In crafting the style for our latest swimwear shoot, we sought accessories that echoed our commitment to sustainability and ethical practices. Enter Simpatico, a Wellington brand offering handwoven sun hats and baskets ethically sourced from a community initiative in the vibrant heart of Bolgatanga, Ghana. These artisan-crafted pieces, coupled with vintage jewellery curated over two decades by Pam from thrift shop adventures, added the perfect touch to our shoot.
Join us as we sit down with the Gabrielle Stevenson, the woman behind Simpatico artisan products, who brings together tradition, sustainability, and the spirit of collaboration in her curated collection. As head designer for this year's World of Wearable Art Festival, Gabrielle brought a wealth of experience to the creation of these unique pieces.
What inspired the designs of the hats and baskets featured in our sustainable swimwear shoot?
The designs of the hats and baskets are traditional to the Bolgatanga region, their unique proportions and intricate weaving technique give the products an integrity and beauty particular to the weavers of Bolgatanga.
I have had the privilege of working directly with the artisans to influence colour choices and proportions, working with the traditional techniques and not straying too far from the beauty of the original shapes that I fell in love with, it is a collaboration I cherish.
Can you share the story behind the materials used in your hats and the community initiative in Ghana that produces them?
The hats and baskets are made from locally sourced and processed elephant grass. The grass is bought at the market, softened, then twisted together and woven, it is a time consuming process which is mostly performed out doors under the vast skies, seated in groups out in the open or under the shelter of trees. It's a communal affair where artisans are able to chat freely sharing ideas and techniques.
Mothers are able to work while nursing their infants with their children playing freely amongst them. The dyes used are mostly natural and applied traditionally by boiling in a large pot over a fire outside on wood fires on the bare earth.
The weavers are paid per basket and the profits go back in to the community funding projects that build infrastructure and help maintain existing wells and educational facilities for the children.
As a costume designer and having worked with the World of Wearable Art festival, how does your design background influence the aesthetic of your hat & basket collection?
I appreciate good design, I also understand process and recognise skill. When I first came across the beautiful work of the Bolgatanga artisans I immediately fell in love with the intricate style of the weaving and the practical design of the products. The sunhats are not only gorgeous but remarkably durable and I knew the large brims and the leather chinstraps would be perfect for our punishing sun and wild winds here in New Zealand.
Do you have a favourite piece in the collection, and if so, what makes it special to you?
I especially love the round washing baskets, I am not interested in creating products that have no function and get great satisfaction from creating a design that is beautiful, useful and durable, we are so reliant on cheap plastic buckets that do not last and end up in the landfill.
Being a mum, designer and an entrepreneur must have its challenges. How has your journey as a parent influenced your work and business decisions?
I am aware that often women have to choose between paid work and childcare, I am interested in creating an enterprise that supports female artisans in developing countries, making it viable for them to be mothers and contribute financially to their households, this is an option we take for granted in New Zealand and we underestimate the effect it has on our well being and independence.
Nisa and Gabrielle first came together just before last year's World of Wearable Art, when Gabrielle was looking for a local manufactory to produce the colourful catsuits she designed for the show. We were so happy to be able to make them for her, and thrilled to see them on stage. So when we were called upon to make the incredible silver flared catsuits she designed for this year's WoW show we jumped at the chance.
Find out more about Gabrielle's costume design for film, television and stage.
Gaby on location, in Simpatico wide brimmed straw hat:
Nisa Swim 2023 was shot in Oriental Bay, Wellington by photographer Arthur Hon.