It was 2014 when Sapna Shah, a New York City–based handbag designer, took a call with two women located halfway across the globe: Philippa Thorne, a Central Saint Martins alum, and Zinhle Vilakati, a master weaver in the traditional Swazi style. Sapna was introduced to the Swaziland-based pair via Nest, a nongovernmental organization that supports women’s labor and the craft economy across the globe. Each member of the far-flung trio was a veteran in their respective field—Sapna at luxury powerhouses like Calvin Klein and Rag & Bone, Philippa in Swaziland’s handcraft and artisan-ware industry, and Zinhle in a centuries-old weaving tradition that uses the sustainably harvested, mountain-grown lutindzi grass to create ropes and small home goods like baskets and rugs. Their perfect mix of skills would eventually become Khokho, a line of luxury handbags newly launched at Barneys.
Philippa and Zinhle—having collaborated in their home country for many years—had a vision of elevating the weaving of the crafters that they work with in Swaziland and of creating a luxury handbag that could hold its own in the international marketplace while showcasing the beauty of the ancient craft. Sapna wanted to contribute her handbag-design expertise to a smaller and more craft-oriented project. “One Skype call,” she says, “and I was on a plane a month later. It was one of those serendipitous moments of worlds colliding.”
Sapna landed in Swaziland, and the trio set about designing the bags. “We started from scratch completely,” she says. “We wanted to stay true to the traditional techniques and not change the integrity of the weaving.” “The challenge,” says Philippa, “was making that tradition relevant in today’s market and creating an income-generating business for artisans.” Leather components were added to give the bags “relevance and a new life,” says Philippa, in addition to “empowering artisans with new skill sets.” The bags are designed to showcase the intricate beauty of the weaving, and are also inspired by the breathtaking Swazi landscape—particularly “the color of the sky, the texture of the trees, the mountains,” says Sapna. “It’s just endless in terms of color.”
The power of the matriarchy runs deep in the brand’s ethos—the word khokho means “great-grandmother” in the national tongue of siSwati. The three founders all had special relationships with their elder female relatives. Philippa’s bohemian grandmother was “very eccentric and original. She used to wear pink turbans and loads of beads.” Zinhle inherited her masterful weaving skills from her mother, and Sapna’s great-grandfather had been in the textile business in Gujarat, India, and her grandmother’s sari collection gave her an appreciation for the beauty of handwork. “She said, ‘You’re like me,’” recalls Sapna of her grandmother. “‘You always want to look at the most unique pieces.’”
In day-to-day practice, Khokho also strives to create employment for local women. Upon finalizing the product line, they put out a call for weavers at the local inkhundla (a “rural constituency,” explains Zinhle), and soon a group of 12 women formed their own business entity, called Buhle BaKhokho (“the Beauty of the Great-Grandmothers”) to create the woven panels that are integral to the bags. Initially operating as an association, the weavers soon achieved cooperative status, a nationally recognized business designation that allows members to pool resources and further engenders financial independence and the creation of new jobs.
The weaver tasked with setting up the co-op’s finances proudly recounted to Philippa “how tall she felt” walking into the bank and opening an account for the first time in her life. The co-op has already purchased farmland, loaned money to launch a catering business, and donated to the local care point (a homestead that feeds and sometimes houses orphans and vulnerable children). “One of their visions was to give back to their community,” says Philippa, “so the fact that they’re already able to do that gives us a lot of pride in the work that we do.”