September 12, 2018—Some red-carpet jewels make a statement because they are priceless treasures. Others stand out because they are imaginative. The necklace Viola Davis wore to the Widows premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8 was just that, eye-catching and totally original. It took my breath away when I first spotted it. I tracked down the visionary behind the label House of Yimama, Ntando Kunene, to find out about the design and her budding jewelry company. When I reached her by phone in California, she told me a story that was moving enough to be transformed into a Hollywood movie.
House of Yimama is only a five-year-old company and the beaded jewels made by Zulu women in South Africa are just sold in your Etsy shop and when you make appearances at markets like the Silver Lake Flea and Leimert Park. How did the Viola Davis red-carpet moment happen?
Viola’s stylist Elizabeth Stewart, who dresses so many amazing stars including Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchette and Gal Gadot, found us on Instagram. Elizabeth was looking for something really special for Viola for the Widows premiere. She had a vision. I sent them a few necklaces. I didn’t know which one they would choose, if any. When I saw Viola, it was a dream come true. I used to watch her on How to Get Away With Murder and imagine her in the jewelry.
What inspired House of Yimama?
It is a company that is very dear to my heart. I am from South Africa and Zulu by birth. I went to school at UCLA then I went home to help with a family member for a time and that’s when the idea really started to form. I have felt over the years that African stories need to be told in more ways than one. Jewelry resonates with me.
In Zulu culture jewelry once communicated different messages, such as a woman’s marital status or if she was in mourning. Today, the messages are not the same, but women still bead. Girls that are creatively inclined are taught about beading. It was important to me to employ women from my hometown, Durban. I wanted to empower people that I actually know.
I collaborate with the head beader who gets together groups, some are single mothers, and they create the jewelry. She is constantly training people. The money we make helps the community. I moved back to Los Angeles to distribute and sell the jewelry and to help find a wider audience.
What about the designs? What inspires the work today?
Most pieces are Zulu inspired and they are the ones in the brightest colors. There has also been an interest for other color combinations, so we have various patterns. There are black and white pieces. Viola’s necklace came from the Rasta collection. It is inspired by the colors of the Jamaican flag. The silhouettes are contemporary forms we work in.
What does the name Yimama mean?
It was my great grandmother’s name. I am a very spiritual person and there was a woman in my life who I consider my spiritual grandmother. She never knew my great grandmother, but she had a dream about her. In the dream she told her what I need to do. It was to take Zulu products and bring them to people. So, that is what I am doing.