Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Just over a year ago, Jameel Mohammed — then a 21-year-old political science major at the University of Pennsylvania — successfully secured funding to launch his jewelry line, Khiry, with the help of Kickstarter. Just over 400 backers pledged a total of more than $25,000 to help the college student bring the line, which promised a “new vision of luxury, inspired by the rich and complex cultures of the African Diaspora” to life.
That’s already huge for someone who’s only just reached legal drinking age. And a lot has happened since then.
Mohammed debuted his Afro-futuristic spring/summer 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week, launched an e-commerce site, and was picked up by Moda Operandi for a trunk show, all last fall. That laundry list of accomplishments is impressive — did I mention he also interned at both Nicole Miller and Narciso Rodriguez while still in high school? — but the substance and concept behind the now-22-year-old’s brand is the most inspiring part of his story.
When you hear it in his own words, it makes the jump from poli sci to jewelry designer seem much less random. “During my sophomore year, I was watching all of these protests,” Mohammed told me by phone. “Michael Brown had been killed, Ferguson was just beginning, so all of my friends and I were in the streets protesting. I saw amongst this group of people an incredible amount of love and passion, and just a desire to be validated and understood fully... And then I looked in the media, and they looked at the protests and they said ‘Oh, these people are rioters, they can be immediately discredited. Their perspective doesn't mean anything, we don’t have to pay attention to it.’”
During this time, Mohammed realized the potential within Khiry to create real dialogue about the complexities and multitudes of blackness, instead of just making jewelry because it was beautiful or fun.
“As a designer, I think that one of the most important things design can do is force people to pay attention to you,” says Mohammed. “If you’re creating a brand from the bottom up, you can seek to inject that humanizing beauty of black culture into it as a means of presenting an alternative image.”
For Mohammed, this means challenging the notion that blackness can't be luxurious or refined. “What I’m trying to do with the whole collection is look at references from throughout the diaspora — from the past through things that are happening in the contemporary moment — and try to really push it to a sleek and modern place,” he says. It’s important to Mohammed that his representations of the diaspora are honest and culturally accurate, and not reductive or leaning on a perceived “African” culture. (See: overuse of tribal prints.)
It was obvious even after our very brief, albeit friendly, phone call that he takes an incredible amount of pride in the fact that through Khiry, he is shining light on the parts of the African diaspora that often go unnoticed. The lavish parts, the strong parts.
You can see examples of this in the silhouettes that feel pretty signature to Khiry at this point, like the Khartoum style, a circle that starts thicker and narrows as it rounds up. You’ll find the design in both ring and bangle form on the brand’s e-commerce site. (Mohammed told The Coveteur earlier this year that the shape was originally inspired by big-horned cattle that are herded by the Dinka tribe in Sudan.)
When asked what the biggest moment has been for the brand thus far, Mohammed made note that the biggest moments are yet to come, and we’re inclined to agree.
He took the past semester off to completely focus on Khiry, from sourcing the next collection in New York City to working with his two-man team to accelerate brand growth. “We’re really excited. This summer is going to be kind of a big moment for us,” Mohammed says, hinting to new marketing strategies the brand will implement over the next few months.
It’s exciting to hear him so optimistic, considering he’ll soon be juggling Khiry and school as he heads back to finish his senior year. “It’ll be hard,” he says. “But the people I really admire are the people that took their opportunities really seriously and really capitalized on the chances they were given. I think it’s all going to go really well.”