Arresting Design: Bringing a Creative Collaboration to Market

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on November 30, 2016.

Susan Bibbings was never that enamored with fashion. In fact, she found it a little frivolous. She had spent most of her life working for charitable organizations and it was during a trip to Africa to help build a Montessori school that she changed her mind about fashion. A trip into Kilimanjaro to get a cup of coffee proved life changing. She stumbled upon a tiny shop selling beautiful beaded jewelry and learned from the owner the pieces were designed by Italian students and made by Maasai tribeswomen. She’d never seen the two cultures mixed before. The result was arresting Bibbings recalls. “I can’t be the only person who finds this interesting I thought.” She wanted to introduce this to the marketplace and asked if they were sold in North America. They were not. A lightbulb when on.
In 2011, Bibbings, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, joined Lotusland Imports (it had been around since 2006 but only selling in Italy and Africa) and began bringing this creative collaboration of ethical, sustainable and fair trade accessories to the North American market. The collection features modern, geometric shaped necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings she sells to ten stores in Canada and 30 in the U.S. including museum and gallery stores.  Last fall she added a small collection of leather goods made from skins that are food supply sourced turning waste into something beautiful.
Before Bibbings came on board the idea to pair Italian and African Maasai culture came to a Swiss woman named Marina “Tati” Oliver who ran a safari company in the African rainforest and spoke Swahili.  Oliver saw the Maasai women cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for their survival. It was backbreaking, dangerous work which kept them separated from their children. She wondered how she could help. Giving them a safer way to make a living while preserving their culture was part of business idea. She met Francesca Soldini at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan through an organization called OIKOS.
The two thought about putting a course together at the design school where students learn about the Maasai culture and history of the beading techniques and they design a piece of jewelry for the collection for course credit. Some of the pieces have more of an Italian influence and some more African. The students learn to be culturally sensitive to the traditions of the tribe, learning what certain colors represent in Maasai. About 22 students a year create a piece that is sold in the collection.
To make the jewelry more appealing to the Western consumer, however, they first had to make it smaller in scale.  “Traditional Maasai jewelry is very large —  like the giant cuffs you see around their necks,” Bibbings explains. “The cuffs tell a story, like a map, of the compound in which they live. The women are very proud of their culture and are always dressed in traditional clothes,”says Bibbings.
The collaboration has given the women an opportunity to bead for others and to get paid a living wage. “Most of the women had only beaded for friends and family before. Now, they get the chance to be master craftspeople with the added benefit of more income.” They can also bead while they are with their families.
Francesca travels to Africa to meet with Tati to work on the new patterns and show the artisans how to do designs. “We encourage the women to get as involved in design and production as they want,” says Bibbings. “We have taken the fair trade model a step further. The women have ownership of the company. They are paid as employees and vote on everything including how the necklaces are priced and they are paid as employees.” They went from employing just five artisans 10 years ago to employing 200.
Right now Bibbings sells through her website, through her current list of high-end retailers, direct to consumer through social media, at trunk shows and fashion shows like the recent Seattle Eco fashion show. 
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