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Khiry Is The Jewelry Brand Driven By Purpose & Narrative

For Jameel Mohammed, a Chicago-born, NYC-based designer, creating art was never so much a choice as it was a purpose. This innate drive to create and produce things that are not only aesthetically beautiful but are also means of storytelling, of creating not just to create but because of an inextinguishable need to create, is very clearly seen in his jewelry line Khiry. Conceived in 2014, Khiry started as an accessory to a ready-to-wear collection as part of a high school project. After the initial conception, it quickly gave way to a line of jewelry that’s already caught the attention of Teen Vogue, W Mag, and a spread in this past September’s issue of Vogue. And for good reason, too. Khiry is a collection that skillfully balances unique shapes and beautiful forms embedded in complex and nuanced narratives without being overly conspicuous in its symbolism or its activism.

Check out our interview with Mohammed as he delves into his creative process, democracy in fashion, and being a young creative.

Did you always know that you were going to be an artist of some sort?

I reflected on that the other day, actually. I was talking to my mom and was trying to explain my position to my parents about my life and stuff like that and I realized that from a very young age, I can’t remember not having a creative aspiration. First, I wanted to be a comic book artist because I used to draw. Then, I wanted to be a dancer, and I did musical theatre, so there’s never been a moment where I was contemplating a job you know? Or I guess a non-creative, non-expressive job.

What was it about jewelry that made you see it as an artistic medium as opposed to an accessory to other things? Because I think often times we don’t really think of jewelry as substantial as ready-to-wear or clothing or fashion. We think of them as accessories and that’s kind of devaluing, right?

I guess I was looking at runway jewelry and the first necklace that I ever made was actually for my senior project in high school, where I made a collection of clothes and made necklaces just to go with the clothes. But I forgot the necklace, which may of been the most resolved piece out of the entire collection, in my dorm room before the show started so it didn’t go on the “runway.” So I guess to prove your point, it was an accessory to me.

My focus at that point was how can I express myself and how can I express a world view. It didn’t occur to me that there would be limits. I saw the strategic advantages, like getting into a business that was more doable than ready-to-wear (fashion). I was literally 18 or 19, in college or something like that, so I was like, “I’m just trying to tread lightly and kick around the fashion industry for a little bit.” But that was my initial thinking.

As I’ve grown, I think I understand the industry better. If you’re trying to be a fashion brand and express the amount of creative depth that a lot of fashion brands try to do, even if their majority of their sales are coming from the accessory category, having that ready-to-wear element where you can really be immersive and expressive and demonstrate to your customers what the world of that brand is, is really important. That being said, I think jewelry is good because if it’s the right jewelry, I try to keep this balance with really quality materials and shapes that suggest value and wealth with something that’s more accessible to people rather than the ready-to-wear version. People consume jewelry in a different way.

What do you mean by that?

It’s a more intimate thing, you know? Like, you can wear your jewelry with everything you wear, wardrobe-wise. Or they can be things you collect that have a significance of when you got them, where you got it, who gave it to you, all that sort of stuff. I think the resonance it has with people becomes more personal.

Right, that makes a lot of sense. I know that a lot of your jewelry pieces have a lot of depth and meaning to them. What do you think is your primary source of inspiration? And how would you say you reconcile meaning with aesthetics in your jewelry?

I’m learning more about myself as a person and realizing that a part of who I am as a designer is being a consumer of information and knowledge. I’m constantly looking at documentaries and consuming all kinds of things and being inspired by things that I encounter. Previously, I wanted an intellectual way to say, “Okay, this specific shape and form is referenced here,” and then I’ll see a shape somewhere or the beginnings of one and I think to myself, “Okay, how can I turn that into something modern?” I wanted to give people a work cited page and I could still probably do that, but now I’m much more willing to give myself the freedom to be moved by something and not come up with intellectualizing things.

I guess I didn’t give credence to that fact that the perspective was really just my own head and natural inclinations. I think before, I wanted to appeal to a more authoritative source but now I’m sort of like, this is something that inspires and interests me, and I want to do more research on things that interest me but now I don’t feel the need to produce grand theses. I develop the grand thesis from the pieces.

So how did your next collection come about?

So I was still living in Philly at that point and Shaka Zulu, the mini docuseries, came on Netflix. It’s like an eight part series so it’s really in depth and violent but we had watched it as kids. I was in a place where basically pursuing art your entire life can make your life unstable, so I was looking for a home and this was something I had nostalgia about. I watched the entire series in a day. I wasn’t like, “Oh I’ve just watched this and this is going to be my reference.” I let it just seep into my consciousness and the scenes that stuck with me are scenes of him struggling through the desert just to survive but ultimately being a formative experience for this visionary leader later in life.

Then, I was also inspired by the Tuareg, which is a nomadic tribe in Northern Africa where there’s reversed gender roles in terms of power. I was interested in that, as well as the image of people moving through the desert. In the last intervening years, I’ve been forced to think about the relationship that black people throughout the diaspora have with the places where we’ve been randomly dropped off by slave ships. Then I looked at the pieces I thought were really essential and beautiful when I was trying to edit down into a collection of things and was like, “Why is this sticking with me? Why did these come together?” The little instances that had stuck with me and what tied them together became this idea of travel and moving through the world and having an undefined relationship of where you happen to be at that time. Then coming to the conclusion that the overall narrative was global nomads–people who are placed in a random situation and have to take whatever resources are available to make the circumstances possible. I didn’t say, “Here’s this collection. It’s going to be about nomads.” I’ve given more credence to that idea of things that I’m naturally interested in and not the narrativized version of them.

I definitely commend that because I think it’s incredibly hard to sit back and let your thoughts simmer and see what comes out of it. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of discipline, especially being a young person in New York since you’re constantly pressured to produce things. How did you get there in terms of your emotional and mental growth as an artist?

In truth, I’ve had to base that patience on actual resources available. It’s been four seasons since our last collection and the jewelry has remained consistent throughout, but it’s not like I haven’t been sketching for the past two years. There has been many instances where I’ve been like “We’re gonna drop the new collection, it’s gonna be so hot,” and I’ve just had to be humbled and realize as much as things are portrayed as happening overnight, people have “overnight successes” after years and years of constantly working.

I obviously would want to have a million dollars and just be able to say, “We’re gonna do this because this is what makes sense to me now,” but in a lot ways I’ve realized that having arrived at this point, my original ideas were much more defined by my notion of what was propriety in fashion. I think by having to take things more slowly, it’s allowed me to think about what can I offer the world or what does the world really need and what can I create today.

What do you think the world needs right now and where do you think you fit into it?

I think we need legitimate conversations about things we’re too afraid to discuss. I think we have such intricate positions within society and people are so invested in their position in society that it would be a personal threat to evaluate if there could be new models for how society is organized if we were to try to have real conversations. What I have to offer is a cross section between experiences and world views. I’m not a political science PhD, but I feel like I’ve been exposed to a lot of world history but not from the perspective of, like, “Here’s what was in France during the 1700s.” The world needs more conversations, like real conversations, but the fashion industry often represents people who are not engaging in those conversations. It’s all sort of catered toward comfort and not challenge, but I think it’s possible to challenge with beauty in a way that’s ultimately moving and forces people to engage with the text of the work.

I think oftentimes beautiful things are written off as meaningless because we all think of them as aesthetic rather than substantive and these two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

They are not mutually exclusive. I think of beauty as a tool, like a language to speak.

Is fashion a democratic language then?

Fashion, I don’t think, is a democratic industry. I still see systemic issues. That’s why it feels important to me to express what’s in my head because I don’t think it’s within a lot of people’s heads and I don’t think that most of those people who have those alternative visions have the access to the resources. I’m very lucky to have access to fashion on a marginal scale so far and so it feels important to me to use that access for something important and say something that only I can say. Also, to widen the doors of access for others. Like, how can I, as a designer or a brand, start really serious and important questions in fashion and how can I empower others?

Where are you hoping to take Khiry? Do you see it expanding into other forms or mediums?

Yeah! Khiry has always been about a broader world prospective on black culture and about politics and ultimately power. That’s the underlying premise because cultural authority is a form of power and reflects those who are in power; it also allows us to propagate or criticize the current organization and structure of power. I’ve always planned to have a wider array of offering statement visions for the public. I’m not exactly sure what that’s going to mean yet but it’s going to mean something soon.

All jewelry pictured courtesy of Khiry

Stay tuned to Milk for more NYC-based artisans. 

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