You know how when you’re looking for a job, everyone tells you to email anyone who inspires you, to knock on closed doors, to not take “no” for an answer and pray for that “right place, right time” kind of luck that only manifests itself if you take every opportunity?
Jameel Mohammed, 21, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, is proof that this works. He started KHIRY, a jewelry line inspired by the African diaspora. Though the production is on a bit of a hold until he gets more funding (check out the Kickstarter here), it’s quietly making mini waves among the fashion set.
As MR’s career month comes to a close, what better time to talk to someone just starting to build his vision from the ground up?
What’s it like starting something from scratch, especially while still in college?
It’s tough! You have to find creative solutions to things that other people can afford to pay for. For instance, I taught myself how to develop 3-D CAD models, which you give the factory to produce. What’s good about that, though, is that you emerge with a much more holistic understanding of every aspect of the business.
On the upside, being a student means I have access to a ton of resources, like discounts on website hosting, and free consulting and business classes to help plan and run a real operation. Often, just saying “I’m a student” makes people more willing to speak with you and provide advice and mentorship.
How’d you get your “foot in the door”?
It’s all about networking. My first design jobs were internships at Nicole Miller and Narciso Rodriguez while I was in high school. Both were the result of reaching out, sending a portfolio of early work, and being really honest and sincere about my passion.
This summer I wrote online for PAPER. Getting that gig was perfectly illustrative of what’s awesome about New York. I was subletting a room deep in Brooklyn for the summer. My friend’s roommate was going to brunch the next morning and on a whim, I tagged along. She invited her friend Eric who had just started as an editor at PAPER. They were looking to expand online, I expressed interest, and a few weeks later, Eric reached out.
You told me on the phone that you started cold-calling editors and writing them emails to get in touch about KHIRY — that’s not easy to do. How did you do it? What separated you from the other billions of people sending pitches?
I think it’s all about being creative. KHIRY is a team of four — all of us students. We knew that it was going to be pretty tough to break through the clutter if we just went straight to the senior editors with cold emails. So what we did instead was use Instagram.
Once the collection had been photographed, we’d upload an image to Instagram. Then, at like, 9-ish, right when we figured people in the industry would be finishing dinner or tucking into a bottle of wine, we’d tag the associate editors and stylists who had lower follower counts. We also relied on a lot of friends-of-a-friends-of-a-friends in the industry connections. Within a few weeks of doing this, we got pulled for the PAPER story with Kehinde Wiley.
Side note: Oddly enough, when we got the request for samples for the Kehinde story, I had come up to New York to cover fashion week for PAPER, and I was sitting in the office writing when the stylist, Shiona Turini, sent the email.
If you felt discouraged along the way, how did you keep moving forward?
I definitely have felt discouraged. I guess I always try to keep two things in mind:
First, the industry and the world are too big for any one person’s opinion or a “no” to limit your progress. There’s always another person, another route and a backdoor. You just have to find it.
Second, I try to keep in mind that, while I may think I’m talented, I’m not the only one out there working toward this goal or blessed with creative abilities; you have to go for it now because if you don’t, someone else is using their talent to take your spot!
How did you learn to make jewelry? How’d you figure out the whole process, the material sourcing and the craft?
I learned a lot by just talking to people. I’d show images of the sort of finish I wanted, and they’d tell me what I needed to accomplish it. Manhattan’s Garment district and Jewelry District are so tightly knit. These guys have all been working in the same 3-block radius for 30 years, so if I went to one jewelry supplier I’d just ask if they knew someone who could do the finishing or the metal work that I wanted. That’s how I found my first contractors.
The line is inspired by the African Diaspora. What sparked your initial interest? How has naming an inspiration encouraged you to delve deeper into the various cultures that makes up the African Diaspora?
The diaspora encompasses descendants of the African continent all over the world, including Latin America, the Caribbean, the US and Africa itself. As a designer, I’m interested in the cultural traditions, objects and practices that are unique to individual places. But even more, I want to find the links that tie these cultures together and figure out what the most powerful, chic and romantic version of that culture would look like.
What arises then — and why deep research is important to KHIRY — is a tension between cultural appropriation and cultural celebration. I think what distinguishes the latter is the degree to which you’re willing to do the research, to be accurate and specific in paying homage to a culture. That doesn’t mean you can’t view things through your own lens, but it’s about first grounding yourself in the reality of that place and people in order to create something that, while new, is based in something authentic. We might take Afro-Cuban traditions, or Haitian art, or the North African Tuareg people as an inspiration for a collection or a photo shoot, and each requires careful study before we feel like we can respectfully depict that culture.
How are you balancing this with school work?
I’m not! Before this semester, I was doing a pretty good job of balancing both school and KHIRY, but as we move to take this to a new level I’ve definitely allocated more of my time toward the business. I figure, this is my passion, this is why I came to Penn in the first place, and we have a chance to make it into something amazing. I would be remiss to let it pass by.
What’s the hardest part out of all of this so far?
I’ve definitely pushed myself to my limits. What’s weird and totally unique to entrepreneurship is that the thing you’re working on doesn’t exist yet. Like, at all. So you can’t just rely on precedent, or your boss’s instructions, or your co-workers. I worked on KHIRY completely by myself for about a year and a half, so anything that had to be done was my responsibility: PR, marketing, sales, design, production, sourcing, merchandising, all me at first. I’ve definitely lost some sleep and stayed in some nights that I wanted to go out.
What’s your dream for the future of KHIRY?
From a business perspective, long-term, I’d like to expand the KHIRY brand to other product categories, probably starting with other accessories (bags, belts, eyewear, shoes) and eventually moving to ready-to-wear. But what’s more essential is that I want to continue to use KHIRY as a platform to communicate the idea that luxury is not an exclusively European concept. I want the images and content and the identity that we communicate to be a message to all people that African and its descendants are culturally rich, modern and stunning beyond belief.
What continues to motivate you?
Probably sunk-cost fallacy? (Econ jokes!)
I think this is only the entry into the KHIRY world. Every time I sit down to sketch out new ideas and ad concepts, I feel like a little more of that world is being revealed to me and it’s incredibly compelling. So I suppose my motivation comes from a desire to make that world real and to offer others a glimpse.
What’s the one thing you wish someone in an interview would ask you?
Who’s your been your biggest inspiration? (I’d say my mom, my grandmother, and my Auntie Sharon.)
Finally, any advice to readers who want to start their own line, especially those still in school like you?
Be prepared to work a LOT and to be passionate about what you’re doing. Be very clear on what distinguishes your work from what others are doing. Know your story and tell it well to EVERYONE you meet; the world is a small place and I’ve made tons of valuable connections in the oddest places.
Also, this may be a bit difficult to believe (and perhaps a bit contradictory to everything I’ve said), but “doing it” is easier than your fear will have you believe. Sometimes things just work out if you’re prepared to be creative about finding ways to work past constraints of resources or time, and to go for it with everything you have.