Meet Penn junior Jameel Mohammed (C’17), a pioneer in luxury who creates minimalist jewelry under the brand KHIRY (pronounced “cai-ree”), that carries the cultural heritage of the African diaspora. He shares with us how he manages to balance a start-up and his studies as a political science major, as well as how he devised KHIRY’s unique aesthetic. Jameel is originally from Chicago, but in the last few years he has spent most of his time on the East Coast.
How did KHIRY get started?
I started in design when I was 16 and did a couple of design internships in apparel design in New York after my senior and junior years of high school. The executive team of Barneys New York came to speak for Penn Fashion Week and I asked during a Q&A session what it would take for a designer to come to Barneys, and long story short brought a bunch of garment samples that I had sown to their office in New York to get feedback and advice on. They said, “These are great, but we’re Barneys; we don’t get home-sown samples,” and I thought, “You’re right, you don’t,” but I had made some necklaces to go with a collection of clothes I had made in high school, and they suggested I maybe go in that direction. I wanted to do something creative while I was at Penn, so that’s how KHIRY started. I’m about a year in now and this is my first fully realized collection.
Are you a team? Any collaborators?
I do all the creative direction, design and marketing and I have another team member, a sophomore in Wharton handles the business side of things: accounting, taxes, budgeting—her title is “CFO”—all that to make it a real business.
What was one of your greatest challenges when starting KHIRY?
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship that allowed me to make the collection, but it wasn’t enough for me to live in New York full time, which I needed to do in order to make the pieces, so I had to get a job. I did most of this collection over the summer, so I worked full time during the day at an internship, and at nights I worked on KHIRY. It was a definitely tough experience but I got through it because it’s really important to me.
How do you combine designing jewelry and studying at Penn?
It is really tough but not because of the functional reasons—that’s pretty easy because, once you finished design. It’s more sending emails, pursuing press and all that, so that’s doable while you’re in school. To me, the hardest part is staying motivated about Penn just because this summer my life was pursuing my passion, my dream, and then I came back and it was just classes.
The mission is to find inspiration for luxury goods in the African diaspora; the luxury market is focused on Europe as the sole point of inspiration and I think that there are more alternatives to what beauty can be and what luxury can mean. The focus aesthetically is to take silhouettes and find ways to embellish them in different ways. The silhouette that I’m working with now is called the “Khartoum silhouette”, inspired by the horns of cattle herded by the Dinka people of Sudan. I do a leather wrapping technique, I stud it with little balls of quartz, tiger’s eye… So that was one of the key inspirations for SS16 and then, more globally, for the collection it goes back to the mission of the line: throughout history there have been these European symbols and silhouettes that have been passed down and innovated on, so I wanted to see if you take traditional African cultural elements in 2015 what they would look like, and that’s how I came up with the idea of doing little mask charms and pendants; it’s to take that very identifiable cultural heritage and to make it into a very identifiable luxury statement. Khartoum is one side of the collection and then this symbolic formalism is the other side of it.
Are other types of art, for example music and film, involved in your creative process?
Definitely. When I look at creating a collection I also think about what the mood of it is, and how that mood is a part of the look book shoot that I’ll do, or other things that I’ll communicate with the brand. For example, on my website I have a playlist of songs that I listened to while I was working on the collection. This season I was also inspired by the film Touki Bouki, which is a film by the Senegalese director Djibril Mambety. I didn’t take any specific silhouettes or visually identifiable pieces from it, but just the way that it was shot felt like 60s sort of new wave but also luxurious and amazing. I had studied French new wave cinema and that was such an identifiable part of my inspiration as a designer for a long time that it was a revelation to see this really different but also familiar aesthetic theme in an African context, I thought that was incredible. That helps guide the vision of what I want the line to be moving forward.
Who would you most like to seen wearing your jewelry ?
The KHIRY woman is interested in challenging her beliefs about the world but she’s also very steadfast. She’s strong, interested in different perspectives, in newness; she turns to fashion as a way to herself but it’s not the totality of who she is as a person. She’s educated, globally minded, politically conscientious and she’s beautiful [Laughs]. My ideal icons would probably be Solange; I would love to see her wearing my pieces. And Lupita Nyong’o, I think, would be amazing.
Is there a jewelry designer who inspires you?
I try to do things that are different and the entire time I was making the collection I was worried because, having looked at the jewelry market for a while now I know that nothing looks like what I’m doing. So I was wondering “is that going to be an asset or is that going to be a detriment?” So no, I don’t think that there’s anyone that’s directly influential in terms of my aesthetic but, as I grew as a designer, I’ve learned a lot about jewelry, luxury goods and marketing by looking at other designers. Jennifer Fisher, for example, does a lot of plates–the jewelry that I make is “costume” or “fashion” jewelry , it isn’t solid gold, it’s platted—so I’ve learned about quality by touching her pieces and feeling this is what the weight of a bracelet should be and how it should be balanced a certain way. I also love jewelry by Balenciaga: clean lines and classic silhouettes. Designers who have been influential are Jennifer Fisher and maybe even Pamela Love but it’s not about an identifiable visual sort of connection between them and me but more about, “This is what a really beautiful product looks like.”
What’s your vision for the future of KHIRY?
The plan is to start with jewelry and to do that for a while, fashion to begin with, and eventually move into some finer pieces of solid gold just because as a designer you want to work with the best materials. And then, within a few years, I’m hopefully going to do bags, eyewear, shoes, and clothes. Ultimately, I want to have a truly global brand that for me is a platform to say something about beauty and the world. In the same way that Dolce & Gabbana celebrate a very specific Italian heritage and hyperbolize it, I want to do that with the different cultures of the African diaspora, and have a luxury brand that is top to bottom–shoes, clothes, jewelry, eyewear, home goods, the whole nine—but the one that operates as a celebration of culture that is maybe underrepresented.
Where can our readers buy your pieces?
For now, everything is made to order. The best way is to reach out via our email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you check out the pieces and my inspiration on Instagram at KHIRY.Collection.
Images courtesy of Owain West