Winning Women – Eugenie Drakes: Crafting many a livelihood
Eugenie Drakes ignored a career counsellor’s advice to become a florist’s assistant. Today, she’s developing the skills of craftspeople while selling their wares to people such as Michelle Obama, Lira and Bill Clinton. Sue Grant-Marshall reports
Many a time, I’ve rushed through The Firs shopping centre in Rosebank, Joburg, unaware that a bit of Africa’s cultural heart lies cocooned there in an extraordinary shop called Piece.
White trees hold up a ceiling festooned with white branches. Those who enter – entranced by Ngwenya Glass bead necklaces from Swaziland, traditional baskets from rural KwaZulu-Natal and Bushman papier-mâché creatures from the Kalahari – often stay to listen to conversations under the trees.
Sometimes black women who have lost touch with their heritage burst into tears as they reconnect with it through the stories of Piece’s founder and owner, Eugenie Drakes, and her master beader, Beauty Maswanganyi.
“I called it Piece because we own the store, but not the artists’ creativity, only a piece of it,” explains Drakes.
“Customers leave with pictures, necklaces and baskets and they too own just a piece of the creator’s art.
“And the star on the ‘i’ of the store’s logo represents the special star that exists in every one of us, be it those who make or those who buy.”
It’s an enchanting and esoteric concept that has attracted customers ranging from Bill Clinton, Elton John and Michelle Obama to Graça Machel, Princess Charlene of Monaco, songstress Lira and Fern Mallis, the founder of New York Fashion Week.
Jewellery and art from Piece have been showcased in India’s Marie Claire magazine, as well as in Italian Vogue.
“Beauty recently designed and made a pair of cuff links that were presented to Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and she and I created a collection for the 2010 M-Net Face of Africa final live broadcast,” says Drakes.
They have also collaborated with designers for fashion weeks in New York, London and South Africa, as well as the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Africa.
She has worked in creative industries for the past 25 years with a specific focus in the past 12 years on developing sustainable enterprise in the handcraft sector.
“We focus on high-end contemporary handcraft and assist producers with basic business training, market-driven product development and
access to markets.”
Drakes emphasises that everything Piece produces is authentic, ethically sourced and makes a difference to the makers, enabling them to sustain themselves and their families.
“Working with grass-roots crafters and artists from remote rural communities, townships and informal settlements is a humbling experience,” says Drakes in her soft voice, which is in stark contrast to the wonderfully colourful jewellery and clothing she’s wearing.
She talks about Themba Masala from the Kalahari Desert and his hand-moulded range of papier-mâché crafts, embellished with carved wood and weighted with desert sand.
Drakes took Cape Town ceramist Andile Dyalvane to Ngwenya Glass in Swaziland, where the glass beads he made “were so beautiful that other members of the Ngwenya team were inspired to do the same”.
In an old church near Aberdeen in the Karoo, unique African angels are skilfully handcrafted by 15 people in a community-owned social enterprise.
They end up at Piece, which is one stop on their journey into homes from New York and London to Paris and Tokyo.
Drakes grew up in Joburg, a self-confessed “rebel from a right wing family”.
From an early age, she was fascinated by the cultures of different people, and in the 1980s managed the careers of actors, and ballet and opera stars.
Since the late 1990s, she has been helping micro and small enterprises exhibit their crafts in Germany, India, Ethiopia, New York, Italy and in South Africa at shows ranging from the Design Indaba to Decorex.
She’s helped with product development and branding for the Kalahari San and in 2003 was invited to address the Agoa Conference at the African Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington.
In 1999, she opened Piece at The Firs and the following year was invited to open a store at the sumptuous Saxon Hotel in Joburg.
Two years later, she moved back to The Firs, which she closed briefly to focus on international trade and the training of local craft entrepreneurs.
“But due to demand, I reopened Piece at the end of 2009. We have incredibly loyal customers,” she says.
“I’ve had my tough times too. I was divorced at the age of 45, and had to ensure that my two sons were educated and that I put bread on the table.”
When she saw the advert for the Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10 000 Women Certificate Programme, she applied because she’d “always worked instinctively and needed structure”. She says she was stunned to be accepted.
Attending the programme has made her realise the value of applying basic business methods to Piece.
“They have helped me to believe I have created something of value,” she says.
In future, Drakes would like to roll out more stores, and do even more training and development in the craft world.
» The Winning Women feature will appear again from November 3 and will run fortnightly