Meet the Designer : Ilhem Akacem

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Designer profile picture Ilhem of Anago

Welcome into the world of Ilhem, a world where colours, design and craftsmanship fuse beautifully together to create a unique range of clutch bags that she launched under the brand: Anago. Her Anago clutch bags are a vivid expression of who she is, her multicultural background along with her love for contemporary design and aesthetic.

Since the economic crisis in 2008, Sub-Saharan Africa has been enjoying a wave of brain gain. Statistics are scarce but countries like Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria have seen an influx of highly educated, young natives coming back to settle in Africa, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge. They are radically changing the economic landscape and for those involved in the creative industry, they are redefining the products “Made in Africa”.
Ilhem is undoubtedly part of that creative group that is promoting their African heritage through new products, using old materials, infused with modern design.

Her range of bags has a distinctive Arty and Geometric feel that echoes her Art and Architectural studies. She collaborates with local craftsmen to create and source the material needed and the result is telling: Ethical Clutch Bags with style.

So how do you launch a thriving creative business that strikes a delicate balance between modern aesthetics, heritage and ethic? We meet Ilhem to learn more.

Where is the name ANAGO coming from?
Anago, refers to the Yoruba people – An Ethnic group that is spread across Nigeria and Benin in West Africa. They are renowned for their creativity. Historical Yoruba Artworks are exhibited in museums around the world.
Anago is my pet name. A long time ago, an old friend called me Anago and very soon it became my nickname. It was the most natural choice of name when later on, I decided to launch my brand.
Anago Clutch bag Nefertiti

So when did it all start?
It all started in 2012. My mother is a fashion designer and initially, I was helping her out with her range of Fashion Accessories. Back then, we used mostly Wax Fabric – African Dutch fabric. The business grew as I experimented with other materials. Then, I created my signature embroidery and painting bags: in 2014 Anago was born.


You mentioned your Mother, The fashion designer Mira, how much does her work influence yours?
I caught the embroidery bug from my Mother. I saw beautiful garments being created in her studio. There is so much you can do with embroidery. Thanks to her, I also got to know the skillful artisans to go to, for high quality embroidery.
Today, I work with an independent embroiderer, who spent years learning his trade in Mali and Ivory Coast (West Africa) before setting up on his own in Togo.

We want to paint a realistic picture of what it feels like to return and work in West Africa. What are the challenges you faced? How did you navigate those?
Although I grew up here and I had always considered Togo to be my home country, my toughest hurdle was cultural. The respect due to the elder is something I struggled with, especially at work. I was 25 years old when I came back and I took over my Mother’s studio which had 25 employees most of whom, where older than me and male. As a young woman, I had to work twice as hard to be credible and be accepted as the Creative Director and Manager. My customers were also older than me and some of them didn’t take me very seriously either. It took some time to find a balance between compromising and at other times fight to defend my ideas; some of which were very different from the way people were used to doing things.

Besides, I had to adjust to a much slower pace of life and to deadlines being often moving goalposts. I had to build some buffer time into my own customers’ deadlines, to accommodate for the frequent delays in my suppliers’ deliveries, or to allow for some employees not being able to make it to work during the rainy seasons. The hardest was also to expect people to be 2 hours late for appointments. That one still frustrates me a lot and I am not sure I will ever get used to it.

Caption Interview Ilhem Akacem

What advice would you give to people who are planning to settle back in Africa?
I would advise them to be patient and to keep their expectations in check. A lot of people – I am guilty of that too – come back with big ideas and expect to change everything and revolutionise they way things are done overnight. Very quickly they hit a brick wall and realise that things are not that simple. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe change is possible. It is happening right now, but it takes time and a lot of patience. I can only encourage people from the Diaspora to come back, so that Africa can benefit from their knowledge and their skills. However, after living in a fast paced world abroad, it takes time, effort and a great deal of patience to readjust to living in Africa. I had huge moments of doubts and I wondered whether I made the right decision. It took me about a year to settle and to feel at ease in my environment. Today, I couldn’t see myself living anywhere else.

What inspires you?
Everything inspires me. You should see me when I am out and about. I am so curious. I am always looking everywhere: the colors, the fabrics, the green pepper stands. I love the woven baskets and things that are handmade. There is so much material, knowledge and creativity that we are yet to tap into and develop.

What fabrics to do you use and where are they coming from?
So far, I have used various fabrics – silk, cotton – that I bought locally. I also use Kente. Kente is a type of local fabric that originates from Ghana that is also woven in Togo.
I would like to have a better control over the origin of the fabric I use. So, moving forward, I want to develop a close relationship with local weavers and dyers. That way, I will have my own fabric with own design for my bags.

Making Anago clutch bags. Behind the scenes

Your bags are really unusual. Can you tell us more about the creative journey behind them?
I spend a lot of time experimenting. I am constantly on the look out for materials we can repurpose, to make new types of bags. There are clutch bags that no one sees because they are prototypes used to test new ideas and material.


I am intrigued by your range of “wearable art”– the bags that are also paintings. How did that come about?
These bags are created in collaboration with the painter Sewonou. I stumbled upon some of his artworks at a fair in Lome (Togo). At the time, he made notebooks with the paintings as cover. It took me nearly a year to track him down and start working with him.
Each clutch bag starts as an original painting. Then in my studio, each painting is transformed into a bag, using different color combinations for the lining, tassel and other accessories to create a unique bag. Each bag can take up to a week to create. It really is a labor of love.

What does the future hold for Anago?
We are expanding and aiming to reach European customers that are looking for unique handmade accessories. I want Anago to be recognised as an ethical fashion brand and be the first choice for ladies who care as much about how stylish their bags look as they care about how they were made. There are also new accessories and a new range of homeware products in the pipeline.

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