women beaders independently earn more money for themselves and their families. The deep connections and respect between our Isu community continues to grow and strengthen as time goes on."

Who would you love to see wearing Isu?

"We would love to see Sho Madjozi in Isu. Sho Madjozi an African Rapper from Limpopo originally, who embodies women empowerment. Her story is inspirational, she’s insanely talented and has a playful, vibrant personal style. She would look so amazing decked in Isu beadwork - what an honour it would be!"

What is on the Isu playlist?

"Miriam Makeba - Pata Pata. This song reminds us of growing up in vibrant, multicultural South Africa in the 90s, after democracy was called and Nelson Mandela led the nation. She was such a spectacular artist and civil rights activist, with a voice so very powerful and simply other worldly."

What’s next for Isu?

"Our plan for Isu is to continue to grow the team and provide more work for each beader. The end goal is to have a larger team who are skilled in various crafts in fashion & interiors. It is our dream to create a platform for African women artisans' work to be discovered and supported internationally!"