Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD A issue 07/28/2014

Michael Nelson has caught the collaboration bug.

This story first appeared in the July 28, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The New York-based fair-trade designer has teamed with Selima Optique on a collection of handmade Italian sunglasses embellished with semiprecious stones and glass beads.

“I think collaborations are such a key component in fashion right now,” said Nelson. “I love to bridge what I’m doing and bring it into different products.”

Nelson’s namesake line of luxury accessories is made in partnership with a fair-trade beading cooperative in Kenya. The designer founded the brand following his senior thesis at Parsons The New School for Design, centered on fusing traditional African craft with modern design. After graduating in 2012, Nelson traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, where the project officially came together.

“I had this vision of helping through a fair-trade cooperative, but in a luxury setting,” said Nelson. “I went to Nairobi and founded this cooperative with two local women. What I saw from the very beginning was this need to change the pay structure. Typically, in a fair-trade capacity, they weren’t getting paid for three months after their work because they were waiting for the designers to get their wholesale orders. There was a huge lag time. What I did was develop a cash-and-carry system — they turn in their panels and get paid immediately.”

With the cooperative rapidly growing — it now employs 12 women — Nelson frequently returns to Kenya to check in on the project. It was his most recent trip, in fact, that inspired the eyewear project with Selima.

“I had a pair of sunglasses that I asked the ladies to bead, and it came out supercool,” said Nelson. “When I came back to New York, I started researching companies I’d love to collaborate with, and Selima was such an easy fit.”

The collection features aviator frames done with semiprecious stone beads (hematite, lapis lazuli and freshwater pearls) and multicolored glass beads, priced at $585 and $375, respectively. He estimates the collection will generate about $300,000 in sales in its first year.

The collection will become available on Oct. 1 in Selima Boutique locations, as well as on

Nelson’s main collection was recently picked up by Chicago boutique Ikram, as well as the fair-trade e-commerce site Accompany.

Ultimately, Nelson hopes to have a retail space of his own.

“The plan is to have a home base in Nairobi,” he said. “[I want] a brick-and-mortar that’s a real nucleus for activity.”

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