Gilt trips: Fashionista's global quest for unique accessories
Fashion entrepreneur scours the world for the most unique accessories, writes Gemma Soames
CALLIXTO MEANS "most beautiful" in ancient Greek, says Sasha Dennig, referring to the name of her online boutique. "It seemed apt, because that's what I'm trying to find when I travel. I'm simply looking for the most beautiful things."
It's a quest that takes the 31-year-old everywhere from Athens to Istanbul, India to Australia, in search of the jewellery, accessories and homewares she sells from Hong Kong, delivering an exotic selection to her growing fan base.
Dennig used to be a corporate lawyer. Fed up with the long hours and office life, in 2008 she quit her job, packed her bags and went travelling. "I found myself in India, and my mum asked if I could get 100 pashminas for her friend who has a shop. So I went off, got together my first little package and sent it to my mother, making something like US$5,000 out of it. I thought to myself, 'That's not bad, you know.'"
From there, she slowly expanded, mostly bespoke sourcing for individuals and retailers. "I was based in Asia at the time, kind of bouncing around. I was seeing a man who lived in Singapore, who then became my husband, and I just thought I could make money from this while I [figured] out what I wanted to do.
"It was from there that the idea came to me of having a website selling things that were specific to a place and had a story to them. I wanted to give people who can't travel or lack the patience to go through markets access to these amazing products."
Two years on from the launch of her website, a treasure trove of those products, all categorised by their country of origin, Dennig finds herself in an office above the fashion boutique Edit on Hollywood Road, where she has also been collaborating since February with Genevieve Chew, the shop's owner.
Chew sources the clothing from hip, mid-range brands such as Antipodium, Emma Cook and Francis Leon, while Dennig takes care of the accessories. There are brightly coloured beads from South Korea, antique metal-cast lace from Athens, alpaca blankets from Peru, Rajput-inspired collections from India, python bags from Bali and Turkish chandelier earrings.
Her latest haul includes neon woven necklaces from Bangkok's Chatuchak market. "I'd gone there on a mini-honeymoon with my husband - and the poor man had to spend six hours trailing me in the market, carrying stuff.
"But I did find this one designer that day who made it all worth it. His jewellery is based on the traditional, but really quite contemporary," she says. "He makes it all week and sells it at the market on weekends."
A curiosity about what the world has to offer is in Dennig's blood. "My father is Austrian, my mother is ethnically Chinese, but she was born and raised in Paraguay, as was I," she says. "So Spanish is my mother tongue and I'm very much Latin by culture. I lived in Austria and Switzerland before going to London for 10 years. Now my husband and I are based here."
Travel forms the backbone of her business today. "I travel about once a month," she says. "And I have gotten quite good at it. When I go to a new location, I need at least a week to do some investigating and really get the feel of a place. Once I've been there once, though, I become much more focused."
She is off to Mongolia next. Recent trips have included one to Athens, where she found the pieces for her Greek Riches collection. "I was amazed by Greek hospitality. My sister knew someone who knew someone, and within a day I had 10 contacts."
She adds: "There's a long tradition of metal casting and jewellery-making in the country. I found this antique lace that had been cast to make bracelets that is so beautiful. It's not colourful and it doesn't have rhinestones, but it's classic, clean, very well-made and has this amazing authentic feel. One of our new bracelets is actually an olive branch that's been covered in gold."
Some places aren't quite as easy to fathom, such as Peru, where her main supplier has turned out to be an 80-year-old man in Lima who is phenomenally difficult to order from.
"He does lovely Inca-inspired jewellery but can only get me five things a month, and doesn't do e-mail or anything. Luckily, I met a taxi driver called Sixto who had a BlackBerry … he's become my man on the ground.
"When the supplier has some new pieces, Sixto goes round and takes pictures, e-mails them to me, and I order via him. It's all a bit of production, but it works."
Dennig has had to use that intrepid attitude countless times, not least in South Korea, where she sources her Kimchi Dreams collection of costume jewellery.
"Well, no one speaks English there, so when I first went, I got the concierge at my hotel to do these flash cards for me saying things like, 'Do you do wholesale?' in Korean on the front and in English on the back to get me by. And it worked."
Part of Callixto's appeal lies in the authenticity of Dennig's products, each bearing the mark of its origin. The other reason is that they are in line with the kind of accessorising that is on trend.
"People have gotten braver with their jewellery choices," Dennig says. "These days, you've got all the street style blogs giving inspiration on how to stack things up, and clothes have gotten so expensive that people update their outfits with jewellery. A few years ago I just had a few items, but now I wear mostly white and black and then I accessorise. I think a lot of people have gone that way."
It all explains the popularity of this heavily embellished, ethnic-inspired look and the boutiques and brands that cater to it.
Labels such as Joomi Lim, Shourouk and Iosseliani offer the high fashion approach, while Hong Kong-based accessories boutique The9thMuse on Lyndhurst Terrace also delivers bold accessories that change an outfit in an instant and embody individuality.
"Personally, I don't like classic, real jewellery," says Dennig. "I'd much rather have 20 pieces of plated, costume pieces than one of the real thing. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Turkey, he tried to give me a diamond necklace, but I was like, 'Really, when am I going to wear that? Buy me these two rugs instead.'"
Other brands on the tribal path …
Dannijo: Designed by two sisters from Florida, and great for statement-making, costume-inspired necklaces. Dannijo necklace (right, HK$10,500) from Lane Crawford Canton Road and IFC stores.
Shourouk: This Paris-based super-hip brand is known for its neon braided necklaces and rhinestone-embellished pendants. Available from On Pedder, Central, tel: 2118 3489
Aurélie Bidermann: French jewellery designer with a natural touch and fondness for gold; here's the sophisticated take on tribal jewellery. Copacabana Bracelet (left, HK$1,065). Available from matchesfashion.com
Vanessa Arizaga: Latin American-inspired jewellery that takes in beaded necklaces and fabulous charm bracelets. From Lane Crawford Canton Road and IFC
Joomi Lim: For the punk approach to tribal, this husband-and-wife team are known for their spiked detailing and metalwork. Joomi Lim Spike Chain bracelet (right, HK$945) from matchesfashion.com
A Peace Treaty: For artisan crafted, tribal-inspired pieces try A Peace Treaty at The 9th Muse. the9thmuse.com