I met Claudia and Asifa whilst at DragCon 2020. They were selling their gorgeous jewellery and struck me as two incredible souls. They were kind, funny, beautiful and so authentic in themselves. I definitely had to purchase a few pairs of earrings, but after exchanging a few messages with them via their Instagram (@exoticjewelsldn), I knew that I wanted to write about them. Their business and friendship intersects a micro and macrocosmic sense of care that has firmly placed them in my list of role models.
Both Claudia and Asifa are proud trans women using the pronouns of she/her/hers. They first met in Brixton, 23 years ago, pre-transition, when they began chatting at a bus stop. Finding out that they both went to the same school, their bond organically grew from platonic to romantic, forming their first relationship. However, for all the support and happiness that they brought each other, being openly gay in high school came with its share of bigotry, especially growing up under Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 policy, where LGBT+ individuals were encouraged to suppress their identities. This contributed to an overwhelming sense of shame for Claudia and Asifa as they began to identify as gay men during puberty, before realising their true gender identities as transgender women in young adulthood. The school bullying became so extreme that during the break hours, Claudia and Asifa had to stay inside with teachers. This only served to bond them further, stating during their appearance on BBC 3’s Eating with my Ex (available on iPlayer – Season 2, Episode 4) that they were each other’s ‘only friend’. The cruelty of their peers and their surrounding society did not prevent them from pursuing their dreams, with Asifa leaving the high school to go to performing arts school and both going to university. Despite the adversity that they have faced, they remain together, now platonically, as close friends, working on their business Exotic Jewels (www.exoticjewels.co.uk) and performing together sometimes as a drag duo with Claudia as Shepherd’s Bush and Asifa as Asifa Lahore (the UK’s first out Muslim Drag Queen). They have spent time reconciling their gender identities and sexuality with their faith, disability, mental health and cultural backgrounds. Drag has helped them along the way of coming to terms with their identities and as the ultimate form of self expression. Asifa now performs all around the UK to spread the message of diversity and inclusion, themes which are incorporated by Claudia into their jewellery.
Exotic Jewels began as a form of self care, which is reflected through the precise and conscientious nature of each piece of jewellery. Claudia was advised by her doctor to begin a craft project to assist her through the winter months, as she struggles with Seasonal Affective Disorder. She started taking a weekly jewellery making class which not only taught her patience and endurance, but also grew into a labour of love. The process of fashioning things of beauty provided an outlet to expel the negative energy that would otherwise begin to overwhelm her. It took a few years of creating pieces on her own before she thought of building a business out of her creations. The idea of cultivating a brand was brought to life by Asifa’s career in drag. As drag performers and enthusiasts will know, costume jewellery can often be staggeringly expensive, of a poor quality or made with complete disregard for the environment. Therefore, the duo teamed up to combine their creative skills to showcase environmentally conscious costume jewellery inspired by Bollywood and Arabic culture at accessible price points. They design, travel, and explore together to source inspiration which Claudia then brings to life with her honed creative skills.
For Asifa, as well as Claudia, Exotic Jewels represents more than just jewellery. Asifa is severely sight impaired and for a long time felt limited, both societally and personally, in what she could physically achieve. However, her involvement in the creative design process of Exotic Jewels has enabled her to express herself in a way that she didn’t think she would ever be able to do. Their creations break the barriers that have been placed upon them by physical and mental health, which is perhaps what makes each item so special.
An excursion that influenced one of their most iconic pieces, the Drag Fan earring (as pictured), was the first time that they went to the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon. They recall the exciting energy and overwhelming good vibes of the event and the city as being the seeds that grew into the Drag Fan earring – ‘bold, fun, and unashamedly proud!’ A performer in Eurovision incorporated sustainable materials into their act which further inspired Asifa and Claudia to use repurposed fabrics and metals in their creations. For example, the Drag Fan earrings are made from up-cycled t-shirts. They have since focused on making their brand eco-conscious, where as many of their materials as possible are recycled and repurposed. Not only does this help the planet, but also their mental health, as the effects of bypassing fast-fashion and avoiding the creation of further waste contributes to a positive sense of self.
For 2020, their goals are set and focused. Exotic Jewels is expanding their presence with an online shop, as well as an Etsy Account (@exoticjewelsLDN) to spread their message of ‘the beauty in sustainability’. However, I also asked them to look to the past and consider what advice they would give their younger selves, before they knew what wonderful futures they had ahead of them. For Asifa, ‘to remember to stay true to you’ was the most important thing. Our own sense of authenticity can often be diminished in the face of oppression and in the hopes of acceptance. Asifa’s words are a reminder to be the role model that our younger selves may have lacked. Similarly, Claudia’s advice was ‘to not be afraid of your own voice – ultimately, being different is the one thing that makes them the person that they are today.’ It can be hard to find your voice, terrifying even, when the world that you exist in says you don’t belong. However, by remaining genuine to our own voice, we can live to our fullest capacity. Claudia and Asifa are two wonderful figures of this. Their individual sparks were not extinguished by the adversity that they faced, legislative, societal or cultural, and now they have the platform to be able to encourage others in the same direction.
For my toughest question of the interview, I asked the duo what song everyone should have on their Feel Good playlist. It was a struggle to narrow it down, but they settled on You’ve Got The Love by Candi Statton, stating that it’s ‘an incredible track, but also a powerful lesson on self love and cherishing those around you.’
We can all take something away from Claudia and Asifa’s story – to take care of your mental health, to not be defined by your barriers, to bring beauty and joy to the world or to do something, no matter what size, to try and make planet a better place to be. I really implore you to follow their online presences and to treat yourself to some of their fabulous creations! They make great additions to any outfit, as well as a fantastic gift idea. Plus, if you’re having a bad day, they’ll put a smile on your face for sure. I’m wearing Exotic Jewels right now. Can you see my smile?
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