Katie Truman meets Christian Graciel Mbumbet, a designer who’s passion is finding beauty in “everything that’s old, everything that has already had a life.” Photos by Dasha.
One man’s (or gal’s) trash can end-up another man’s thing of beauty, thanks to acclaimed fashion designer Christian Graciel Mbumbet, who is inspired enough to transform old shells and wood salvaged in Indonesia into high quality, luxury jewellery, bags and accessories, looking about as far removed from rubbish as one can get.
Christian’s limited collection of artisan products retail exclusively in a select tally of upscale boutiques, which have included some of New York, London and Paris’ finest; currently the likes of Namu, Jungle Fish and AMAN in Indonesia, although many orders are bespoke.
Amazingly, this beautifully groomed, cultured designer enjoys personally scavenging through dumpsters (albeit helped by a dedicated posse sourcing and collecting natural rubbish across the archipelago); coming from an impoverished background, however, Christian never forgets his African roots, finding it both a necessity and inspiring to trawl through the bins. Refreshingly down to earth, Christian finds beauty in everything: “I get inspired by everything that’s old, everything that has already had a life. I recover wood scraps, even old roots, to transform into bags,” he enthuses. “Look around you, open your eyes, see what you can find, even the imperfect is unique!”
This ‘second life for trash’ element is intertwined with Christian’s own second chance of life; pronounced dead as a newborn in 1970, he was unceremoniously bundled in a hospital backroom before being miraculously revived by a sharp-eyed medical student. Perhaps one reason Christian is passionate about giving the discarded a second life.
Christian had already tasted success before discovering Indonesia, but it was once here that he was able to unleash his signature recycled designs. Leaving his native Cameroon for Paris aged just 17, he sought a better life for himself and his family: “Africa was not made for me. I had a duty to look elsewhere for what, spiritually and materially, I didn’t have.” After training as a designer and pattern maker, he scored an internship at Balmain fashion house, followed by a decade working as freelance fashion designer in the creative workshops of major fashion brands in Paris, including Zara and H&M. But as an ‘artist of the soul’ and yearning for more creative freedom, Christian launched his own fashion accessories brand, CG Christian Graciel, in 2003 in Paris, his adopted home city.
As if the stars aligned, Christian was introduced to Indonesia by a resident friend, French furniture designer, Jerome Abel Seguin. On his first trip in 2002, this surprisingly humble, somewhat shy designer was struck by Indonesia’s natural beauty, and strolling along a white beach in Sumbawa, he saw a mass of white sea snail shells, tossed aside by locals after eating the juicy mollusc inhabitants – and he had his Oprah Moment.
“I picked up a shell devoured by the sea, put it on my finger and suddenly felt compelled to give it a second life and turn it into a ring! “ Christian recalls.
Inspired by nature’s jewels, assisted by local artisans, Christian began creating chunky shell rings from Sumbawa’s shells, scrupulously cleaned, chiselled and polished to a glossy sheen. Soon after, his stunning boxed set of Indonesian shell rings won him the prestigious Prix Découvertes at Maison et Objet 2003, an international design and lifestyle trade fair held annually in Paris; recognition that helped propel the newly launched CG Christian Graciel brand.
This Sumbawan shell range has since expanded to earrings, pendants and napkin holders; he also works with shimmering Mother of Pearl, farmed in Lombok; the shells cut and shaped into two large pieces joined together with genuine leather and, like the shell rings, silver or gold plate, creating a clam-like effect for elegant clutch bags. Other equally exquisite creations cover jewellery pieces, belt buckles and more.
Christian’s fabulous signature collection of contemporary wooden hand-bags are again, magically transformed, this time from discarded wood sourced in Java, Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa, from dumpsters, rubbish and building sites, designer and sculptor’s wood cast-offs and so on. These 100 percent old, recycled or repurposed woods – mainly teak, burl, rosewood and soar wood – are cut, polished and melded together with leather as hard cases.
Striking wooden accessories cover unisex necklaces, belt buckles and tribal-style cuff bracelets – even the brand’s business cards are made from recycled wood.
“I like working with raw, natural materials, they enable me to get up-close to nature,” Christian enthuses. “Natural objects, with their uniqueness and soul, inspire me. Old wood has so much character. Whatever part of a tree you use, each piece is individual and their veining magnificent.”
His luxurious, quality products are all naturally and ecologically made without any chemicals or artificial properties. No mass or workshop production here; rather a small-scale enterprise, each one-of-a- kind product lovingly hand-made by craftsmen in Bali, whom Christian has personally selected and works closely with, during months spent on the island.
Indonesia’s repurposed woods even end-up as contemporary-style wooden accessories in the sales offices, airport check-in counters and in-flight for ECAir (Equatorial Congo Airlines), part of a long-running design collaboration. Continually inspired, Christian’s other projects include a joint design collaboration producing brightly coloured “One Letter” tote bags from recycled plastic waste and his distinctive clothing line, exceptionally hand-made with organic cottons and natural fibres.
“My goal is to show these bags can be as beautiful as buying something new.”