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In Conversation: Yami Mengistu

In Conversation: Yami Mengistu

The first in a new series of discussions with women we love, Raven + Lily In Conversation features interviews with the women who inspire us on a daily basis. Taking a closer look at the lives and stories of our collaborators, friends and other artists we admire, we begin our conversation with Yamerote ‘Yami’ Mengistu. The founder of the leather accessories studio we work with in Addis Ababa, Yamerote is the inspiration behind our Yami Backpack. Her shrewd business acumen has helped to popularize the quality of Ethiopian leather, design and craftsmanship around the world.

Born in Sweden, Yamerote moved to Ethiopia at an early age and subsequently spent her teenage years and early twenties in Los Angeles. She returned to Ethiopia to start her business and began working with Raven + Lily in 2013. Speaking of the partnership, Yamerote reflected: ‘When I look back at where we started it always amazes me to see how much a few dedicated people can achieve and how many people’s lives they can change for the better’. We spoke to her about her unique experience as a female entrepreneur in Africa, her creative process and the incredible amount of work that goes into making a single bag.

What inspired you to start your own business

‘After I moved to Ethiopia with my husband and two daughters, I wanted to do something that would bring the country positive recognition while also providing jobs for women and highlighting the traditional handcraft techniques in the area. The government was encouraging people to create textile and leather products, so I started to look into what I could do. My aim was for Ethiopia to be seen in a new light – I wanted people to see that we have beautiful things to offer.’

What brought you back to Ethiopia from the US?

‘My family moved to the US because Christians were being persecuted in Ethiopia by the government, and my mom decided that she didn't want us to grow up in that environment. We moved to a suburb of Los Angeles called Norwalk and it was quite the culture shock. I didn’t feel like I fit in and whenever people heard I was from Ethiopia they had a certain image of the country because of the Live Aid concert, but over time I did make a lot of friends and we were able to find refuge there for many years. When we moved there, it was always with a thought that one day, when things got better in Ethiopia, we would return. I was in the US for a total of 17 years, and married with children when I finally moved back. My husband is in ministry and we returned to see if we could help in any way.’

‘I love living in Addis because you feel like you belong to a community, everyone sees you as family.’

What do you love most about living and working in Addis Ababa?

‘I love living in Addis because you feel like you belong to a community, everyone sees you as family. Working here is very different though. Ethiopia has a slower pace than most countries so it can be a little frustrating at times!’

Have you always been creative? What’s your creative process?

‘My mother was very creative, she used to sew us dresses for our birthdays and I think I followed her lead. I don't really have a set creative process though. Sometimes it’s the material, other times it may be a specific event. Or sometimes it’s just scraps I find - the Kerem Convertible Handbag was born out of trying to make use of all the scraps we had lying around the workshop!’

Why bags? Why did you choose to work with leather?

‘I love bags because everyone has a use for them. From a small wallet to a weekender, everyone needs a bag. As far as leather, I love the longevity. We always say that the stitches on the bag may come out but the leather will last forever.’

Who, what and where inspires you?

‘My mom inspires me. She’s taught me how to deal with people and to always remember that we don't live for ourselves alone. I find inspiration from the leathers I find, and I like visiting museums wherever I travel. When I was younger I thought Lanvin's accessories were the best-designed ones.’

What does a typical day look like for you at work?

‘At work, every day is different. If there are samples that we are working on I start making patterns and work with a team to put them together, I’ll also check and see if there are any shipments that need to go out, and check in with everyone on their assignments. We break for lunch at 1pm for an hour, then in the afternoon I’ll often go to the tannery. I continue to supervise and answer questions for the rest of the afternoon. We finish at 5pm and then I head home. Before Covid, I used to take a short walk before dinner. My family and I have dinner around 7pm and I try to help my daughter with homework if she needs it, which isn't often anymore!’

‘Bag making requires creativity when you're designing and precision when you are assembling.' 

What goes into making a bag?

‘It varies for each bag but it always starts with choosing the leather first, then we work on the pattern. Bag making requires creativity when you're designing and precision when you are assembling. For example the remnant bag has 64 pieces of leather that starts with scraps, is traced onto the leather, cut with a knife, glued like a jigsaw puzzle and finally sewn. It’s transformed from 64 pieces of leather to 14, then two, and finally the handle is attached. There is also a lot of knotting and trimming of the thread involved throughout – when you see all of the pieces beforehand it’s hard to imagine them as a beautiful bag.’

Which is your favourite bag in the collection?

‘It changes from time to time but right now I love the Addis Weekender because it doubles up as a day-to-day tote bag.’

What do you keep in your bag?

‘Smaller bags! I have a wallet, a small toiletry bag, and another zip-up wallet to keep bigger items that won't fit in a regular sized one.’

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

‘To believe in myself and that if I work hard I will be rewarded with more work.’ 

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