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Meet the imaginative jeweller who helped Indya Moore commemorate black trans women

19 Sep 2019

Photography by Hannah Turner-Harts

At the New York Fashion Media Awards on the evening of 5 September, star of FX’s Pose and trans activist Indya Moore received the award for Elle magazine’s Cover of the Year and delivered a rousing speech. They did so wearing a striking pair of earrings; a sweeping cascade of miniature gold frames suspended from each earlobe. The individual gold frames held photographs of the 16 (now 18) murdered trans women in the US so far this year. It was a stirring spectacle, forcing an immediate visceral focus on the alarming case of increasing violence aimed at mostly trans women of colour.

Once the bespoke earrings entered the public eye, igniting a crucial cultural dialogue, they also seemingly changed the life of their creator overnight; the American jewellery designer Aree (full name Areeayl Goodwin), who showcases her pieces on her Instagram page, @beadsbyaree.

Born and raised in Philadelphia to artistically-minded parents, Aree had always been exposed to modes of creativity – her mother produced stained glass for church windows, for example – and was encouraged to channel her talent from an early age. After attending art school, where she excelled in drama, Aree turned towards clothing design. “When I was a child, I would just get colour pencils and design clothes for women,” she recalls. “I went to a few sewing classes, but I didn’t have the patience to keep it up, as an Aries. I’m like here and then I’m there.”

When I ask Aree about her earliest forays into jewellery design, she enters a trip down memory lane to a spur-of-the-moment, happy coincidence type of experience. “It was really spontaneous! I was at a craft store with my mom (because she’s a crafter), and I saw earring hooks. I was like, ‘Why are they selling a bunch of earring hooks, like in a bag this big?’” she gestures in the air during our Skype video call. “My mom told me that people made earrings from these hooks, and I was like really?!, so I bought them that day. I gathered some wire and made my first earring.” This was when Aree was 16, and fast forward almost ten years later, earring craft and production remains at the forefront of her career.

Even from the confines of a small box on my screen, her effervescent personality radiates. It’s contagious. Undoubtedly it’s this magnetic energy that has been her guiding light.

As a sophomore, she sold her first earrings to friends from a shoebox in the hallways of her high school: “I crafted my initials, so ‘Miss G’ were my first earring designs – I thought it was the most creative thing, but now that I look back, it was such a horrible name!” Aree’s self-deprecating humour is spliced with a big laugh.

Her work ethic and output is driven by her attitude to life. “I do so many things on a whim. I’m so spontaneous and like to live in the moment, and that’s what I love about making art. I think that becoming more inspired by what’s around me has really come with age. I feel like I’ve learned – in my day to day, moment to moment – to just be more aware, to be conscious, to live a meditative lifestyle, to be appreciative, to have gratitude, and now that shows up in my work,” she offers sagely. “When I first started Beads by Aree, it was at Howard [University]. I just made the most ridiculous earrings from combinations of shapes. But now, I want it to have more meaning.”

Photography courtesy of Areeayl Goodwin

The passing of Aree’s godmother earlier this year left a profound impact on her life, which she refers to several times over the course of our conversation. “When you come through such a dark moment, you always come out stronger. So my godmother’s passing was a big thing for me, and I feel that’s why this collection has made more of an impact than my previous ones,” she explains. Aree refers to her latest collection in her work, lovingly named “Going Back Home”, which includes the original “Keepsake” earrings (pictured below), serving as the inspiration for Indya Moore’s set worn on the red carpet. Photographs of Aree’s godmother, among other family members, are the original portraits tenderly framed by the golden earrings.

“I’ve always had a loyal following throughout my collections, but the ‘Going Back Home’ one has made much more of an impact than I could have ever imagined. I see it because people are connecting to it the way I did. They see where I came from and they can feel that I was impacted by something in my real life.”

Other works in Aree’s line have included golden hoops that are bent and melded into silhouette outlines of nude bodies. While Aree doesn’t see her work as specifically sensual, she does acknowledge the natural aspect of her designs.

“Some of my earrings accentuate the female form,” she comments. “And that was a collaboration I did with my friend Adele Supreme, who is a cartoonist in LA. She had an illustration of a woman with an afro, and so I made that into an earring. I do like to show off natural beauty because what I think about most is, what is natural, what’s normal? None of my models really wear makeup during the shoot. We always are in an environment that’s in its normal state. My last photoshoot was in my childhood backyard at my mom’s house in Philadelphia. Or I’ll use a warehouse and we won’t change anything – we’ll use everything that’s there already”.

Much of this ethos originates from the fact that she identifies as a homebody, someone who treats their home as a sanctuary. She avoids the “glitz and glam” identifier, preferring to stay close to her personal space. Predominantly working with brass – her favourite non-allergenic, affordable and sustainable material – at her home studio, Aree’s fondness for creating hoop earrings arises from the fact that all of the people that surrounded her and who she sought comfort from, wore hoops. “Down in the South especially, hoops are just such a big part of African American culture. It was such a happy time, full of love and joy. So a lot of happy hoops were made,” she laughs.

Photography courtesy of Areeayl Goodwin

Currently, Aree’s studio set-up is a simple coffee table surrounded by trunks of beads and tools at home, where she recently moved to be with her godmother in her final days. After bouncing between Memphis and Philadelphia, she’s still currently in the midst of figuring it all out. “I’ve just been, taking in all my family. And just staying here has felt really good,” she says. “When I lived in New York, I had a few employees. When it comes to clothing, I have seamstresses that help out, but as far as designing and creating jewellery, I do it all by myself.”

When we start to discuss her incredible workload and how she has found coping mechanisms to maintain a healthy balance between work and rest, Aree draws in a deep breath. “This year, my whole life was pretty much shaken up. So I’m really starting anew. Earlier this year, I didn’t know if I even wanted to continue with jewellery – that’s how deep I was in my darkness, the time I spent missing my godmother, you know, depression,” she explains.

For Aree, jewellery-making is a tool for communication and honest expression. After battling years of harsh self-judgement and self-criticism for pursuing design as opposed to concrete activism, Aree came to realise that through her artistic endeavours and jewellery, it was, in fact, possible to unite communities and to speak up about pressing social issues.

“People of colour from everywhere have been paying homage to their ancestors and stories through their clothing for a long time,” she acknowledges. It’s this ethos that underpins the reworked Keepsake earrings for Indya. “After I posted the first picture of the Keepsake earrings, I started to get a lot of emails from a lot of stylists and people I’ve always looked up to, and Ian Bradley [Indya’s stylist] was one of them,” she explains. “He had seen my earrings and was touched by the sentiment, but he wanted to make a tribute and pay homage to all the trans women who had been brutally killed.”

It was an immediate “yes” from Aree, to be linked to a message as crucial and vital for trans people of colour. “This is basically when they say ‘your art is not your own’,” she says with conviction. “You give your art over, and the world turns it into something bigger.”

She continues: “Ian sent me the pictures that he chose of all the women, and so I made the earrings. I told him that it was going to be extremely heavy. He was like, ‘Indya’s a trooper!’ and honestly, they really are – they’re a trooper in every sense of the word. It was emotionally and spiritually heavy, and also physically. It was eight women on each ear. You know, I made mine three for a reason, because I didn’t want anyone to be in pain. But that’s the sacrifice. That’s how seriously Indya took it.”

Photography courtesy of Areeayl Goodwin

The entire experience has been affirming for Aree, who has come to truly appreciate how surrounded she is by love. “It was very beautiful. I feel like it’s changed my life,” she says with a beaming smile. Actors from Posehave reached out to express gratitude, and magazines have covered the Keepsake earrings. Aree is keen to shift her own gratitude back to Ian Bradley and Indya Moore.

“I couldn’t have made that impact alone – it really takes a village to do everything, because they found me. They brought their idea to my idea.” As far as being linked to the trans activist movement, Aree takes a moment to gather her thoughts and clasps her hands close to her chest. “I can’t say I ever imagined myself to be associated with this issue, but to me, it means the world… So the fact that I was able to help with this one movement, in this way with these people; to me, I could not have asked for a better way to serve you.” This is just the beginning for Aree, as she constantly looks for ways to better help marginalised communities and amplify their voices.

As far as the future is concerned, a visibly excited Aree remains secretive with commissions from other prominent individuals but for now, she’s laser-focused on bringing new meaning to the phrase statement jewellery. “I feel a need to make the world a better place,” she says. It’s a mighty feat for a one-woman brand, but Aree makes the whole process look easy, with her laid back simplicity and sunny personality. “If there is a word that I feel sums up my life right now, it would be to ‘embrace’. I have embraced everything that has scared me. Don’t deny yourself, accept who you are, and love yourself even at your lowest.”

Photography courtesy of Areeayl Goodwin