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A Day in the Life

Khokho's Sapna Shah

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Imagine if your work day began with a gorgeous sunrise against a garden horizon. Or, if instead the grit and grim of a subway, your commute consisted of the calming natural environs of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland—all green grass and blue sky. For New Yorker Sapna Shah, co-founder and creative director Khokho Collection, that dreamscape is real life.

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In 2014, she launched the Eswatini-based accessories line with partners Philippa Thorne, a social entrepreneur, and Zinhle Vilakati, a skilled artisan professional and master weaver; Shah brings the design cred and a CV peppered with fashion-with-a-capital-F experience, from Calvin Klein and Coach to Oscar de la Renta and Rag & Bone. But the focus isn't so much on this power trio, a potent combo though they may be; it's on the local female artisans they empower. Khokho was founded with a singular mission in mind: to celebrate and preserve the time-honored and traditional Swazi weaving techniques, while elevating the craftsmanship and creating income-generating opportunities for the community.

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"Our goal is to redefine luxury through the thoughtful evolution of our collections and build sustainability by reinvesting in each artisan’s growth," explains Shah, who spends part of the year—pre-pandemic, at least—in Eswatini and the rest in Brooklyn. "We support artisans to establish economic security and, beyond that, achieve their dreams."

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As for the name, there's a beautiful story here too. Khokho takes after the siSwati word for great-grandmother—in the country, the women, and especially great-grandmothers, are the head of the household. "We chose it," explains Shah, "to inspire the present generation with their grandmothers' spirit and strength." Below, a peek into a day in her life halfway across world…

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Above, from left: Malandelas Garden and Khokho's Jabu basket bag; below: founders Sapna Shah (far right), Philippa Thorne and Zinhle Vilakati (second and third from left) with the Buhle Bakhokho artisan weavers.

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In the Morning

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You start the day by…
Drawing the curtains to see the sun rising across the garden. The flat above Philippa’s home where I stay while in Eswatini has the most beautiful views—the sun rises from the bedroom and sets outside the main living room. There are patios on both sides to sit and enjoy the stunning views.

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Go-to breakfast…
I’ll usually join Philippa downstairs for breakfast. We’ll make coffee and usually have yogurt with muesli and some local honey and then discuss an action plan for the day.

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During the Day

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What's a typical day at work like?
We like to start the day with a team meeting in the Khokho workshop to discuss sampling, production, plan for the week, as well as give each team member an opportunity to express any thoughts or share ideas on products and process. As a small team, we’re all juggling multiple tasks and, during my trips, we get busy with new samples and testing out ideas. Philippa and I will test out patterns and the team will create mock-ups so we can review along with the woven samples being created. Once a week we’ll visit the Buhle Bakhokho weaving cooperative to discuss samples, provide production orders, conduct quality control and discuss cooperative updates, any issues arising, and hear how their community ventures, like farming, are progressing.

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What do you love about what you do at Khokho?
We’ve been able to create a unique bridge between traditional craft and modern design and build opportunity for local artisans. It has far exceeded our initial ideas or thoughts of where this business could go. It’s always wonderful to watch someone pick up a Khokho bag and be in awe of the weaving and craftsmanship. But even more amazing is seeing how much the artisans have progressed from our early days and how they’ve become true experts in their craft. I love that we continue to express our creativity while creating impact and sustainable opportunity. We get to share the story of traditional Swazi weaving with new audiences around the world, who are interested in luxury craft and social change. We hope to see more people embracing the beauty and value of African handcraft.

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What's in your bag?
Well, in my work bag, I always carry my “toolkit”—it’s a handmade leather pouch that has slots for all my pens, pencils, and measuring tape that was made by artisan ranchers in Colorado.

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Above, from left: Khokho's Lindi Minaudière and Eswatini's natural wonders, up close; below: Shah's patio view

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When you need an afternoon pick-me-up…
Philippa and I will usually make some Earl Grey tea for a post-lunch pick-me-up. But for an early evening pick-me-up when we’re recapping the day, we’ll stop at the pub on the Malandela’s Complex—where our workshop is—and enjoy a refreshing gin and tonic while watching the sunset!

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In the Evening

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Favorite nighttime eats…
Whenever I visit we make it a point to cook up a big Indian dinner and invite family and friends to join. It’s always an incredible spread!

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Bedtime rituals…
Usually a little lavender essential oil for a calming sleep and snuggling up with Bear, Philippa’s cat, when he stays upstairs!

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What gets you motivated to start it all over the next day?
Being able to create beautiful pieces together as a team and at the same time create impact. There is a lot of purpose in what we do that extends far beyond the handbag and it all started with a simple idea to make a difference.

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When you’re in New York, what do you miss about being there?
Everything! I miss Philippa and her family; they’ve become a second family to me, so it’s difficult not seeing each other for so long. I also miss our team and all the artisan weavers. It’s always nice to see how everyone is doing, give each other hugs, and work together side by side. Celamusa, one of the Khokho technicians, is the jokester of the group, so there’s always laughter in the workshop. And I miss the views and being in nature. Eswatini has an incredible landscape and being on the farm is always calming and rejuvenating after being in New York City for so long.

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Above, from left: Lutindzi grass drying, to be handwoven into the Khokho bags, and Nicole, an artisan weaver; below: a garden farm in Eswatini; at bottom: Khokho co-founders, from left, Philippa Thorne, Zinhle Vilakati and Sapna Shah

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