Glitter Trotter: Vicki, welcome! Happy to meet you in person. Tell me, do you remember the first piece of jewelry you ever made?
Vicki Maimba: I do! It was a small piece I made of a children’s bead set. I got the set as a Christmas present and found it fascinating. So, I just started fumbling around with it. These early experiments grew into a hobby; and by the time I was at school, I already had a small enterprise selling beaded bracelets to my classmates.
VM: Thank you! Yes, that first gift inspired me in a very profound way and sparked my passion for making jewelry; and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Even as an adult -- before I decided to turn jewelry-making into a business – I would always make jewelry and play with beads to find relief from my daily stress. Sometimes, I would even think about an outfit for a specific event and a piece of jewelry to go with it; and then I would be like, “Why don’t I just make it?!” But until about 2-3 years ago, I never thought of jewelry-making as a business; it was a hobby, nothing more.
GT: So, what made you turn this hobby into a company?
VM: I think my mom had some influence on me. She opened her jewelry brand Shanga na Kanga in 2013, when I was still in high school. She makes chunky African jewelry with gemstones and beads. I would always help her: take photos of the products, create some new designs, assist with sales at local fairs. I am still helping her with the photos – until today.
GT: It is always great to see a mother and her daughter working together!
VM: Yes, I really enjoy it and I learn a lot from her. But I’ve always felt that our designs and styles were very different, which meant our audiences were different as well. So, I started branching out – first selling alongside her, but making sure our buyers could see that we had two different, distinct brands under one roof. There was a lot of trial and error, but I got very positive feedback from various people, which encouraged me to open my own company in 2020.
GT: Did you feel you were ready?
VM: Well, I was just thinking that I spent all those years accumulating skills and experience – I should at least try to earn income using them. But I have to be honest, making that decision was really nerve racking.
VM: I did not think anyone would be interested. You have to admit it – we don’t see to many people around wearing body jewelry.
GT: True, body jewelry is not something you would call mainstream. But it was your choice, right? Why did you go this route?
VM: I think the stars just aligned this way. I was already thinking about a career in fashion industry; but in my mind, I would be making clothes and fancy gowns because I always liked elegant, luxurious dressing. So, I was already leaning towards the world of fashion. And then one day, I had a premier to attend, and I needed an evening gown with a twist. That day, I made myself a body chain, and I had so much fun making it that afterwards I was like, “Hmmm, why don’t I try a different pathway into fashion?!”
GT: So, you’ve abandoned the idea of clothes design?
VM: I am still thinking about it, but I have been realizing how much I dislike sewing. Meanwhile, I am creating pieces of body jewelry that bring together African designs and my imagination – all in a hope that there are other people, aside from me, who would want to wear something like this, a piece of wearable art.
GT: You did find such people – you first collection completely sold out, didn’t it?
VM: Yes, it did! And hopefully, it is not a one-time-wonder! I am always online -- on Pinterest, on Instagram -- seeking new cool ideas and inspiration. I hope there will be more people to appreciate my work.
GT: I am looking at the piece you are wearing – is this one of the latest? It is quite intriguing and intricate.
VM: Oh, yes! This is a new one – and it gave me so many sleepless nights!
GT: So funny that you felt sewing was difficult. Yet, things you are making now are so much more complex.
VM: I guess it’s all about how you prefer to suffer. Nothing good comes easy, right?
GT: Most definitely.
VM: When I was thinking about fashion design, I had this idea in my mind about how it would go. First, I would sketch cool dresses, then I would stitch them up – and voila! There is a dress, and it looks just like the sketch. But when I tried to make my sketches into garments, I realized that some of them were impractical, others did not sit right, yet others were just impossible to make. It stopped being fun.
Making jewelry feels different. I am having fun even when it is difficult. For example, the piece I am wearing took me 3 full days to make. For some reasons, it just would not come together as I envisioned it – I even had to put it away for a few days and return to it once I felt ready again. And when I did, I had to take it apart and start over.
GT: Wow! That's a lot of work.
VM: Yes, but the work is so fulfilling that it is almost therapeutic. I sit down with my tools, put on some Netflix series, and get going. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard – but it is exciting every single time.
GT: So, how long would it take you to make one of your more complex pieces – 5 days? 10 days?
VM: On average, it’s about 3 days – especially since now I know what I am doing. But it takes maybe another day to come up with a design and think through all the details.
GT: Ah! Now to the most interesting part. How do you come up with the designs?
VM: Well, my inspiration comes from a combination of things. I have found myself being fascinated with people and culture, African culture in particular. I think, maybe it came from being born in a multi-cultural city, but not knowing much about my own culture.
GT: Where were you born? Nairobi?
VM: Yes, I was born in Nairobi. And Nairobi, just as Kenya as a whole, has over 40 tribes living together. Yet, most of us do not know the history of even one tribe – our own. Many people in my generation – the 20-somethings – do not know our mother tongue. I got curious, and soon enough I found myself reading books about the history of African clothes and jewelry, or even the history of art and design in Africa. This new knowledge is influencing my work a lot because technically, my work is about repackaging traditional motifs and styles into a more modern, contemporary, more delicate form – so that people living in Africa today can wear them. The subtlety of the designs is important to me, this is my personal touch – I want people wearing my jewelry stand out in the crowd but not loudly. I want grace and elegance, a royal look of sorts.
GT: So, the design you are wearing….
VM: This one was inspired by the Dinka community in Sudan. They wear very intricate beaded pieces, for example, there is a male version of a beaded corset called Malual. And the female version of it is called Alual. The corsets are typically very colorful and bright; the wealth of a family can be judged by the fullness and quality of such corset. The piece I am wearing is a stylized, minimalist version of Malual/Alual. I came across the photo of the male corset by chance and started researching it. I found Dinka and learned a lot about them and their fascinating beadwork. And the concept of a corset really stood out for me – I never knew people actually wore corsets in Africa; I always thought this was a very Western thing. Yet, here they were – the Dinka corsets! Jewelry-making has definitely become more than about jewelry for me – it is a process of constant learning and reflecting.
For example, have you ever thought of why in the past men were always more adorned in Africa than women? And if you look at our men now – they barely wear any jewelry, while women can be covered in silver and gold head to toe.
GT: This is an interesting observation. And yes, you are right – there is a 180-degree shift in the way men and women adorn themselves. Maybe it’s because in the olden days, men would be spending a lot more time in public and they will have to demonstrate wealth via their clothes, identify with their own and other groups, etc.
VM: That’s a good hypothesis. For the longest time, I was thinking that this way of gendered dressing might have been borrowed directly from nature – we all know that male birds are always more colorful and attractive than female birds. But your way of thinking also has some merit. We might never know the exact reasons for our ancestors’ choices of clothes and adornment, but we can keep learning. I try to encourage my customers to get inspired by African cultural heritage; I always share stories behind the pieces I make on my social media; and when I can I give my clients some materials to read when they buy my jewelry. It is really important to me that my pieces inspire people to learn more about our history and culture; our collective memory is fading very quickly – many people in my generation know little about how life was back then. If we do not try to proactively preserve this knowledge, it will soon be lost.
Growing up in the city, you get to interact with a lot of people from a lot of different places. But unlike in a traditional setting, in the city you do not connect with any individual culture on a deep level. So, you know a little about everything, but do not have profound knowledge about anything. In the case of my family, both my paternal parents passed away, and my maternal grandmother lives on the coast, which is far away; we barely get to interact with her. So, I cannot say that I know the background of either side of my family well.
GT: Were your parents also born in Nairobi?
VM: My dad – yes. But my mother started living in the city only as an adult. My mother grew up in Taita Taveta, and when she tells us stories from her childhood, it feels like she lived in a parallel universe. She would always tell us about bathing in the river, using tree sap as soap, playing in the mud. One time she told me, “I cannot believe people are charging so much money for organic stuff these days – organic was our life back when I was a child!”
GT: Hey! I heard the same story from my mom.
VM: They must be related, at least in spirit! Long story short, I found it really interesting that every time my mother talked about her childhood, it sounded like a life in paradise with all sorts of animals, trees, fruits… Surely, things are no longer the same, but I believe it is now our responsibility, the responsibility of my generation, to be intentional about learning about our cultural roots and preserving this knowledge, so it does not vanish. If you look hard enough, there are plenty of information online and in the libraries, but you do need to put an effort into finding it.
GT: Why is it important for you to learn about your heritage and to preserve this knowledge?
VM: Because I believe that our culture, our history define, who we are and what we do today. It is really ignorant of us to not know, not want to know, where we are coming from, who we used to be.
GT: Let’s go back to your designs. Do you work alone, or do you have a partner?
VM: I make most of my body chains myself – by hand. But I partner with various artists in Nairobi, who make unique details and pieces for me. For example, there is a person, who makes my earrings and bracelets based on my sketches. I also recently worked with an artist, who can paint miniature pictures on wooden beads.
GT: I did not know you work with wooden beads as well.
VM: I am always experimenting with various creative techniques. Wooden beads are something I’ve been trying recently. I was not sure how I would integrate them into my established jewelry line, but this artist did such an amazing job with the beads that I am now determined to find a space for them.
Among other experiments, I’ve been thinking of crafting my own chains. Currently, I buy imported brass chains. But I would love to find a way to source handmade chains locally, just like I do with my beads. It is my dream and my goal to source my materials locally – truly handmade, 100% locally sourced. I have not yet found local artists, who can make those chains, but I think I just have not looked hard enough.
GT: Would it be cheaper to produce the chains locally?
VM: Actually, no. It will increase my costs – and my prices. But since I have an opportunity to support somebody locally, it is really important for me to do so.
GT: Ok, I already know about one of your goals for the future – source and produce all your jewelry locally. What are some other plans and hopes that you have for the future?
VM: My immediate goal, as you might have already guessed is to continue learning about various African cultures.I want to do a deep dive into research on a collection of specific cultures and histories that speak to me; my future collections can then be informed by my research and learnings. One option would be to make jewelry collections reflective of the art and culture of each of my favorite communities. Another short term plan that I have would be to diversify the materials I am using in my collections. I already mentioned to you beads, including painted wooden beads. BUt there are other materials I would like to try -- other ways to express myself and my studies of the African culture.
When it comes to long-term plans, I really want to try my hand in luxury fashion. As I mentioned earlier, this has always been my dream and my plan. And there is no way I am going to abandon it! Recently, I have been seriously thinking about partnering with another local designer, who makes gowns – they can be making gowns, I can produce some adornment for the gowns – embroidery, beadwork, etc. I know that some people would say, “You cannot go from making jewelry to making gowns.” But I am very open minded. After all, design is design – and 10 years from now, I could be making furniture, right?!
GT: Very true! Is this inspiration to experiment comes from your recent Creative DNA experience?
VM: Yes, that might be the case. You know, in my business I am a one-man-band of sorts, meaning I mostly work alone. My friends help me with photoshoots and promotion, but when it comes to learning the basics of running a fashion business – from planning a collection to financing it to reinvesting profits – I have been struggling to find the right information and inspiration. Creative DNA has been an amazing experience, and there will be definitely some changes to my business in the near future.
Aside from the business side of things, everyone, who participated in the program was really talented, and almost everyone’s brand spoke to me on a professional and personal level. So, you can say, I was planted among likeminded creatives; and together we have been on a wonderful journey of sharing, and learning, and growing as professionals in fashion.
GT: What would you say was the most important lesson for you on this Creative DNA journey?
VM: You know, it was really important for me to hear other designers’ stories -- to realize, I am not the only one struggling. Sometimes, as an outsider looking in, you see somebody and you think, “This guy (or girl!) has figured it out; they definitely got it together!” And it’s all so very intimidating, especially when you are young and just making your first steps in fashion. But then you learn that everyone is working through their own challenges, and it gives you hope and courage to keep going.
GT: I can really relate to this! It is really important to be reminded that we are all humans! Before I let you go, can you tell me how the name of your brand came to be?
VM: Tiger Tail Twister? It was really random. So, Tiger Tail is the name of a beading string – it’s a plastic-coated wire, which is very strong. This is the string that I use for all my beaded jewelry. And then I added “Twister” as a play of words; it just came to my mind one day as I was in the shower. Tiger Tail Twister – I liked how it sounded. So, here we are – me and my Tiger Tail Twister jewelry.
GT: And coming soon – luxury gowns and royal furniture.
VM: We’ll just have to wait and see.
GT: We will! Thank you!