Cape Gem brings Mielie handbags into the UK - An ethical handbag range with a fashion conscience

Spring/Summer fashion 2009 promises to herald a splash of colour as well as embracing the trend for all things “homemade”. The perfect accessory to tie these trends together comes in the form of a brand new range of handbags from South Africa. MIELIE HANDBAGS provide a wonderful collection of handcrafted boho chic bags, each one unique. Handwoven from recycled materials by women of the South African townships, with a detachable paper label signed by the weaver inside, they have already received recognition from industry insiders like Caroline Marx, costume designer for HSM3; Senior Year and many other Hollywood blockbusters. The Mielie handbag designs are beautiful, bright and bold – appealing to the young and older alike.


The Mielie company and bags are the brainchild of Adri Schutz, a designer from Cape Town, and together they help provide the livelihood for some 50 people (mostly women) in Khayelitsha township who handcraft the products that Adri designs – using recycled materials and as little machinery as possible. Since the business started in 2002, Mielie has enabled the staff to work from their homes in the greater Cape Town area, some of whom have health problems such as epilepsy. Working from home means that mothers can be with their children and transport costs are kept to a minimum. Everyone meets once a week to drop off completed products, check quality and receive new orders. To make the products, Mielie employs many age-old and time-consuming fibre-craft techniques, such as hooked rugging, crochet and knotting.


To reflect the fashion themes of Spring Summer 2009, Mielie has introduced several ranges which will complement the season’s fashion hot looks. The range as a whole is 100% handcrafted which reflects the handmade theme on the catwalks this Spring/Summer. Marc Jacobs, Prada, Anna Sui and Vivienne Westwood all showcased the “handmade” trend. The Mielie collection also has a great choice of bags to suit several of the key looks including the colours of the season - Neons/Pinks/Blues/Greens/Oranges and Yellows as well as the prominent themes of dots and spots, fringing and all things tribal.


Different designs of Mielie bag include the face, flower, bubbles, organno, stripes, tilted blocks, vertebrae and waves ranges. There are also several kinds of style ranging from £18 for a pencil case to £135 for an overnight bag. The seven available styles include the classic Mielie bag, a Shelley overnight bag, a Mielie shopper, a Kiepie and an AJ – smaller versions of the classic Mielie with slight variation in shapes, the Mielie clutch and the pencil case.


Says Adri “To survive in a competitive market, you need to be abreast of trends and the latest colours. We want to create a collection of bags that reflects these fashion trends precisely so we can continue to thrive and offer our workforce their much needed stability. Our bags are so much more than just an accessory. Living in South Africa, you cannot help but be exposed to poverty on all levels. Looking around me, I had the idea of using handcrafts as a potential solution to some of this poverty. People here are so great at working with their hands and have the time to invest in creating desirable products for an international market. By launching Mielie, we have the ability to create an income, put food on the table and inspire people with what we produce. We also wanted to connect the person wearing the bag with the person who made it via our blog, http://fa.mielie.com. Every bag wearer is unique in the same way every weaver creates a unique bag.”


With only 500 bags made each month for worldwide distribution, Mielie handbags are much sought after. Bags are available through the handpicked UK distributor – Cape Gem – whose policy is only to buy accessories that are ethically produced. Carol Lovell, founder of Cape Gem; “It is important to us to maintain our focus on the cape region of South Africa and its designers and employers. So many of the accessories bought today in the UK are sourced from developing countries where workers are paid meagre wages. All of our suppliers, where they employ local people, pay fair wages as a minimum. Cape Gem aims to also plough back some of its profits going to Mielie to aid Mielie projects. However we won’t be short changed on style.

Our pieces must be eye popping, individual and cool - items that women would wear, at an affordable price. To see celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens with a Mielie bag is a wonderful boost for the bags and all that they stand for.”


So with the UK and the rest of the world’s appetite for the bags about to be whetted, the literal meaning of the word Mielie takes on even greater significance. Mielie is Afrikaans for the word corn and corn is the staple diet of most South Africans, and probably the first item on most of the weavers’ shopping list. The hooked rug products also feel like kernels on a corn cob.


As well as providing an ethical wage for the workers, the company has made the decision to make very little profit themselves – with any profit ploughed back/reallocated into projects to help improve the living standards of the weavers and their community. Mielie's food garden in Khayelitsha to create an organic vegetable patch made by the Mielie crafters to combat the soaring food prices, the wholly Mielie funded nursery school and the drive to provide fire extinguishers for respected and reliable members of the Khayelitsha township community to help prevent fires spreading are great examples of the good being done.


You will love your Mielie handbag – the way it looks, how it makes you feel and the contribution it makes. Get your bag online at www.capegem.co.uk.

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