With an exuberant smile Amma Gyan welcomes me into her studio; a closed down sports shop on Watford High Street. She relocated from the creative hub of East London – home since leaving her native Ghana – to what she lovingly describes as ‘the land of the average’. A desire for a change in lifestyle prompted newly-wed Amma to move from London, first to Kent, then finally to Watford, for practical reasons. “Everything commercial is here, plus amazing transport links back to family and friends in London, so we decided to make Watford home.”
Occupying just a small corner of the vast two-storey space – complete with the branded fixtures and fittings of its former occupiers – Amma sits at a table strewn with tools and scraps of fabric. Behind her, lengths of rainbow leather hang from butcher hooks: a stark reminder of the material’s provenance, often readily concealed by fashion. She shows me a zebra skin, called in the trade ‘hair on’. “It makes what you’re dealing with very real, to some people too real… and chicken leather, have you seen it? It’s really bizarre.”
Amma’s hospitality is as warm as her smile; she offers me a coffee, then sits to chat. She’s generous with her time. We’re meeting to talk about the general resurgence of hand-made crafts, a trend that has seen her own business – designing and making leather-moulded jewellery – grow from availability at local markets to a presence in leading fashion brand Jigsaw, who spotted Amma at the 2011 Hatton Garden Festival. “I didn’t feel like I was selling out,” she announces, “because they treated me as an independent designer.”
Remaining independent and community-centric is at the core of her business. “Jigsaw was a massive confidence boost… They asked me if I would be happy to work under their name. I said no and that could’ve blown it.” She was pleasantly surprised, shocked even, that Jigsaw embraced her independent stance. “Had I not been confident enough to say no, I could have lost the biggest opportunity to use my name.”
After eight months of collaboration, ‘Reign’, exclusive to selected Jigsaw stores, was unveiled. “I produced eight different styles and they took seven. It made me realise I can design something that a high street chain sees as commercial, even though I’ve got a different way of doing it.” Amma makes each piece of the collection, including the packaging. “They asked what I could mass produce. I told them, ‘I’ve designed some things that can and some that can’t.’ I remember thinking I’m going to be really honest, because there’s nothing worse than falling at the first hurdle.”
Before she began designing jewellery, fall she did, achieving only brief success in making leather belts. The cummerbund was trending and so too were her designs, gaining recognition with fashion writers and stylists from Marie Claire to Vogue. “I’m 34 and I’ve been doing this since I was 25. At that age, you’re so full of it.” In reference to the egotistical trait of her astrological sign, she continues, “The Leo was in full flow then. I made these belts and thought I was amazing!” Yet, in true fashion industry style, as soon as she was ‘hot’ she found herself ‘not’.
“I remember thinking: I’m trying to pay for rent on belts? This is nuts!” Recognising a need to broaden her skill set for longevity, she enrolled on a course to learn the techniques to mould her beloved leather (a material that her Ghanaian ancestors are renowned for working). After a year of experimentation, her now signature moulded leather pendants gave birth to her new business. “I remember someone saying to me ‘you’re going to have to grow some massive balls if you’re going to do this’. I don’t think I quite understood how massive they had to be. Yet if it’s a matter of hard work, then I can do it.”
She credits her success not only to hard work, but also to a community spirit harvested at outlets such as Ruislip’s Duck Pond market, amongst others. “People are innately good and love to help.” She talks of the contacts made through generous customers as “really good for growing the business,” and was delighted to receive messages congratulating her collaboration with Jigsaw. Without the platform provided by local markets and their communities, Amma feels that she would still be desperately battling for exposure.
Working with Jigsaw, Amma insists, hasn’t compromised her ethos. They recognise that she embodies a growing trend and have embraced it. And despite success, she remains accessible. “I’m who people want to be dealing with. In the past a brand was faceless and had all this corporate spin, today they’re a person.”
Amma’s studio, ‘Space?’, is part of an initiative by Watford Borough Council to improve the local area, by granting artists use of empty retail units. It is open for the – so far tentative – public to shop and, although it’s certainly no Columbia Road (her favourite East End of London haunt for independent shopping), she’s hopeful for its future.
“I’ve often found I’ve been really ahead. Sometimes people aren’t ready for you – yet.” Is a hesitant public a sign that we have forgotten the joy of interaction? Amma feels strongly about this. “The satisfaction people get is from the bargain, not the process. Why would we care about the interaction if it’s not going to save us money? So, we go online and spend our time comparing. It’s worrying and such a shame.”
Amma admits to lecturing friends about their mass consumerism. “It’s going to change,” she says. “People want more substance.” She laughs, recalling one such conversation, “How can you know me and shop in Primark? The story is so much more important, rather than ‘it just cost me two quid’…”
And it’s her story, not just her product, that a growing loyal following (me now included) buys into. Despite being based in ‘the land of the average’, Amma certainly isn't uninspired. “I want people to see that I’m serious, that this is amazing. I’ve worked really hard at being brilliant and I want you to take notice… it’s the Leo ego in me.”
Amma’s work is available from her website www.ammagyan.com,
from selected Jigsaw stores (Argyll Street, Kensington, King's Road, The Strand, Guildford),
and from her studio, Space², 69 High Street, Watford, WD17 2DL, Thursday to Saturday 1pm to 6pm