Join us on an exciting journey as we explore the inspiring story of Karen Kema Maxwell, founder of Kema’s Kreations. Hear about her incredible journey of taking a passion for sewing and transforming it into a successful business, creating stunning wood purses, clutches, backpacks, and travel bags with African and African American themes. In our conversation, we also dive into her experiences in manufacturing and the importance of finding the right partner to bring your product concept to life. Kema shares her personal experiences and highlights resources available to entrepreneurs to help get their products to market.
Steve Melito: Hey everybody, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. Today we’re talking to Karen Kema Maxwell, the founder and owner of Kema’s Kreations in Albany, new York. Kema’s Kreations is a woman-owned business that makes wood purses, clutches, backpacks and travel bags. The company is gaining national attention and its hand-crafted products have beautiful African and African American themes. In 2019, purses from Kema’s Kreations were featured at Harlem Fashion Week at the Museum of the City of New York. Most recently, several of Kema’s Kreations appeared in episodes of TV’s General Hospital. You can see them on the web by visiting shopkema.com Kema Maxwell, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now.
Kema Maxwell: Thank you, you made me sound so good.
Steve Melito: Thank you. Well, you are good, you are very accomplished. Thank you, I appreciate that, so Kema, tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in fashion and why sewing in particular?
Kema Maxwell: What is all webbed into my DNA, on both sides, parental and paternal. My mom was seamstress in Panama, which is where I’m from, and so was my grandmother. Then I have a slew of elder cousins that were seamstress tailor, so on and so forth. So I didn’t really have a choice. It was fate huh, exactly.
Steve Melito: Well, what made you start Kema’s Kreations then? What was going on in your life at the time and what need did you see in the marketplace?
Kema Maxwell: I graduated from fashion industries in Manhattan, New York, so sewing has been like I said, it’s been a part of me for quite some time. So I’ve been sewing since middle school. I was doing clothing for my kids and then you know house stuff curtains, pillows, blankets, that type of stuff and it got to the point where I found myself altering clothes for a lot of people, but doing it for free. And one day someone was like you know, you could get paid for this. And I was like, oh really, I can? Hmm, all right, I’m going to start charging folks. And Kema’s Kreations became a thing Didn’t ever expect to be at this point I found where I enjoy making bags more than clothing, and watching my daughter go back and forth to Albany High with this big duffel bag on her very little back, I’m like, or shoulder, I’m like, how do you make this work for you? And then I found my love for bags. And here I am.
Steve Melito: And here you are. So tell me more about the handcrafted wooden purses that you make. How do you make them and what are they made of?
Kema Maxwell: Oh, loaded question. If you were to ask me the same question that you just did about wood, I don’t know that I could give you such detail. I don’t know when and how wood became a thing in my life. I just know that, I say this often enough and people think I’m playing, but I’m not. I’m probably undiagnosed ADHD. I can’t sit still for very long, I can’t stay on one thing for very long, so I keep finding different ways to elevate my craft, and wood came along somehow, some way. When COVID hit, I got a grant from the Community Loan Fund and for the longest time you know how they catch you with those commercials and those infomercials. So Glowforge was on my vision board. I’m like one day, one day. And then the grant came along and it was like you have to buy equipment. Well, I think this is an opportunity to buy equipment. So the Glowforge came into my life and I was able to create better wood projects. At the time I only was envisioning handles, wanted wood handles on my bag. Now, with the Glowforge, I can create whole bags with wood. I use all sorts of different wood. I started practicing with MDF because that’s what Glowforge sends to you and it’s easy to mess up and not feel bad about it. And now I’ve moved on to working with walnut, some plywood walnut, actual walnut. Right now I’m working on some white oak which, oh my God, is so beautiful. It’s so beautiful. So I have some white oak that I’m working with right now, so I just I don’t know I play around with them and kind of sit down and come up with all these different ideas of what if, and what if becomes realizations.
Steve Melito: That’s amazing. So, believe it or not, I know a little bit about the Glowforge. It’s a laser cutter, right?
Kema Maxwell: It is.
Steve Melito: And do you come up with all of the designs yourself, the files, and then input that information?
Kema Maxwell: Sometimes, and then there are files that are out there in the system on the internet, on Etsy, that you can just pay for and do whatever you want with them. Do they really want you doing that? Probably not. However, there’s literally something called living hinges. So the more cuts you put in wood, the more flexible wood becomes, and there are amazing folks on Etsy that have created living hinges designs. And once you create a shape, you just drop a living hinge in, put it into the Glowforge and you have a whole bag, believe it or not. Add everything else afterwards. You do your staining, figure out where you’re going to put your locking mechanisms and any which way that you’re going to design them or add anything to it.
Steve Melito: That is amazing. I think you just gave a lot of hope to a lot of Glowforge artists out there and there are many.
Kema Maxwell: I hope so, because you can definitely, for the price we pay for Glowforge, please make your money, please!
Steve Melito: Right, so tell me about the patterns that you’ve come up with. They are beautiful, they are inspired. I would say, where do you get the ideas from?
Kema Maxwell: So the bag that was on General Hospital was a leather bag with an aangk for the handle, and for the longest time like I kid you not, since about 2016 or so I had been working on that way, before I even knew what a Glowforge was. And if I was to show you what the original bag looked like, you’d be like ma’am, did you actually take a picture of this? But I was so proud of it at the time and it had nothing to do with wood, it actually did, and it was all fabric and I kept playing with it and playing with it and then started doing it by hand, by wood, and if you know anyone that plays with wood, wood is not exactly the easiest to work with, especially when you don’t know what you are doing. So the steps that have taken place for that bag is just freaking amazing to sit and watch the different pictures that were taken all along. But I just had this idea of an aangk being the handle of a bag and I, from 16 on to 22, it came to life and it literally took that long, and having access to a laser cutter made it so much easier for it to be clean. But in high school I had a best friend by the name of well, she’s still in my life, Kashena, and she always had on aangk and at that age I didn’t know when an aangk was the symbolism of it or anything of that nature other than, wow, that looks like a cross and it’s kind of pretty. I really like the curve on the top. And I ended up naming my bag after her because she was the one that introduced me to an aangk. So the bag is literally named the Kashena Oz aangk bag and I sent it off to California. Again, what if? And what if became a realization with Vernee Watson-Johnson, who played Will Smith’s mom on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I’m going to correct that because a lot of people say, oh, she was Aunt Viv. No, she was Aunt Vi. She played the mom, not the aunt, on Fresh Prince. And I sent it out and the next thing I know I got an email, was like, wow, your bags are amazing. I would like to put it on General Hospital, please, please, do that, ma’am, I would appreciate that. And it ended up on General Hospital.
Steve Melito: So that’s how it started. You just took a chance, you just did it. You didn’t say, well, they’re going to tell me, no, you just did it.
Kema Maxwell: I sent out four bags to California. My aunt knew someone that worked in her production company. She has her own company where she teaches acting and dancing and all of the arts that she is familiar with, and my aunt knew someone that worked in her production company and I was like I’d be fine if she just stood in her bathroom in a mirror and took a picture with the bag. I’d have been OK with that. But I received the email and I was ecstatic. I was screaming.
Steve Melito: I can see why. So what did it do for the company once you had this exposure? Did you get more orders? Did you get requests for interviews? Did other things happen?
Kema Maxwell: Yes, I ended up on having a news clip on Channel 13, locally. I had an influx of orders that came through. My website had a boost, which, by the way, you guys did – Thank you so much. It raised a lot of awareness of my brand. And it was funny because I was in Hannaford (local grocery store) and a lady just walked up to me and she was like “I know you.” Hello, I’m sorry I don’t remember you. And she was like “I know you because I saw you on the news Congratulations.” It was just really weird, but it felt good at the same time and I was like, oh, thank you. And then she just went on about her business. So it is.
Steve Melito: You’re famous!
Kema Maxwell: I don’t know, but I’m trying to get there. I’m trying to get there.
Steve Melito: Well, that’s good. Well, we did a little bit of work for you on your website at FuzeHub and it was a lot of fun to work on. Part of what is on your website now is a configurator. Can you talk about what that is and what it does, so that people that want to shop for a bag can maybe use it?
Kema Maxwell: Absolutely. First and foremost, before I even go into that part of it, I have to say that when I sit in all these many places with different companies and business owners and all that stuff, the first thing folks try to come at you with is do you have a website? Do you have a website? And I’ve said this before it’s like who did your website? Once they see my website, and I’m like FuzeHub was like can I get the information for your website? Absolutely, it’s FuzeHub. So thank you guys, cause I get more compliments on my website, or I should say I get as much compliments on my website as I do on my products. So you guys are amazing. The configurator. Previously I had a brainstorm that I wanted to have one-on-one relationships with my customers, but I wanted you to come with an idea. So there was a lot less talking and more creativity going on, right? So I created in my head what I could not bring to life and did the very best I could to explain to you guys. This is how I want it to look, this is what I wanna have happen, but I don’t know how to make this happen and you guys were so amazing and so patient working with me to bring to life the aspect on my website where you can go in, you can click on a bag and say, yeah, I don’t really like the look of this in black, can I make it brown? Can I make my hardware look in this color and literally see those changes happen before your eyes. And I can’t say enough about working with FuzeHub, like I didn’t think that I would be able to ever have that be a realization on my website, and how much it takes away from having very long discussions with customers and trying to say, well, let me send this to you and take a look at it and see what it looks like. Let me know if it’s okay, it’s so much better to see it in person happening before your eyes. Thank you, guys, so much, this is me bowing.
Steve Melito: You are most welcome. You are most welcome, and since you’re being kind enough to give us a shout out, I want to give a shout out to Kim Lloyd from FuzeHub, who is really the genius behind this website development effort and Kim did a nice job.
Kema Maxwell: She did. She’s amazing.
Steve Melito: So, Kema, tell me about where you think the business is going to be in five years. Where do you want it to be?
Kema Maxwell: I have an idea, but I’m afraid, honestly. In my head, I want to be like I want to have my storefront and I want to be selling and have the business be sustaining on itself and I want to do all of that right. And then I’m like, oh hell, what does that mean to have a storefront and what does that mean to be there and creating and selling at the same time and actually having all this staff that does all this stuff? So the good news and where I want to be is closer than five years. The fear, it goes way out to the five years, though. So there’s the Community Loan Fund that services the local communities here in the capital district, and they are, I was going to say, remodeling. They’re not remodeling, they’re building, they’re getting bigger. So there is a building that is being put up to service further out, right? Within that building, there will be three storefronts, and currently I’m in the running to be one of those storefronts. So, hopefully, five is coming down to about one, but again, the fear is still way out there for five years. The fear is still way out there. So in five years I see myself running a successful storefront.
Steve Melito: That’s excellent. I suspect you see that fear and just say get out of the way, I haven’t got time for you, I got too much to do.
Kema Maxwell: Yeah, I’m trying, I’m trying. But sometimes the anxiety kicks in and you just like, let’s work through this, let’s work through this. I’m telling you, therapy works, therapy works, people, it works.
Steve Melito: So if this store happens and is successful, would you want to do them someday? And let’s just dream big like New York City, London, San Francisco?
Kema Maxwell: My dream, oh my God, would be to walk, or no, not me, walk, dear God. No, to have my product be on the runway in Milan and be up there with even on a smaller scale, I just want my products to walk a major runway and not to say that Harlem wasn’t one, because I have had that experience. But I would really like for someone to look at my look and be like I know what that Kema is, and I actually have had a conversation with her.
Steve Melito: Well, let’s hope that there’s somebody who’s going to listen to this that will know that. So tell me about the Harlem Fashion Week experience. It’s pretty competitive to get into, right?
Kema Maxwell: Yes, it is, it actually is. And again, the way things happen in my life is kind of crazy. So there’s a store called Pacific Trimming in New York City in the fashion district that, when I tell you, you could get lost in that store for hours. You could get lost in there. It’s a notions store. And I’m in the store and I’m online and the way the store works is like notions are all of the little trinkets and things that you use in making a product, right? Like your, your clasp, your D rings, your zippers, all that stuff. That’s notions, right? When you’re picking the way the store works, you have to have either a little baggie or container to put all these things in, because the prices are not on the items. The prices are on the drawers for the items. There was someone in there from out of town who didn’t know how it worked and they literally brought, I kid you not, hundreds of notions and dropped it on the counter. So then the folks in the store were running around where’d you get this? Where’d you find this? The price for this, how many of these? Right, but there’s a long line. So there’s me, who’s double parked, and then there’s this young lady behind me that is also waiting. And we start talking. We look at each other like, oh God, I’m going to get a ticket. She’s like, yeah, I was supposed to be out of here a while ago. And we just start having a conversation and she goes so what do you do? What are you making? And I’m like, oh, I make bags. And she’s like oh, I make clothing. So what kind of bags do you make? So I pull up my Instagram and I’m showing her. And she goes, I have my own business. Do you collaborate? I never have, but shouldn’t be that hard. What do you want to do? She’s like I’m putting on a fashion show. My name is Yvonne Junelle and I’m one of the owners of Harlem Fashion Week. “Wait, what?” She’s like yeah, I would like to have your bags in my line. I’m currently working on the Malcolm X product line and you want my bags in this line. And she’s like yeah, I kid you not. That’s how that happened. My bags was in her line. The following year, I put my own line on the runway.
Steve Melito: I love it. It’s a great story, a great story all around. Kema Maxwell, it’s been so good having you on New York State Manufacturing Now. Thank you.
Kema Maxwell: Yeah, welcome. Thank you for having me. I’m honored and, again, I cannot speak highly enough about you guys.
Steve Melito: Well, we’ve enjoyed having a chance to work with you.
Kema Maxwell: This won’t be the last time I’m telling you when that storefront open, I may come back, right Steve? Please, please, please!
Steve Melito: All right, you let me know, you let me know and I’ll be there no problem. All right, fantastic. So we’ve been talking to Karen Kema Maxwell of Kema’s Kreations in Albany, New York. If you’d like to find this amazing company on the web and I encourage you to do so visit shopkema.com that’s S-H-O-P-K-E-M-A.com. Then, if you’re an inventor or an entrepreneur, would you like to be like Kema? Would you like to have a tangible product that you can make and sell? Then you need to get your product concept or prototype to a place that’s ready for manufacturing. But how do you get started If you don’t know what to do? Just visit www.fuzehub.com and click the Speak to an Expert button. It’s right there on the homepage. Then fill out the short online form and let us know what you need. A member of our Manufacturing Solutions Program will be in touch sometime within the next business day, so we hope to hear from you soon. On behalf of FuzeHub in New York State Manufacturing Now. This is Steve Melito signing off.