Through the groovy cool interior there’s a bar to my left and on the right tucked away in a cubby is a treasure trove of Penny Winter’s jewellery. Her latest home ware collection – of driftwood hearts encrusted in semi precious stones, carved horn bowls and salad servers embedded with brass enclosed gems, sits amongst iridescent minerals to wear. I’ve just walked through the bustle of Village Market shopping centre in Nairobi’s Gigiri to get here and it’s an oasis of calm.
This bijou in Nairobi’s Tribe hotel is the latest addition to Penny Winter’s expanding business which she set up in Kenya about ten years ago. Her vision to turn raw African materials into beautiful pieces of art for the international market began in a small tin roofed studio in Karen, from where she still works with her dedicated team of young Kenyans.
We sit under shade netting and blue gum eucalyptus trees, drinking tea as she shows me her latest humorous necklaces of brightly coloured birds sitting on a wire and fruits she’s sourced from a street seller who carves little animals out of wood. She employs a significant number of women and fashion interns in a tight knit team to whom she imparts work and life skills that improve efficiency, quality, time management, costing and budgeting.
“Fashion is ruthlessly dynamic, you have to keep on your toes, constantly re-inventing yourself.”
Whilst her designs have had international acclaim and she’s been able to open up markets as far afield as America, Dubai and Monaco, her products remain essentially African in origin. She sources her raw materials locally with minimal amounts imported,
“keeping it original and relevant”.
Penny Winter insists that quality of design, materials and workmanship is paramount. She doesn’t want you to buy a piece out of obligation to buy local but because you are enticed by its exquisiteness and you make a connection with its terrain.
From her rugged shack, she designs using re-cycled brass, stone off-cuts and Ankole cow horn that are a by-product of husbandry. Thus has she managed to bridge the gap between grassroots basic materials and high end fashion retail that has commanded attention from celebrities.
A recent collaboration with UK based Tusk Trust whose patrons are UK’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, will see a percentage of her proceeds going to poverty alleviation and wildlife conservation in Africa. You have to earn this accolade she tells me.
“It means you’ve been endorsed for your quality, calibre, consistency and ethos”.
A Christmas charity event at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that was attended by the rich and famous in Europe also boosted business and put Kenya on the fashion map.
There is something deeply enchanting, the feral just a little bit tamed, about a hippo carved in palm wood, fish fashioned from washed wood, both studded with minerals mined from the earth. Something African and ancient. Smoky quartz, fiery ruby, spirited labrodorite, mysterious lapis lazuli and calm jade deflect light this way and that. There are viking cups for bathrooms and dressing tables, candle and napkin holders. Her designs reveal their origins, heritage and her passions.
She leaves most of the stones rough and uncut and if you like her style of rustic and fine textures sitting together, then her jewellery pieces are like talismans holding magical powers and meanings beyond what crystal healers say stones do for you.