Erika Freund is the creator and founder of Mikuti Jewelry. The beauty of the Swahili Coast and the magnificent landscapes of East Africa inspired Freund. After a series of serendipitous occasions, when she visited, Freund saw potential in the natural resource of the Banana Tree. The Banana Tree inspired her company and the original Mikuti Bangle emerged.
Freund decided to bring home Banana Tree for fun and wear the bracelets she had made for fun. At the time, she was living in New York, as a graduate student at New York University and people frequently stopped her on the subway and in boutiques, asking her where she got her beautiful and unique bracelets. Freund was always a lover of fashion, design and traveling. She began to realize there were endless amounts of possibilities and potential that lay in front of her so she decided to start Mikuti. Freund was able to “merge the worlds she loves, turning her ideas into an employment generating, social enterprise.” Freund helps the people who inspired her company by making the local affiliates share in the profits of the company and receive fair wages for their efforts and contributions.
Arizona Foothills Magazine: Tell us about your Mikuti bracelet collection. Is there a special connection you have?
I like to believe that Mikuti found me and has been taking me on an adventure since we met. The initial idea of Mikuti started about two years ago, after a small group of people in Tanzania and myself came up with the concept of making a simple bangle bracelet out of banana bark. The bark was a free, sustainable resource so it made sense. Fast forward two years later and I sometimes can’t believe how far we’ve come. It’s really allowed me to combine the things I’m passionate about: traveling, people, cultures, economic development, entrepreneurship and fashion. The collection itself represents all the things I find beautiful in East Africa, such as the vast rows of banana trees and the lush landscapes. Also, I love the colors. The vibrancy of colors in everything around East Africa is one of my favorite things.
AFM: What does the name of your jewelry collection mean?
Mikuti means “Dried Leaf” in Kiswahili. It was a play off of the banana bark and I liked the way the word looked. The banana tree is one of the most widely used resources in East Africa. The trees grow in abundance and almost every part has potential use. Common uses are animal feed, furniture, agriculture composting, shoe polish, cooking and, of course, eating. The material is easily accessible to our local partners and there is minimum environmental impact. This is why I choose to name my company after it.
AFM: Of the places you’ve gone, how did you play that into your collection?
There is so much beauty in East Africa and I’m always incredibly stimulated when I’m trekking around there. Whether it’s buying fruit at the local market, walking the long paths through some of the back villages I do work in, shopping for fabric, navigating Nairobi or traveling to Zanzibar and gazing at the incredible Indian Ocean, it’s all gorgeous to me. I wanted to capture that and make it wearable for the female who is walking around Manhattan in stilettos. I read a phrase not that long ago that I’ve somewhat adopted while trying to find inspiration in East Africa, ‘Swahili Chic ’; it’s my go-to motto.
AFM: Looking at your collection, your bracelets are very colorful and tribal. Where and how did you get ideas?
I owe it all to the Maasai women. I’m so inspired by them and I have a slight obsession with the Maasai tradition. I think it’s because they’re semi-nomadic and I have a hard time staying in one place as well.
The last trip I went on to East Africa, I was back and forth between Kenya and Tanzania quite a bit. Walking across the border is something I never get tired of and while you’re walking across the border, there are many Maasai women trying to sell you their jewelry. I loved watching them and how they wore their jewelry. They were always covered in beads, with lots and lots of color. They often had many bracelets on their wrists, necklaces layered and multiple earrings. It’s just another version of statement jewelry in way. I also loved looking at the color patterns and what colors they would pair together.
AFM: What new directions do you hope to move in the future? Do you have big plans, new ideas or designs you will be exploring soon?
I have all of the above: Big plans, tons of new directions, ideas and designs. All consisting of new materials to work with and possibly doing work in some of the other countries in the region, which I’m incredibly excited about. Also, I am excited about seeking new inspiration, that is a really fun part of this. But right now, I am thrilled about our Spring/Summer 2012 line, which I just finished working on. I’m so pleased with it and cannot wait for people to see it!
AFM: Who or what inspired you to create this line?
I want someone to look at the line and see a variety of elements that represent all the beautiful things in East Africa. Color and fabric were at the forefront of this line. The fabric was a really important element for me to incorporate because the local textiles are something I love. The fabric is also an important part of the culture and personal style there.
AFM: What keeps you inspired or motivated? Why and how?
I’ve fallen in love with Mikuti, like you do when you’re 16 and feel all giddy for the first time. I’ve made a very strong commitment to seeing the success of Mikuti through and to the individuals I work with in Tanzania and Kenya. I’m motivated by the partnerships I’ve formed, by seeing the local impact, by the people I get to meet and work with through this venture. The experiences have been priceless and it’s expanded my world beyond my imagination. I also really appreciate the challenges that it has brought me, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m better for it. The most important thing though, is how happy it makes me. I feel really lucky and have an enormous amount of gratitude for the opportunities it has given me.
AFM: What’s your personal favorite piece of jewelry? Is it’s yours or someone else’s?
Aside from the first banana bark bracelet ever made (which I still have and wear often), my favorite piece of jewelry was a gift given to me by my uncle. It’s a charm bracelet that has a coin from every country I’ve ever visited. It’s a constant reminder of what I love, which is exploring the world and the people in it. It carries a lot of memories and is very important to me. It’s actually getting quite full, which is a good thing.
AFM: Have you always been interested in jewelry?
I’ve always been interested in style and fashion. I didn’t really know how interested in jewelry I was until I started designing it and learning more about it and the creative process. I think the primary reason I decided I liked jewelry so much is because it accents people’s individual style, which is a cool thing to be a part of.
AFM: How would you describe the general aesthetic of Mikuti Aluminum Bracelets?
I would say they’re like a really pretty, delicate girl, who is slightly rough around the edges. I say this because they are gorgeous, and the colors are too – but because they’re hand made from recycled material there is always going to be a slight imperfection with each. But they’re also each engraved with the Mikuti logo, which gives them a polished finishing. I like to say their imperfections make them perfect.