"I never thought I'd be a jewellery designer," says Mawi (pronounced Moy) Keivom of her eponymous brand which celebrates 10 years this season.
Having specialised in womenswear at Auckland Institute of Technology, Keivom came to the UK 16 years ago with aspirations of completing a Masters at Central Saint Martins specialising in textiles. "It was the last thing on my mind. My mum sent me to learn to knit, to sew. I was always sewing, from a young age I was cutting up my mum's clothes and customising stuff."
This emphasis on craft has had a clear impact on Keivom's designs, as has her upbringing. Born in Manipur in the north east of India, Keivom's father's role as a diplomat led to a nomadic childhood. "I lived all over the world, and it's shaped my aesthetic. The tribal cultures [of Manipur] are very different, people wear sarongs, they wear coral and feathers in their hair. If someone didn't tell you, you might think you were in Peru or Mexico, or people would think you were an American Indian. All the statement pieces are probably secretly inspired by tribal jewellery."
When Keivom was turned down by Central Saint Martins, she was advised to work on her portfolio and try again. "I thought, 'I'm just going to make some bags'. So I sent my seven samples to [London boutique] The Cross – it was when it had just opened, everyone shopped there, it made such a buzz and for a long time they were "the" stockist. That was the beginning."
Working with her then-boyfriend, now husband and business partner, Keivom introduced jewellery for the following season. "I made charm jewellery because I was always collecting vintage pieces and customising them. I found this 1950s bracelet with ginormous pearls on a chunky chain and added tusks, coins, skulls. Over the last 10 years charms have become commonplace – you can find them in the pound store – but it was an aesthetic no one was exploiting at the time and it was fresh."
The success of these small runs led to an invite to show at London Fashion Week, which in turn led to 100s of orders. Armed with a £750 business loan and friends and family members' support, the designer had to explain that each piece would be slightly different. "Thankfully it was that whole era of doing your own thing, customisation and one-off pieces." It may have been a coincidence, but Keivom appears blessed with an ability of predicting trends. "I just get this feeling to follow my instincts, and usually I'm right," she says. "Somehow it all comes together, I guess it's a g od-given thing."
As the business expanded Keivom chose to focus on jewellery and over the last decade Mawi's aesthetic has become more polished while keeping Keivom's design signature. Kathryn Tan of Harvey Nichols, which has stocked the brand for eight years, believes this handwriting is important to Mawi's appeal. "The brand is a pleasure to work with," says the jewellery buyer, "providing a timeless yet directional range."
Spikes are a recurring theme, as are panthers, skulls and tribal details. "I'm into punk in terms of music," she says. "And that whole era inspires me. I've always been rebellious – I went to a Catholic school and wanted to do everything that was against the rules. I like that whole aesthetic, not conforming and breaking boundaries."
"I'm very much about tradition as well, it's about mixing it up with this rebellious edge." A great example was last year's collaboration with Disney, creating Minnie Mawi, a costume jewellery line inspired by the famous mouse. "It was a huge challenge and I really wanted to do it well. Obviously there were some restrictions with the characters, because they're so iconic and loved by millions of people." Keivom can relate to carefully controling a brand's image; a hit with celebrities, a strict A-list only policy is employed when lending pieces.
Next month the brand will debut a handbag range, while a retrospective collection of the jewellery hits of recent years has just been launched. Keivom's studio may be a 300-year-old barn in east London, but her aspirations are big. "As much as you want to keep it a cottage industry, sometimes you've got to move faster than you want to. But it's exciting."