The first time Heather and I spoke on the phone, I was immediately struck by the radiance and warmth of her voice. It glowed through our conversation and I knew right away that I had come across someone special.

Heather, I discovered soon after, is the heartstrings of Mushmina and so much more.

 

Running a successful small business is one thing. However, running a flourishing small business, as a strong female CEO, with a mindful mission from Morocco is an entirely different situation. All of these challenges could bring even a strong person down. Heather, despite these obstacles, chooses to ‘run into the storm’ as she has expressed to me in the past. And she is one storm-strong woman.

Heather describes successfully owning a business in Morocco as ‘rolling with it, no matter how crazy things may be.’ She is a firm believer in karma and the universe backing her up. And she should; her work ethic and her incredible human spirit are unmatchable.

On top of it all, Heather is a loving mother to two wee people-Hiba, four years and Youssef, one year. And she is as hands on as a mama could be-I often call her and she’s been out for a nature walk with her kids. Or she brings the gang with her to our informal meetings at my house. Which I love!

The pressure, however, of being a thriving small business owner and an effective mother, can be stressful. Particularly working from home; where chaos can reign with two little ones.  However, Heather manages to find the light in the chaos. She claims that flexibility is the key to positivity. She explains earnestly, ‘To me, this has so much value. I love that each day is different and I can take a sick day with my daughter if I need to.’ She continues, ‘Hiba loves to play in the workshop next to me and tries on all the latest clothing and bags. My son goes right for my toolbox. It does get a little chaotic but I have a wonderful helper and a door that I can shut when necessary; this is how I find my sanity. I also work at midnight when everyone else is asleep.’

Peace seems to seek out Heather. This girl just doesn’t get flustered! I’ve called her more times that not when a product order has been lost in the Moroccan mail (it happens quite often) or Hiba has dumped applesauce all over Youssef’s head. And she goes with the flow! She frequently tells me that the universe has its way of sorting things out.

She’s also pretty darn humble. She’ll be the first to give credit to her fab sis and Co-Founder, Katie, as well as the incredible team of Mushmina artisans. As well as her family and husband, Mohamed. Her nature is one of caring for others.

 

At the same time, this Mama rocks the fashion accessories world with her innovative, creative, supportive mission. But Heather is no wallflower! She says she has learned to be assertive and firm living in Morocco and running a business here. She explains, ‘You have to have boundaries. There is a balance in being patient but also being productive. Things take more time here, but I have found a rhythm.’ She laughs good-naturedly. ‘Most of the time.’

 

mMUS_2100x-517

Heather’s connection to Morocco and its people is exceptionally remarkable. The best part is that it comes so naturally to her. Heather learned Darija, one of the local languages of Morocco, when she was a Small Business Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005 in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. As she fittingly describes, ‘People’s heads turn when they hear that I can speak the language and also that I am an experienced negotiator.’ Clearly, the respect is there.

Working closely and diligently with women’s groups, co-ops, and artisans inherently allowed her to easily pick up the language fluently. Heather’s bond with those with whom she comes in contact is extraordinary. While most expats do not speak Darija, Heather defies the odds and does all of her work in the language. Watching and listening to her work is an art-a fascinating, back-and-forth of gentle grit and perseverance. Yet she manages to have a kindness and warmth to her that is incredibly affable and approachable.

The close link that Heather has with her long-term team of loyal artisans is palpable. Trust and relationships take time to develop here in Morocco and Heather has dedicated years of her time to this labor of love, Mushmina. She has earned respect, appreciation, and most importantly, affection and admiration from her body of artists. As she often says, ‘I learn from them as much as they learn from me.’

This mutual admiration and respect comes from years of getting to know her artisans and their families, a key part of Moroccan culture. Heather describes it best-‘My leadership style is very personal. I am particularly invested in our team, I know their families and they know mine. This is also how business is done in Morocco and I love this about my adopted home.’

 

 

After I spoke to Heather on the phone for the first time, we decided to meet in Casablanca. We realized quickly that our vision was similar. We both were former Peace Corps Volunteers, gravitating towards empowering and supporting women in particular.

As soon as I walked into the café where we had arranged to meet, Heather’s charmingly genuine smile greeted me from across the bustling Moroccan tearoom. I knew at that moment, I was meeting my future boss. Even more essentially, my steadfast friend.

Perhaps one might agree that Heather is in fact, the thread of Mushmina. And if the universe has its way of sorting things out, then I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be a part of Heather’s cosmos.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger, ‘among other things!’

 

 

Just outside of Marrakech’s all encompassing magnetism is but another level of living ~Starting my day venturing away from the bustle of the souks towards the climb of the snow capped landscape of the Atlas mountains is truly soul enlivening. One of my favorite parts of our work in Morocco has become our visits with the women artisans of The Eve Branson Foundation. Their berber village along the cliffs of these majestic mountains hosts a creative center for the local community to learn and grow their artistic skills setup by the Branson family and outstanding staff.

Just before working on a project I experience this familiar inner “excitement” as to how things will go, which direction it will take and hopeful it will be successful for all of those involved…you see, every effort is that of a community here in Morocco. This trip was yet another reminder that we all need one another for survival and success to abound. It is in this humble and artistic community that I find I am continuously learning almost more than I’m teaching while I visit for a workshop. My designs are inspired by my surroundings here and it is a joy to see them translated through the handwork of the artisans in this collaborative process. Just opposite the enchanting Kasbah Tamadot Branson hotel, the foundation offers the locals programs on seamstress work, embroidery, woodworking and a now hand loom for women, traditionally a craft of men. The growth of the center is inspiring and we’re thrilled to be a part of the journey. From color theory workshops to new clothing patterns, as Mushmina grows so will our ability to provide artisan employment opportunities with a focus on women’s empowerment while offering inspired pieces in partnership with EBF and beyond.

Something I’ve learned in this unpredictable work which continues to propel me is that when you follow the pull of the universe, in this case into the lure of the mountains, you will be rewarded with confirmations. I’m easy to please and the spirit of the women I meet is reward enough but I’m not opposed to a glass of wine at the end of the day while soaking in the energy of the Atlas Mountains on the veranda of Kasbah Tamadot. Life is majestic.

Cheers,                                                                                                                                                                    Katie O’Neill                                                                                                                                             Mushmina, Creative Director

View our collections at www.mushmina.com

Katie EBF Kasbah cliff.JPG

Mountain view from EBF Center.jpg

EBF Rachid's girls-jackets.JPG

EBF girls patternmaking.JPG

EBF Barb:Rachid mesuring.JPG

EBF blackboard.JPG

EBF Center weave:emb.JPG

EBF emb ladies-teaching pattern.JPG

EBF Katie teaching design.JPG

EBF Amina teacher.JPG

EBF Barbara showroom.JPG

EBF shibga design.JPG

EBF Barb & Katie.JPG

EBF Rhonda emb:lil girl.jpg

EBF sign.jpg

EBF weaving center.JPG

EBF weaving co op.JPG

EBF weaving ladies.JPG

EBF weaving lady.JPG

EBF handmade weaving tools.JPG

EBF weaving samples.JPG

EBF Center weaving sample gilr.JPG

EBF view rode.jpg

Atlas snow mountain view.JPG

Berber Village Atlas mountains.jpg

Kasbah Tamedot Veranda.JPG

Katie at KasbahT 2.jpg

Brandson Kasbah doorway.jpg

Master metalsmith Ahmed El Guerche works closely with handmade fashion label Mushmina’s creative director Katie O’Neill to create the Sahara jewelry collection that is a signature of the accessories line. Ahmed grew up in the mountains outside of Ouarzazate, Morocco’s famous film capital renowned for its striking cinematic landscapes and the setting for such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Babel. Ahmed, lead metalsmith for Mushmina, is recognized for creating pieces that are as eye catching as the arresting surroundings of his childhood.

Ahmed is of Amazigh (Berber) descent, the indigenous people of Morocco. The Berbers are known for wearing jewelry as an expression of tribal identity. Berber jewelry, which is always made of silver, is noted for its beautiful and intricate enamel work and is a definition of status in the culture. Characteristic pieces are often etched with protective and tribal symbols, use vintage coins, and incorporate red and green glass stone. Berber women wear silver fibulas—triangular brooches or pins, and head decorations as a symbol of their wealth in rural society.

Ahmed learned jewelry making and metal work as a young apprentice as he studied under a master metalsmith for five years when he moved to Tiznit, the silver capital of Morocco to establish himself. Mushmina learned about Ahmed from a Peace Corps volunteer who recommended him to Katie and her sister/co-founder Heather because of his outstanding skill in creating collections with mixed metals and his undeniably strong work ethic. The collaboration, which began in 2009 has been a success and although Ahmed and Katie are thousands of miles apart, the two creatively inspire each other.  Katie sends Ahmed sketches of shapes and ideas for new jewelry pieces and Ahmed then adds his own spin, which can include unique Berber etching, swirl designs or a completely new take altogether. It’s common for Ahmed to work through the night to finish orders and his work is so appealing the orders keep pouring in. His dedication has paid off. Morocco’s Ministry of the Artisinat, which serves to promote and support the artisans and craftspeople of Morocco, nominated Ahmed for top artisan in 2012 and he participated in an artisan expo in Morocco’s capital, Rabat the same year.

Ahmed, who started with a small workshop in his home, has since moved to an atelier space where he employs a number of people to help fill orders—sometimes even calling on his brother AbdelWahed to assist. Although Ahmed doesn’t have a formal education, he is a quick learner and embraces technology to advance his work. He uses the Internet, email and digital images to interpret Mushmina’s orders.

As is common in Morocco, Ahmed lives in a mixed household in the southern town of Tiznit with his wife Aisha, daughter Hind (11), and son Soufian (7) and his brother and his family. He’s a man who is always moving. He enjoys biking to work and when he is not busy in his workshop he likes to go running. Katie and Heather take the ten-hour trip to visit Ahmed in Tiznit at least once a year where he warmly invites them into his home to share a lemon chicken tagine and mint tea. Not motivated by money, Ahmed is quick to remind the two sisters that he only works with people who are ‘nishan’ (serious) and whom he wants to do business with.  So, it’s a good thing he likes Katie and Heather. The three manage to converse during these visits despite a language barrier. Heather is fluent in Arabic but Ahmed uses a fast spoken dialect that is a combination of Moroccan Arabic and the Berber language that is known as Tashelhit. When words fail to get the message across, the visually oriented group relies on photos and drawings to communicate.

Ahmed’s latest collaboration with Mushmina is the Spring 2014 collection of etched bracelets, cuffs, and pendants. The collection features pieces in silver, brass, copper, and filigree and each is a modern interpretation of Ahmed’s traditional craft. Ahmed also incorporates wood inlay, which is often seen in Tuareg jewelry. Each piece is decorated and in a touch characteristic of Ahmed the back side of items he crafts are often etched in as he can’t stand to see anything look plain or unfinished. The culmination of the collection is truly collaborative as Katie adds her unique touch and finishing to Ahmed’s pieces for modern appeal.

To Learn more about Morocco’s Berber culture, there is a wonderful new Amazigh Berber Museum in the famous Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech  http://jardinmajorelle.com/ang/introduction-to-berber-culture/

-From “A Window to Morocco Series” – By Heather O’Neill and Yvonne King.

Image

ImageImageImageImageImage

%d bloggers like this: