Azuni London was one of the very first brands we approached to join our brand when it opened back in 2012. We were instantly drawn to their stunningly intricate beadwork and clear passion for tribal inspired designs. On delving a little deeper into the history of Azuni, we discovered that their founder, Ashley Marshall, shares our fascination with indigenous wisdom. We wanted to find out more about where it all began for Ashely, what inspired his designs and how he came to discover the incredibly skilled collective of local artisans that he works with in Guatemala. This is our Designer Spotlight interview with Azuni London founder, Ashely Marshall.
When did your fascination with Native American cultures begin and what drew you to them?
I first became aware of Native American, Amazonian and other tribal cultures from about the age of 10 when I inherited a large collection of National Geographic magazines from my grandparents. My parents also had a copy of Edward C Curtis amazing book of the late 20th century depicting the last Native Americans in traditional dress and their environments. The imagery in this book had a strong impact on me and got me wanting to discover more. I was drawn to their powerful features and ceremonial costumes and at that age I became curious as to how tribal peoples all over the world still existed in a modern day context. I became aware of how different my world was to theirs.
However, once I started delving into Amerindian and aboriginal cultures, I discovered the true horrors of how they'd been treated over the centuries through colonisation, racism and land grabbing which unfortunately still continues to this day. This shocked and saddened me and as a small boy I felt a strong sense of injustice had been done. Not fully understanding why these injustices were carried out on so many people it was hard for me to comprehend. People that were clearly living a more sustainable way of life than us. I became aware of how they worshipped nature and their connectivity to it and I reflected on my own world and realised how destructive and wasteful it is. This just got me even madder, and I carried it around with me for a long time.
What elements of tribal cultures interest you the most and how did this lead you into jewellery design? How does it fuel your inspiration in design today?
One of the main attraction to tribal cultures is their ability to survive with the resources they have around them. Homing down their skills to create practical and functional everyday objects by hand often created using a single or limited materials but beautifully crafted. A babies papoose carried on the back, buckskin moccasins exquisitely embellished with beads or tightly woven baskets that could carry water. Each piece unique, made to last but ultimately made from natural materials that were sustainable. This struck a chord with me and I've always felt that creating objects in this way. is such a pure and honest way to live.
The concept of 'urban tribes’ is so interesting, how did you come up with this idea?
This is partly linked to music and modern cultural movements. I guess growing up in the 70´s and 80´s and then surviving the 90´s rave scene I experienced a lot of different music movements with all their idiosyncrasies, dress codes and comaradery. I was an avid fan of the rare soul and rockabilly scenes and I shared the passion and obsessions for the music, dance, drugs and dressing up. I realised that as we get older many of us are still deeply connected to these experiences and they form so much of who we become. Basically its tribalism at its heart and many of us still feel that connection decades later. Urban tribes is the idea that all of us belong to one modern tribe or another, and we connect to that tribe through our beliefs, politics, music and fashion.
We at Lore are passionate about the stories surrounding traditional jewellery making techniques that have passed down through generations. How did you connect with the artisans that create your beautiful pieces and what techniques do they use? How do you source the materials?
I had been travelling south and central America for a number of years, visiting anthropological museums and villages where I had heard there would be some traditional crafts being made. Each village often specialising on a particular style or skill set, whether it be pottery, embroidery or basket weaving. My idea was to create a small trade network that would aid local communities and showcase their traditional artisan craftsmanship’s to a modern first world audience and help promote often forgotten, sustainable crafts. Eventually I discovered a small cooperative workshop in the beautiful highlands of Guatemala creating fine quality glass beadwork, and this is where the Azuni story really began. Working closely with a small team of all female artisans I focused on using the many beadwork techniques they employed to create new and sophisticated designs in modern colour palettes. I launched my first collection 2 years later at Premiere Classe in Paris in 1996. Glass seed beads are sourced form Japan's oldest bead makers to ensure quality and precision.
Why is it so important to Azuni to preserve traditional craft making techniques?
Unlike modern consumer products that have been computer designed and mass produced, artisan craftmanship offers us a connection to a real world where human ingenuity, imagination and skills are honed and passed down over 1000´s of years. Endless trial and error to perfect what were often practical objects used in ever day life elevated to timeless functional beauty. These crafts represent our cultural heritage and identities and are part of our spiritual DNA. Crafts are often less impactful on our environment and represent a more conscious way of living that has never been as important as it is today in our throw away, polluting society.
By working with artisans we focus on shared skills, community and an appreciation of materials and time spent. Traditional artisans engage us to cherish and admire them and therefore take care of them. Once lost these skills will never return.