She Fell in Love With Craftsmanship

PARIS — In July, just before she competed for the 50,000-euro Andam accessories prize, Sonia Ahmimou said she was sick to her stomach. She still is not sure whether it was nerves or morning sickness.

“In a single bound, I found myself projected from the solitude of craftsmanship and the bubble of my atelier to the center of the fashion industry,” Ms. Ahmimou said, referring to the prestigious French fashion award. “I’d never presented anything to a fashion jury in my life.”

Nathalie Dufour, the founder and managing director of the Andam awards, recalled Ms. Ahmimou’s winning presentation for her accessories brand, Aswad, a word that means “light” in literary Arabic.

“Sonia was radiant and very present,” Ms. Dufour said. “She was trained to have perfect technique; she’s very focused and humble. But she also has the audacity of shy people. Her story is magnificent, that’s what makes her so touching.”

On a recent fall day, Ms. Ahmimou, 33, who is expecting her second child, sat in her light-filled studio on the northernmost fringe of the 19th Arrondissement. Surrounded by handbags from her third collection, called Kemet, she reflected on her identity as a Frenchwoman of Moroccan descent, as a maker by training and a designer by choice, and as the daughter of immigrants who has spent most of her life trying to reconcile questions of identity and belonging.

Ms. Ahmimou markets her leather goods under the brand name Aswad, which means “light” in literary Arabic.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Speaking carefully, she described growing up in extremely modest circumstances in Nice, France. Her father came to France to work in the coal mines during the Mitterrand era of the 1980s, became a naturalized citizen and, “following the sun,” ended up driving a cement truck in the South of France. From her mother, who had an antiques store in Cannes and worked at the flea markets, she said she learned “a love of beautiful, old things that have stood the test of time.”

“I understood early on that we were different,” she said. “Most of all I saw that my mother made a tremendous effort to integrate through performative politesse, so that people would see how respectable we were and how much we deserved our place here.”

Though she remembers falling in love with craftsmanship as soon as she could hold a pair of scissors and a needle, it was during family trips to Morocco as a teenager — to her father’s hometown, Foum Zguid, in the north, and her mother’s city of Meknes, in the center — that shaped Ms. Ahmimou’s understanding of the artisanal life.

“When you come from a background like mine, and you spend time in Morocco as I did, you get right away that objects are not just objects,” she said. “Quality is a necessity. It’s not about trends. Every purchase is thought out and has to last a lifetime.”

As an example, she described a tray in hammered copper, “the kind you find everywhere in Morocco,” that was passed down from her great-grandmother to her mother. Now it sits in her own Paris living room.

“I finally came to understand that I am just steeped in two cultures,” she said. “I realized that I couldn’t shape my personality by abstracting one or the other.”

Though Ms. Ahmimou once dreamed of becoming an architect, she credits a favorite high school teacher with “having the lucidity to make me understand the reality, the cost of that path and to think out of the box.”

Instead, she attended a specialized school for applied crafts in Nice and earned a degree in furniture upholstery or, as she puts it, “how to make beautiful things with a purpose.” A cold call led to her first job in the leather-working ateliers at Louis Vuitton. Four years later, she moved to Hermès.

In 2014, she became one of five employees hired to reintroduce the French heritage brand Moynat from a tiny atelier in the First Arrondissement.

Ms. Ahmimou had her left forefinger  tattooed with the lines of a tape measure so, she said, she would never have to waste time looking for one again.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Ms. Ahmimou said she picked up invaluable lessons at each house. A mentor at Vuitton taught her not only how to craft its Monogram totes and bags in exotic leathers, but also how to use and repair a sewing machine and tweak it to work calf leather, crocodile or lambskin.

At Hermès, she said, she came to understand the “meaning of cut” and how a handbag is used, stressed and pulled in movement. Also, a meticulousness so extreme that “a form is calculated in function of a single stitch, and nothing is left to chance.”

It was at Moynat that she was able to move beyond the simple execution of designs. And it was then that she had her left forefinger tattooed with the lines of a tape measure, so that she would never have to waste time looking for one again.

In 2015, she founded Aswad to make leather accessories by hand from responsibly sourced leather. Prices run from €60 ($70) for a business card holder to €1,800 for the new multipocket Alnaqil backpack. Each piece is made to order and requires at least three weeks.

Having her own collection also allowed Ms. Ahmimou to circle back to her love of architecture. “In leather work I find everything I love, in structure, in objects, in utility, in movement,” she said.

From the sleek totes and compact clutches of her debut collection, called Initiale, Ms. Ahmimou has gravitated toward more voluminous shapes, which she said recall the rectangular bag for a JVC camera that her family used to take on trips, and multipocket designs she likens to “mobile architecture,” worked in sunbaked tones of clay, olive and caramel leather.

“The colors are warm and cheerful,” she said. “I think it also reflects the changes in my own life, because now I can’t carry little bags anymore — I always need space for a bottle, a stuffed animal or a onesie.”

Ms. Ahmimou likened the Kemet collection to “a big house with lots of rooms.” But the name is also laden with symbolism, and duality. It means “black” in ancient Egyptian, she said, but it can be interpreted as either the dark, fertile sediment lining the banks of the Nile or as a reference to the African people of Ancient Egypt.

Aswad now is available at stores like Merci in Paris, Zero + Maria Cornejo in Los Angeles and Duro Olowu in London, but earlier this month, during fashion week, Ms. Ahmimou also welcomed a stream of visitors to her atelier. Her order books are full enough, she said, that she is starting to feel as though getting it all done will be a race against the clock.

But most of all, Ms. Ahmimou said, she has been gratified by the messages of support she has received from other artisans.

“Aswad is me, it’s my history,” she said. “I just hope that our increased visibility will give others, especially those with roots elsewhere, the hope and strength to succeed, no matter how impossible it seems.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button