African Queen is a quaint boutique nestled in suburban Johannesburg, laden with beautifully handcrafted leather handbags, shawls and accessories made right here at home.
But aside from its beautiful merchandise, African Queen is making a difference in how we view these pieces. Launched by Nicola Leitch three years ago, African Queen is a space in which the skills of underprivileged individuals are being showcased. Nicola takes us through her African Queen dream.
Where did you grow up and how did your surrounding influence you?
I was born in England, but we travelled a lot. Before I was 14, I had counted Nigeria and South Africa as home. I’d lived in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, and the various cultures I had encountered made an impact on me. I was mostly surrounded by adults and became an extrovert. When I lived in England, the green fields and gentleness was evident. Moving to Kano, Nigeria, the scenery was very different. It was a mud city with camels. Located near the Sahara desert, where the traders came across with exotic skins, bags, gold and cloths, I was in awe of the earthy colours. I loved the traders and their wares. It shaped my outlook.
When did you start designing?
As a young girl, I was always creative and loved big bold pieces. I always loved stuff that was considered edgy and ‘out there’. From the age of eight, I started re-designing jewellery. I chopped up my mom’s beautiful antique necklaces, with semi-precious stones, and created my own. Much to her horror, I set up a stall outside our home and sold these new creations. I thought it was an entrepreneurial attempt on my part. I always wanted a sewing machine and for my 13th birthday I was given a second-hand machine. It was the best gift ever. I sewed clothes and people bought them.
Tell us about African Queen.
African Queen was set up three years ago to create much-needed jobs. Initially, we set up a beading initiative in which beaded circles were created and used for the leather handbags I had designed. We expanded and made leather and suede hats. Then came leather sandals, leather covered flasks, diaries, brooches, jewellery and beautiful huge silk shawls adorned with crystals, ostrich shells and beads, all done by a sewing group from Hillbrow. Clothing was next. We designed and manufactured our own range of fashionable items suitable for women of all shapes and sizes. Now we’re printing our own fabrics for home ware and kitchenware. Our newest venture is candles. We employ women and men with skills. I try my best to take the skills people have and find ways to use these in items that can be marketed. We work with people from across South Africa and Malawi too.
What inspires your designs?
I am inspired by our surroundings and international trends. Our team members also bring ideas that are incorporated into the line. As for materials, we source from everywhere… Nguni from KwaZulu-Natal, leather from Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal, some of the beads come from the Czech Republic, and fabrics are sourced from Cape Town.
What you do is socially responsible.
We wanted African Queen to create jobs locally, and to help with the feeding of underprivileged school children. In 2011, African Queen donated 11 000 meals to children in Diepsloot, Alexandra and Cosmo City through the www.newlifecommunitycentres.co.za feeding project. Poverty breaks my heart, and I am hoping to do a lot more to alleviate this social issue. That’s our goal.
Five years from now, where do you see African Queen?
First on the list is the international launch of our handbags. Ideally, we’d like to sell 5 000 bags every month. If we achieve this, it will mean approximately 70 000 meals to children every month, and more employment. This is my dream and vision, and we are taking it one step at a time, but I believe we will get there.
Visit www.africanqueen.co.za, 9 The Parks Shopping Centre, Corner Wells and Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood,