Considering his poise, confidence, and immense talent, it’s easy to forget that Jameel Mohammed is still an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, up until a few weeks ago, he was living in the dorms and working toward his political science major while simultaneously running his luxury jewelry brand, Khiry. He’s recently decided to take a semester off to be in New York and focus on the developing the collection, which combines his passion for arts, culture, and politics with his love of fashion design.
“Splitting my time was much more doable before the business got off the ground!” he explains of his decision to pause his studies. It’s been a whirlwind for Mohammed ever since a chance meeting with the Barneys New York executive team lead to an internship and the launch of his jewelry line. It’s all a testament to his ingenuity, which has always lead him to reach for opportunities. Below, we get to know the rising designer and how he channels his passion for culture and politics into his designs.
The Window: Were jewelry and fashion always of interest?
Jameel Mohammed: I interned with Nicole Miller and Narcisco Rodriguez when I was in high school, and it wasn’t until I met the Barneys team that I started focusing on jewelry. The top executives at Barneys came to Penn Fashion Week my freshman year. During the question and answer session, I asked point blank how a designer gets into Barneys. Daniella [Vitale] basically said, “Well, show us what you have!” At that stage, I had a bunch of sketches and one necklace made using nylon rope. I set up the meeting with them as an informational chat to learn about retail, so I didn’t want to have a suitcase of stuff I’d sewn—I figured wearing one of my necklaces was an easier way to spark interest. It worked—Daniella loved that necklace and kept it to show the Fashion Office. They ended up offering me a summer internship in the buying department so I could cultivate my knowledge.
Why do you think the Barneys team responded to you and gave you a chance?
I think it’s multi-faceted. My approach is always that, if I feel like I’m going to regret not saying something, I have to speak up. That makes me more fearless when talking to people. When I went to Penn, I already knew I wanted to work in design, so even though I was studying political science, I kept designing so I didn’t lose it. I guess I just went for it, and they responded really well. It helped that I already had some experience in the industry—I’m 100% self-taught, so having that exposure helped give it all context. Also, my forward approach works well with a place like Barneys, since it’s part of the company’s DNA to take chances on young designers. I love that legacy of taking risks with brands, and it gave me more confidence to go for it.
So how did all this lead to you launching Khiry? How did you develop the brand ethos?
I didn’t really have a committed brand ethos when I launched, because I had only just started thinking about jewelry that summer. Of course, at first, I was like—this is a New York fairy tale! I’m going to be on the cover of Vogue by the end of the summer! But the truth was, I didn’t have a super-specific mission for the brand at the start. I went with the Wharton International Program to Japan, and we met the CEO of a large luxury conglomerate over there who said that the only true luxury brands in the world were from either Paris or Milan. In that moment, it dawned on me how limited that point of view was.
Also, at that same time, there was a lot of social and political unrest, and being a political science major, I was immersed in the current events. It was around the time of the #blacklivesmatter movement, and my friends and I were protesting a lot. I thought, if I’m going to be a designer and have some, even if small, influence over culture, I should try to use the gift I’ve been given to create new image and narratives around the black experience. The conversation on that Wharton trip made it very clear to me that there was a gap in the marketplace. I decided to focus on something impactful.
How do you draw on your own experiences and upbringing versus outside influences in forming your brand identity?
I’m realizing now that my own upbringing was quite unconventional. My parents always encouraged me to learn about art and read about politics. I did African dance classes, went to readings, and I was always steeped in black culture and taught to think of it as not subordinate in any way, but rather a rich cultural history. Coming out of high school, I considered design school, but going to Penn allowed me to think about art and politics in the context of history and explore how culture comes to be in a more global sense. Now as a designer, I draw upon those references from my childhood along with the philosophies and histories I learned at Penn. This semester, I took a class on religions of the African diaspora, and it was a huge influence on my collection.
Tell us about your creative process and how you translate references into collections.
Everything starts with hand sketches, and I’m pretty much sketching all the time. I’m always reading articles and sourcing inspiration, but I don’t put stuff on a mood board necessarily. It’s more like a constant stream of exploring and reflecting on culture, then sketching. I try to understand the links in the different things I’ve been drawn to during a specific time period.
Right after that Japan trip, I started looking at these inspiration images I had saved on my phone. One of them was a series of images of the Dinka tribe in Sudan. In their culture, cattle represent wealth and value in the community. I started to look at the cow horn and created a sketch that was of a clean line, thick-to-thin bangle. That first bangle set the tone for the Khiry aesthetic—it’s a foundational piece. I was so drawn to the tapering shape of the horns and the cultural symbolism. I added embellishments and found a way to harmonize variations on the theme.
Do you think your young age has helped or hindered you launch your label?
I think it’s been helpful. I got my internships simply by talking to people and demonstrating passion. What I’ve found consistently is that if you show that you’re more interested than your peers, people want to help. Also, everyone loves an underdog! I think in terms of my age, the only hinderance is that I’ve been forced to do a lot with fewer resources. I definitely had a naive perception of what it takes to get a label off the ground. I truly thought I’d leave that internship and my name would be on the side of the building. That naivety has been both a strength and a weakness—but ultimately, it’s pushed me from point A to B, B to C, C to D. It’s made me more creative for how we’ve marketed and produced the brand and makes for a richer picture. It has made me a stronger entrepreneur.
How do you feel as you take Khiry to the next level?
This is a huge opportunity, and I am confident that in the future, Khiry will be in a better place than it is now. I really want this brand to have values and go further with it than just having it be about me. I want to find ways to use it as a platform to help other people. Knowing what it takes to start something from zero has made me so grateful, and it’s also made me vigilant about ways I can help others to do the same.
Did you have important mentors along the way?
So many. Some have been very longitudinal, and some have been people that I shared one amazing conversation with or introduced me to someone. Khiry is the result of a huge community of people.