“I took a lot of art classes as my electives during college, from sculpture and drawing to ceramics and art history. I remember being in my fundamentals to drawing class one day and we watched this short documentary on artist Liza Lou. One thing she said was, ‘Keep with the doing, keep with the making – it’s a privilege.’ That really stuck with me.”
Brooklyn-based, Houston-born Abigail McKenzie has had the urge to create since she was a young girl. From making jewelry at 14 to learning leatherwork two years ago, Abigail has fed her interest in craftwork over the years, regardless of where she was or what she was doing, and eventually that dedication and deep-rooted interest paid off. After creating her own brand, Made in Rye, she jumped headfirst into the most competition-heavy city an artist could dream of. Yet, Abigail has managed to not only keep afloat, but is working full time to manage her business, while also still creating each item she with her own two hands.
Though modest about her technique, Abigail’s leatherwork is refined, and satisfies that enduring desire for minimal, high quality accessories. Her jewelry is unassuming, charming, and most importantly – easy to form personal attachments to.
Instead of pursuing law after college you decided to work as a full time artist and entrepreneur, how was the transition?
I remember having a job ever since I was about 14 or 15. In high school I worked at a jewelry boutique where I would handle repairs, sales, and teaching classes in basic jewelry making. Then in college I worked at a law firm for two years and thought that was the professional route I would later be going into but, in my second to last year of school, I came to a fork in the road and my route changed.
I quit my job at the law firm and started working at a small boutique called Mint. I worked for a few months as a sales clerk until I was promoted to store manager. During that time I created an Etsy shop on the side that I sold jewelry on. The woman that I worked for at Mint, Shazia Bajwa, is a young entrepreneur and is definitely one of the most inspiring individuals I have met. She believed in me and really lit the spark in myself to go out and chase my passion. I had always worked in the background or in lower positions up until Mint and when she offered me the manager position, I feel like that sort of sparked this new mentality in myself – like “Hey, you are more than you know. Believe in yourself, like other people do, and just go for it!”
One day I was having a shower and I just had the idea to start my own business selling my jewelry. I knew how to make it and needed an outlet from the daily grind of school and work. I quickly wrote up my ideas and three days later, I established my company with the State of Texas and took it from there. A year later it became my full time job. I hit a point where I knew I needed to spend more time growing the brand and to do that, I needed to be 150% in it. I took the jump and here I am.
Another key individual who has inspired me in more ways than I can say is my dad. Growing up he always taught me to have a good work ethic by making me work, even if I didn’t want to. He taught me to have goals and visions for myself, to make plans, and to execute them. Always follow through – you can do whatever you want!
As a young entrepreneur, why did you choose to take the leap from home in Houston to New York City?
Well, first, I feel like you should explore new things and not stay in the same spot your whole life. Since I stayed in Houston for college, I was ready to try something new and challenging. I have an uncle who lives in Brooklyn Heights. He’s an artist and understands this kind of “non-traditional” career choice. He saw what I was building with my company, Made In Rye, and invited me up to Brooklyn after I graduated college. So, once I completed my degree at The University of Houston, I packed my bags, sold my car, and bought a one way ticket to New York City! I stayed with him for a few months to feel out the city and decided I’d like to stay, so that’s how I got here.
I had a few expectations of what I thought it would be like, but those were thrown out the window after a few weeks of living in Brooklyn. It got to the point where I was like, “Alright, I have to approach this at a different angle and really put myself out there”. There are so many talented people here in this city – none of whom knew who I was. Back home, I had a fairly well-known brand. I was really involved in the arts community with a great support system, and the makers – we’re all buds. Here, I had to completely start from scratch. I knew only a handful of small business owners, mostly through social media. I was a bit intimidated at first but I got to the point where I just had to put myself out there and make connections happen. So after a few months of doing just that, I feel like I’m now connected to a great community of makers and small business owners. We all support each other and are friends. It feels a bit like home.
I put together a pop-up shop called Curated 48 in Brooklyn Heights back in November with about 12 other locally-based brands. The shop ran for two weekends straight and acted as a small brick and mortar where people could wander in and buy locally made products. Brooklyn-made products from Throne NYC watches and Blue Collar Goods apparel, to La Poubelle Vintage clothing and Hello White Elk paper goods. Curated 48 was another great way that allowed me to reach out to brands that I admired, make connections, and show that I’m here not only to expand my own business, but to also support others doing the same thing.
It’s hard to say. Sometimes, I go into work with an idea of what I know I’m going to make and others times I approach my desk with an attitude of “Okay, let’s see what happens today”. The process of making is inspiring to me. How one can take a raw material, in this case a leather hide, and turn into something durable and fashionable. A leather hide is similar to a roll of wrapping paper, but with rough edges and each one surprisingly unique with marks and scars. You mark out your template, cut it out, and piece it all together with specific tools. Hours later, you see it come to life. It’s satisfying to see the resulting products at the end of the day.
There are a lot of things that happen from start to finish because when working with leather, there are so many processes you will go through before ending up at the final stage. Especially in my case since all of my work is done 100% by hand – from the cut and the dyeing to the stitching.
What was the most challenging part of learning the craft of leatherwork?
The most challenging part of leatherwork for me personally was getting my hands used to the stitching and learning all of the various steps. I have a lot of respect for people who do it – especially the hand-stitched work. It takes a patient person to handle this kind of craft. I have a few friends who work with leather and seeing their products and process is inspiring for me. I’m always trying to learn new tricks from my peers and better my skill.
You started with beadwork and jewelry making and then you went to leather, are you interested in any other materials?
I am always intrigued by other mediums of work, like ceramics. I took a ceramics class in college and I really enjoyed throwing on the wheel, however, I just don’t have the time or manpower right now to get involved in something like that. But, never say never…
How has living in NYC influenced you and your craft?
New York has been a big influence this past year. The hustle and movement – everyone is on the go. Materials and supplies are so accessible. The daily grind makes you want to step it up, even if you’re already working hard. You have to really take advantage of what this city has to offer and keep a positive outlook.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAMAR ALKHUDHAIRI
PRODUCT PHOTOS FROM MADE IN RYE