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One to one: Kleshna Handel

It was an appearance on The X Factor that put Kleshna’s work in the spotlight but this isn’t a tale of fame found overnight, as Laura McCreddie discovers

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the right intervention at just the right time can start a cascade of change. For jewellery designer Kleshna Handel, that point was October 30, 2010 at 7pm, when Simon Cowell, Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole and Louis Walsh walked onto The X Factor stage wearing her Swarovski crystal poppies that had been designed to support the Royal British Legion.

“The X Factor is a guilty pleasure of mine,” says Handel. “So there I was sitting on the sofa when Simon walks out wearing one of my poppies. I had been in to see the show’s stylist and she was bowled over by our poppy collection and took all the items we had, but I thought they would be used on the show nearest Remembrance Sunday. I was so excited when I saw
them all come out wearing my designs three weeks earlier.”

And it wasn’t just Handel who was excited by the sight of these poppies.

“My son knows all about social networking and he noticed that tweets were coming in asking about the poppies. He set up a Tweetdeck while the show was on; tweets were coming up throughout the whole show wanting to know where they had got them from.”

After that the Harry Potter stylist was on the phone and the poppies were seen on the red carpet for the Deathly Hallows Part 1 premiere on both Emma Watson, who also wore her poppy after the event, and Rupert Grint.

“I think it was a bit sparkly for Daniel Radcliffe,” laughs Handel.

And from there on in everything went crazy. Celebrities were seen wearing them, the press couldn’t get enough of them and the public were desperate to get hold of one. Handel even got recognised in the restaurant at the Royal Albert Hall when she attended the Service of Remembrance as a guest of the Royal British Legion.

First seed
However, if all this gives the impression that the brand was an overnight success, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The brand was started in 2000 after Handel decided she wanted to sell her PR company and do something different.

“After 15 years, I had peaked,” she explains. “I sold the business and wanted to do something different. I took a year’s sabbatical to decide what to do. During that time I went to Venezuela where I discovered these beautiful shells. I wanted to wear them so when I got home I took out a drill and started making necklaces.”

Handel also went to gem shows to buy pearls and created a collection of necklaces, but it was a friend who suggested she look into showing them at London Fashion Weekend.
“It was quite extraordinary but I got in. I felt like a four year old on the first day of school,” she says.

Despite the price tags - costings were relatively high because Handel had handmade all the pieces - the collection sold, which gave Handel the impetus to start looking at training to get the skills she needed to take her designs further.

Her first port of call was Central St Martins in London. “I looked at the jewellery-related course descriptions but they were very obscure, so I phoned up to speak to one of the tutors,” says Handel.

The tutor was Liz Olver, currently design director at luxury jewellery brand Annoushka.

“I talked to her about the course, decided it wasn’t for me, so asked Liz if she would teach me privately,” says Handel.

Olver wasn’t the only person whom Handel approached about private tutoring.

“There was also a woman who knotted pearls and taught a course in Birmingham who I got to teach me as well,” she says.

Colour me happy
In much the same way that Donna Karan feels like a physical embodiment of her brand, you can feel Handel’s personality radiating from her jewellery.

For starters, there are no restraints on the colour palette. “I have a phrase: ‘I want to eat colour’,” says Handel. “I love colour, it makes my heart beat faster.”

Handel’s boundless energy is also represented in the movement of the jewellery - these are not static pieces but ones that move and dance and sparkle.

“My latest collection is all about opulence and glamour, with luscious colours,” she says. “I think people are still wearing black but are putting some colour back in with their accessories.”

And there is another poppy collection to produce. This year’s design is inspired by a wood cutting and will feature a ring, friendship bracelet and hair slide, alongside the traditional pin, though this year Handel has updated it so it can be worn in different ways.

“I love this project because a poppy can be what I see a poppy to be,” says Handel. “We’re also terribly lucky that the Legion said they wanted to continue working with us.”

Family ties
The ethos of the Royal British Legion also has a familial resonance for Handel.

Her mother sang to the troops during the Second World War as part of the Entertainments National Service Association, an organisation set up in 1939 by two actors, Basil Dean and Leslie Henson, to provide entertainment for British Armed Forces.

Her uncle was a bomber commander in the RAF who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and, after he was shot down, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar.

These links make Handel’s poppies an extension of her and her experiences, just like all her collections.

“I’m hugely fortunate to earn a living doing something I adore,” says Handel.

But one gets the feeling that it wasn’t luck or fortune that got her where she is today, but hard work and a little sprinkle of chutzpah. Not quite the spiel of an X-factor finalist perhaps, but something far better and more aspirational.

2010 The Kleshna poppy is worn on The X Factor, sparking incredible demand for the product
2000 Handel founds the Kleshna jewellery brand and submits her designs to the panel at London Fashion Week. She is accepted to show her work
1999 Handel sells Handel Communications to
Publicis Group and take a sabbatical
1986 Handel sets up her own PR company Handel Communications

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