She's a champion of African style and artisanship, purveyor of the coolest basket bags, and introducing Singapore to Afroluxe. Meet Chetna Bhatt of Ashepa Lifestyle.
If you’ve been paying attention to Singapore’s sustainable fashion scene and emerging brands, Chetna Bhatt’s Ashepa Lifestyle will have caught your eye. You would, no doubt, have noticed the woman herself for her out-of-this world basket handbags (they’re from Ghanian label AAKS, by the way), and the glint of her statement brass jewellery, crafted by artisans in Kenya, where Chetna was born.
Up to this moment, Singapore has had just a sprinkling of African culture in its melting pot, but Chetna’s impeccably curated collection is showing us all just how modern the handcrafted jewellery, homewares and accessories being produced in her homeland are right now. We caught up with Chetna at her current favourite, African-themed Kafe Utu, for a chat about introducing Afroluxe to Singapore and the stories behind the pieces she so proudly wears herself….
What led you to Singapore, and what do you love about life here?
I moved to Singapore close to four years ago, for my husband’s work. What’s not to love about Singapore? This small country has so much happening it stops me from getting too homesick. The greenery is so calming for me; it’s a city like no other. So much of the character of Singapore comes from the diversity of people who live here. Everyone brings their own traditions and food, and somehow it all coexists beautifully! It reminds me of the artisan markets in Kenya – where the different tribes from different regions set up and share their skills. I love the energy that comes from diversity.
Tell us the story of what sparked Ashepa: what made you realise you needed to do this?
I am so proud to be Kenyan. Everywhere I went in Singapore, I was being asked by people about what my home was like. And I remember them being intrigued when I told them about how beautiful and happy a life it was. I realised that they were so interested in Africa but they had no way to connect with it apart from what they saw in the media. That is when I decided to connect Africa to Asia through products and people. That is what Ashepa is about: it is about showing and sharing with the world the great talent that exists in Africa.
You’re one of the original champions of African artisanship in SG – what do you admire most about the craftsmanship and aesthetics of the pieces you curate for your collection?
Each piece is so unique. Not just because they reflect the perspective of the designer and are handmade by artisans – this craftsmanship has been passed on from generation to generation. From mother to daughter, from father to son. Each piece is the sub total of its ancestors. It carries their DNA. The passion for the craft can truly be felt when you wear the pieces. I recently worked with the Maasai tribe known for its distinctive dress and beadwork. They hand-beaded directly onto the home-decor pieces using no glue, using traditional skills that no machine can replace.
What are some of your fondest memories of growing up in Kenya?
There are so many. It is a place blessed with so much natural beauty and warm people. Growing up in Kenya was simple. Cable TV came much later on for us so we played outdoors a lot. I can’t talk about Africa without talking about animals. Weekends would consist of road trips where it wouldn’t take long before you saw some game. Giraffes and zebras grazing, and lakes with thousands of pink flamingos. My parents tried to give us the experience of seeing the animals often. Now every chance I go back home, I try to get out of the city and spend time at the incredible beaches, or the majestic mountains or the awe-inspiring safari plains.
What do you feel is the most beautiful aspect of African culture?
I think I would have to say resourcefulness. We use everything that mother nature has provided us. Nothing is wasted. There is great beauty in that.
What do you think is important to know about how the pieces in your collection are made and sourced?
Every piece has a human being behind it and so we do everything we can to make sure that they are paid well enough and have the independence they need to continue this passion for design and craftsmanship. Secondly, all our pieces are made from locally sourced and eco-friendly materials. Our jewellery is made from recycled brass and reclaimed cow-horn and bone. We use the same materials in our home decor collections. Our baskets and home decor is made from natural plant materials such as raffia and sisal.
Tell us about the pieces you designed yourself for the collection – what was the inspiration behind these designs?
I recently designed our Safar Collection. Safar is short for ‘Safari’ which is the Swahili word for travels. The inspiration behind it was nature and natural shapes that I saw on my safaris. My favourites are the Impala bangles and Impala hoops, that were inspired by the beautiful lyre shape of the Impala horns. I find them architecturally fascinating and so perfectly designed. The movement of the shapes add so much character.
What is the most beautiful, or moving, moment you’ve had with the artisans you work with?
Spending many hours at the workshop allowed me get to know their families, particularly the mother of one of the artisans. She reminded me so much of my late grandmother and over time we developed a close relationship. Sadly she passed away recently, but when I saw her last she decided to give me a name from her tribe, as she considered me her family too. I still tear up about that.
Tell us about the most treasured piece in your personal collection from Kenya?
There is an African artist that works with bronze to try to capture the natural beauty of Kenyan wildlife. He takes a cast of animal paw prints and then captures it in bronze. I have one of an adult male lion and it’s huge – you can see every detail of the paw. It’s fantastic.
We always see you rocking Ashepa accessories. What do you have on high rotation?
I carry different styles in my bag, so I when it’s a day packed with events, I keep switching the accessories! What can I say? I truly love the jewellery we create and always struggle to decide between them! My go-tos are definitely the Tutu earrings, Classic hammered ring, Dunia chain link bracelet and ILA necklace. They have a subtly chunky aesthetic, but are timeless – they complement any look, from day to night.
The AAKS handbags at Ashepa are the coolest basket bags we’ve seen. Can you let us in on the story behind the brand?
These bags couldn’t make me prouder because this is exactly why I set out on this journey. We wanted to showcase the best of Africa and that is what AAKS is! The brand has been praised by the likes of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar for its bold design, as well the critical attention to craftsmanship, authenticity and ethical production values. Akosua Afriyie-Kumi founded it with the goal of introducing the world to her favourite weaving techniques while also creating and igniting sustainable jobs for Ghanaian women. The bags are woven incorporating the use of raffia and leather. It takes approximately one week to complete a handbag – which attests to the unwavering dedication to modern style and interpretations using traditional methods.
What story do you want to tell through your business?
Not one story. Africa is incredibly diverse, with so many stories. I want people in Asia to see lots of different sides of Africa. The majestic natural beauty. The incredible energy of our cities. The deep reds of Kenya, the vibrant yellows of Ghana, the glorious greens of South Africa. I want Asia to know about the people that may never get to travel beyond their country in Africa, and introduce something that these individuals made into their lives.
Beyond your brand, what do you want to be known for?
I love the idea of a legacy, and being mindful of the things you want others to feel about you. For me it is not about what others ‘think’ of me; that is none of my business. It is about how I make others feel. I try to be the ear to someone who wants to reach out, and to always tell the truth.
There’s a small but strong African community in Singapore – how do you support each other?
Small but strong is the right description. One of the other ways I would describe is group too is inclusive! I am co-partner of an African-themed event that takes place annually, called Afrika Collective. It’s a way to connect with fellow Africans but also Singaporeans too – through fashion, culture (and obviously, because this is Singapore) food!
What impact would you like to make through Ashepa?
Ashepa means happiness, so hopefully I will be able to create a lot of that. But also I hope to change the perception of Africa and people’s buying choices. There is a vast range of artisanal talent out there that can be passed on to generations to come, but sadly mass consumption is changing that. I want people to enjoy their purchases and keep them for a long time as each piece shares a story.