Photo courtesy: Omi Woods|Illustration: Urbi Khan

Omi Woods draws inspiration from matriarchal line, raises awareness for sickle cell anemia

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By Heidi Lee

Omi Woods is an ethical jewelry line incubated by the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation at Ryerson, which draws its inspiration from the pan-African diaspora and the familial ties of the company’s owner and creative director, Ashley Alexis McFarlane.

McFarlane and her jewelry line graduated with two other businesses in the fourth cycle of the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation in October 2018. The Joe Fresh Centre is an incubator created by Ryerson University and Joe Fresh to help fashion-inspired companies to launch their brand.

Omi Woods offers handmade jewelry made with conflict-free metals that can be passed down to future generations as heirlooms. Omi Woods started off as a formal dress-wear company, but it has now evolved into a contemporary heirloom jewelry line after participating in the 18-month program at the Joe Fresh Centre. The jewelry is made of demi-fine precious metal, mainly silver or gold using traditional techniques, which is sustainable and long-lasting—the demi fine metals sets itself apart from fine-jewelry and costume-jewelry.

“The value of the jewelry is not in the metal, it is in the stories that are told,” said McFarlane.

The jewelry line also collaborates with celebrities to bring awareness to sickle cell anemia. McFarlane, partnered up with Grammy-nominated record producer Nana Kwabena to create a jewelry collection. They have planned on donating a portion of the company’s proceeds to AllOneBlood, a non-profit organization aiming to support people suffering from sickle cell anemia.

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disorder caused by abnormalities in red blood cells, in the hemoglobin gene. Anyone can suffer from this disease but it is commonly diagnosed in people from African, Caribbean and the Middle Eastern regions.

Out of all the jewelry she has crafted, she said the Caribbean Bangles” are her most significant pieces because she had received bangles from her mother, who originally got them from her grandmother.

McFarlane’s grandmother, Doreen Salmon, was the oldest Canadian with sickle cell disease but died in 2017 at the age of 77. Salmon was diagnosed with sickle cell disease during her third pregnancy during the ‘60s. Salmon had experienced pain throughout her childhood but was not aware of what caused it.

“We have a tradition of women sharing jewelry throughout the matriarchal line,” said McFarlane. “You usually wear two bangles. What the elders said is that two bangles jingle together.”

Apart from her grandmother’s story, her Jamaican and Ashanti heritage also paved the way for her fashion career.

“It is an interesting way for me to reconnect my Ashanti heritage of ancestors being goldsmiths and metalsmiths in Africa,” she said.

Monica Mei Chiu, the director of the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation, said the key to launching a business is to offer the market your unique ideas at the right time.

“We don’t need just another jewelry designer, ” said Chiu. “The market needs a jewelry line focusing on diversity and pan-African culture.”

With McFarlane helping Omi Woods, the company is looking to establish a purpose to continue African women’s legacy, passing down love and cultural beliefs to future generations.

With files from Urbi Khan

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