STANDING at about five foot five inches tall, Nicole Akong has a presence big enough to light up any room she enters.
The jeweller, whose work has caught the eyes of celebrities including Amal Clooney – a repeat client of hers – moved to London from Valsayn at 18. She had no idea what the future had in store.
Now she describes herself as “the creative force behind Akong Jewellery.”
Her work has been featured by Italian Vogue in February 2011, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia UK, and she was nominated as the New Designer of the Year in 2011 at the Fashion Awards in London.
Pieces from her body of work spanning nearly a decade were on display at Diamond Boulevard at B3 Wine & Spirits in St Ann’s between July 28 and August 8.
Akong, who has lived in London for 20 years said she was discovered by jewellery-making, rather than her discovering it.
She was always creative, though, sewing since she was a teen, and before that, “I was always making random things since I was about six or seven.”
She recalled that one day her parents threw out an old carpet. Before it was taken away, Akong cut up pieces of it, then stapled them together to make a pair of slippers.
“I was so proud of those slippers!” she laughed.
Before becoming known in the fashion industry, she worked in a corporate space, with no creative outlet.
“I felt like my soul was calling me to do something ‘make-y’ again. And it just so happened that I came across a bead shop in London which had a sign saying they had jewellery-making classes.”
Akong signed up for the one-day course, which explored two core techniques.
“What I was amazed at was, from those two techniques, when you look around at a lot of the jewellery you see in shops – those techniques are almost all it takes to make jewellery.”
In that one class, Akong tapped into her creative instincts, which had been dormant.
“I then started sourcing beads, ribbons and trims. From my dining table, I would just make things for myself which I would wear to work, or when I’m going out.”
It was not long before people started noticing the pieces, which added extra personality to her outfits.
“People would ask where I got them. When I told them they’re made by me, they’d be like, ‘Whaaaaat?’”
This reminded her how, in a generation, people have moved away from making clothes, unlike a few decades ago.
“We have become so accustomed to buying everything, and we do not even think about how things are made. It would just blow people’s minds because the pieces seemed quite complicated because of the materials I was using.”
Within that year she created a collection which generated so much buzz she had the opportunity to show her work at London Fashion week, which led to her showing her work in Paris. These events were the launchpads that made her work known throughout Europe and in international fashion.
Akong mixes a range of elements to create her recognisable pieces, combining fabric, gems, crystals and metals, connected by thread.
She did not always stick to the rules of how things “ought to be done,” which allowed her to create novel things “outside the box.”
“I think it really was a good thing that I was not institutionalised in a fashion school, because I think they teach you rules of what is acceptable and what isn’t. I did not have any of those rules, so of course I did not use them. I would source a lot of my material at fabric shops. I’d buy ribbons and trims and things generally used to edge sleeves.”
Her rationale for incorporating these elements into her creations was that she sees jewellery as embellishment with which anything can be done.
“When shopping I’d see a ribbon or a trim and immediately I would know what it wanted to be.
“Michelangelo said he sees the form inside the rock and he chisels away the excess. That’s how I feel when creating: that the material knew what it wanted to be. I just helped it become that.”
Before being pulled into creative work, Akong was going along an academic path which had led her to corporate London.
“I have two older sisters who were both studying the sciences, whose paths were both going to be medicine. So, growing up, if you asked me at 15 what I was going to be, I would have said a doctor.
“Had you asked me what I wanted to be when I was six I would have said a Soul Train dancer.”
But as she grew she made clothes for her dolls, then for herself as a teenager.
“But I did not make the connection, because in Trinidad at that time you were expected to go down a respectable route – fashion wasn’t a thing to do.”
While in TT, Akong met with a group of designers including Lisa See Tai, Lisa Faye, Josanne Mark, Lisa Gittens and Shari Cumberbatch. They discussed techniques and shared stories about the growing pains and triumphs of their businesses.
Akong said, “TT is overflowing with creativity and it is exciting. It was this overflow that pulled me back home. I could feel it calling me. I was ready.”
Asked her next move, she said she remains open to life.
“Before, I was very structured with what I want to do and where I want to be. But at this point, I am comfortable with saying I really don’t know. I just want to be in a place where I can continue being creative and share that creative energy for whatever value it can add.”