Chicago native Meena Osei-Kuffour remembers the exact moment she became utterly obsessed with earrings. She was a college student working at a campus art gallery when a woman walked in wearing a pair of earrings that was unlike anything she'd ever seen before. After some back and forth, the woman explained that they were actually made from paper that she'd procured on a trip to Japan. A lightbulb went off in Osei-Kuffour's head.
"I immediately went to Jo-Ann Fabrics and picked up everything I could and went home and started making earrings," she says. "The first batch were these huge, arts-and-crafts–style paper and fabric earrings."
It wasn't until a few years later, when Osei-Kuffour was interning at fashion brand Opening Ceremony in New York City, that her design evolved from paper to acrylic earrings. She found inspiration while running an errand for the designer at Canal Plastics Center, a company that creates plexiglass sheets and custom acrylic work. There, she spotted a pile of discarded plastic pieces and had another aha moment. "They looked exactly like my paper earrings but in plastic," Osei-Kuffour says. "Another lightbulb went off. I realized I could use [acrylic] to make the paper more sturdy and add longevity to my jewelry."
Almost nine years later, in 2019, she was finally able to make the jump from side hustle to full-blown business, and Vintage Royalty was born.
"I told myself that I was going to give it 250 percent, and if nothing comes of it, I'm done," Osei-Kuffour says. "It was to the point where I didn't have any money because I was putting everything toward the business and not really getting anything back. I put in 250 percent and I worked really, really hard. I was able to leave my full-time job last September."
The holiday season proved successful, and Osei-Kuffour was busy attending craft shows, hosting events and fulfilling gift orders. But it wouldn't be long before COVID-19 flipped her business model on its head in March. Still, she was able to roll with the punches and briefly pivot to creating and selling face masks.
"I broke out my sewing machine and used the fabric I already had in my house and put them up online and people went crazy," she says. "That kept me afloat financially until the Black Lives Matter movement happened."
Osei-Kuffour says that everything changed in early June, when consumers around the world were looking for ways to support Black-owned businesses in light of protests against police brutality. With mentions in Forbes and Nylon, Vintage Royalty was suddenly on the national radar and Osei-Kuffour was fielding more orders than ever before. Though support behind the movement catapulted her business, Osei-Kuffour says that at first she struggled internally with being labeled a Black- and woman-owned business. For years, she'd unintentionally concealed that part of her identity from her brand.
"After all of this happened, I woke up and said, I can't keep hiding this part of me to please the masses. I can't keep using white models in my posts to try to bring in that customer when that is not who I am or who I represent. I need to speak to who I am and who I represent," she says. "I'm in the spot now where I'm not pushing it into your face, but I'm definitely saying: Take it or leave it. I no longer feel like I'm going to lose business or anger someone by being myself."
When Osei-Kuffour started working on her latest collection, she was originally inspired by the plants and flowers around her in quarantine. Simultaneously, she found herself thinking about the protests that erupted in the 1960s and how many of the same sentiments are echoed in today's demonstrations. Without realizing it, the two themes blended together and Osei-Kuffour found herself crafting garden-inspired earrings with serious '60s vibes.
She's already hard at work on her fall collection, which is inspired by the fan-favorite Chicago Bulls documentary "The Last Dance" as well as "the unapologetic nature of being a Black woman in this country."
"I'm mixing these two things together to create a super urban throwback to when Black culture was at its highest point," Osei-Kuffour says. "I don't want to say it's only for Black people, but it's going to be very strong in Black culture, which I've never done before. It's exciting—I feel like I'm at the stage where I can do that and people will understand it, accept it and appreciate it."
You can shop Vintage Royalty online or by visiting Chicago shops Wolfbait & B-girls, Lost Girls Vintage, Squasht Boutique, Asrai Garden and Iris Trends. Osei-Kuffour will also be teaching a jewelry-making class on Saturday, September 12 at 10am at Wolfbait & B-girls.
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