Capital Region

Albany designer carving niche with unique fashion bags

Kema's Kreations grows out of love for sewing, practical need
Kema Maxwell owner of Kema Kreations in Albany holds a hand bag and matching dress Thursday, February 14, 2019.
Kema Maxwell owner of Kema Kreations in Albany holds a hand bag and matching dress Thursday, February 14, 2019.

When Karen Maxwell strolls down the street, her beautiful black leather bag attracts attention. Often she gets comments.

“Nice bag,” they tell her.

The 12-by-18 tote, which she designed and made, has the image of an African-American woman, her face in profile, embroidered on the front, and is one of three bags in her Nubian Queen series.

 “That has been one of my best sellers,” says Maxwell, an Albany designer of unique multi-cultural fashion bags, totes, backpacks and duffles and owner of Kema’s Kreations.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Kema Maxwell owner of Kema Kreations in Albany with a variety of hand bags and clutches Thursday, February 14, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kema Maxwell owner of Kema Kreations in Albany with a variety of hand bags and clutches Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Maxwell’s bags, which also feature the colorful mola designs of Central America’s native people and boldly patterned African Ankara fabric, are showing up everywhere.

Two weeks ago, during Harlem Fashion Week at the Museum of the City of New York, Kema’s eye-catching bags appeared in the event’s big fashion show for the second year in a row.

Maxwell’s bags are sold online to customers across the U.S. and many of them end up in Panama, the Central American country where Maxwell was born and spent her early years. She takes orders in English and Spanish on and Facebook.

In the Capital Region, the designer and seamstress sets up her booth in Albany at Alive at Five, and at festivals and events in Washington Park and at Empire State Plaza. In July, she will be selling bags at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival.

Last year, a few months after Maxwell’s bags debuted at Harlem Fashion Week, WNYT/Channel 13 anchor Elaine Houston featured the local designer on her “Today’s Women” report.

“After that, things went crazy,” Maxwell says.

But it all really began in the 1970s in Panama, when as a very young girl, Maxwell was fascinated by the colors and patterns in her mother’s sunny sewing room.

“My mom was a seamstress. My paternal grandmother also sewed. I grew up around sewing,” she says.

When she was 10 years old, the family moved to Brooklyn. As a teen, Maxwell graduated from The High School of Fashion Industries and took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In her twenties, she moved to Albany.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Kema Maxwell's logo for Kema Kreations in Albany Thursday, February 14, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kema Maxwell’s logo for Kema Kreations in Albany Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Maxwell kept sewing but motherhood, jobs and earning college degrees (associates in business at Hudson Valley Community College and a bachelor’s in business from The Sage Colleges) took up most of her time.

Her daughter, Mariah, was the inspiration for Kema’s Kreations.

The petite teen, who was running track at Albany High, was constantly lugging around a heavy sports bag.

“She started getting wicked back pains,” says Maxwell. “I started making bags for my daughter, mostly backpack-type bags that would allow her to level the weight instead of having it on one shoulder.”

While Maxwell designs and sews her own clothes, she doesn’t enjoy all the measuring and fitting that comes with making them for others.

“I fell in love with making bags,” she says. “With a bag, when it’s done, it’s done. It’s a lot less processing.”

Four years ago, when she was 44 years old and her three children were  grown up, Maxwell, who is called “Kema” by her friends, launched Kema’s Kreations. She rents her downtown Albany studio through the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region, which provides affordable space for startups. The Orange Street building is open 24/7, so Maxwell, who works full time as a data requirement analyst for CDPHP, can shift into her creative life in the evenings and on weekends.

About 85 percent of her bags are commissioned and custom designed.

“I literally bring your imagination to life,” Maxwell says. “When I hand something over, I love the look on someone’s face. The joy and appreciation. That’s the best part.”

Instead of drawing or sketching, she plans a bag in her head and creates her own pattern for it or combines manufactured patterns.

When asked to describe or label her work, Maxwell hesitates.

“I don’t box myself into saying that it’s just Hispanic or Caribbean, even though I’m both of those.”

The colors and design of Panama’s flag (red and white with blue stars) and the country’s area code, 507, also show up in her work.

The mola designs in her bags – geometric or abstract images of flowers, sea animals and birds – come from actual mola fabric that relatives bring back home with them from Panama.

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“It’s an art, mostly done by the indigenous Indians, a reverse applique. They do this by hand. They create an image on the other side.”

Maxwell cuts the actual mola or has the designs printed on new fabric.

 Other bags, like her top-selling Nubian Queens, are embroidered using digital files that are inserted into her sewing machine.

Then there’s the Ankara, also called Dutch wax print, the brilliantly colored, batik-inspired cotton fabric that’s worn as traditional wraps by African women.

“Ankara is huge right now, so I get a lot of requests,” she says.

Maxwell shops for her fabric, notions, leather and faux leather in New York City, and it was a chance meeting in one of those stores that led her to Harlem Fashion Week in 2018.

“I was in line and the person standing behind me happened to be the creative director for Harlem Fashion Week, Yvonne Jewnell,” she says.

As they chatted, Maxwell showed Jewnell her bags on Instagram, and the next thing she knew she had an appointment with the show’s jurors. Her work was selected and her bags appeared on the runway with models wearing Malcolm X Legacy designs. Then, much to her shock and surprise, Maxwell’s name was called, and she was invited to walk down an elegant marble walkway, pose under an enormous chandelier, and be introduced to the fashion world.

“My nerves were all on edge, the whole walk,” she says.

This year, Maxwell was accepted into the competition as an emerging designer, with her name on the program. And on Feb. 16, when she did the big walk once again, wearing an elegant black dress that she designed with mola on the bodice, she was still nervous but was better prepared.

“This was just something I like to do. I love sewing. And it became all of this,” she says.

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