Behind-the-Scenes With Waif Founder Gisele Human

We chat to the South African jeweller and HL Next Generation 2017 winner about her creative process, her studio in Cape Town and her thriving business.

Frances Marais


Born in Pretoria, raised in Joburg and now based in Cape Town, copywriter turned sculptural jeweller Gisele Human of Waif first got excited about the local design scene when she began collaborating with creatives in Cape Town. She showcased her work in 2016 alongside notable fashion labels Rich Mnisi and AKJP at South African Menswear Week, and Selfi at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg. We visit the House and Leisure Next Generation 2017 winner in studio to get a glimpse of her creative process.

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5 Minutes with Waif Founder Gisele Human

You moved into this studio in Cape Town after a long while of working from home. How does it feel?

It feels amazing to separate home and work after so long. For a really long time, I was working from my garage, which I tried to convert into a studio. It did the job but I never invited anyone to come and visit it because it had no major appeal. It also challenged my commitment to my brand and motivated me to work really hard to get out of there. Now that I’m here, I also have a weekly assistant, so this little business is growing.

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How did you settle on Waif when naming your business?

My brand’s beautiful name was suggested to me by colleague and friend Nicole Dalton, a graphic designer who also came up with my logo. We were working closely together at the time and clearly, it stuck! The word 'waif' itself means 'discarded item', or 'thin woman', and is traditionally associated with helplessness and homelessness. Today, few people know the word's backstory, so it felt a bit like an empty vessel that I could fill with new meaning. By building a brand around the word, I was able to change the narrative once more, creating new associations with power, strength, bold design and specifically a voluptuous figure (in the form of my Reclining Lady Brooch). Intrinsically, every Waif piece is waif-like in that it is paper thin and delicate. But from the front, their proportions are voluminous and lush. I like the idea that I've been able to inject a more positive meaning into the word, removing its former body shaming associations and replacing them with something that people love.


Out of all the jewellery you’ve created, do you have a favourite piece?

The Dalmatian Jasper pieces were a design breakthrough for me, and once I made those, I knew what my collection would look like. But I also really love the Japanese Lichen earrings and want my next collection to build on the skills I cultivated while figuring those out. I like the kinetic quality of them and I’m excited to play around with more painting techniques.

Do you see your jewellery as an extension of who you are?

My most recent collection is most definitely an extension of who I am. I’ve never worked harder or put more of myself into anything than this collection – my heart and soul live in those pieces. When they’re sold and I package them and send them off, I feel a bit sad to see them go.

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Where do you find ideas and inspiration?

Art, fashion, history, culture, what’s happening currently, what happened 20 or 30 years ago, what I have access to, what my resources will allow and what I have to work with.

Do you have a particular person in mind when creating your pieces? What are the qualities or characteristics of a Waif-wearer?

I aspire to inspire the kind of people who support and believe in South African design. I always joke that I have a small loyal support group of ‘patrons of the arts’, and I do have them in mind when making pieces because I, like them, am sick of homogeneity. They’re the ones I’m doing this for.

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Tell us about your process. Would you say that you work quite spontaneously or is there a fair amount of structure involved?

Since introducing new materials into my process, it’s all over the place and I have to do prep way in advance before making a batch of anything. From sourcing the raw stones and getting them cut to painting and casting, all of these processes make for a busy, eventful day in the studio.

What do you love most about your studio?

I love the light and my neighbours.

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What’s the one thing you simply can’t work without?

Gloves! I use them throughout every process and if I don’t have a clean pair, it’s a full-blown crisis!

What do you do in your downtime?

If, on the rare occasion, I get everything done during the week and I have a full weekend to myself, I spend my time hanging out with my boyfriend and doglette (that’s French for little dog). We love to spend our downtime eating, hanging out in nature, reading, Netflixing and visiting people. It’s a boring life, but we love it.

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Tell us about your Waif fashion film.

I worked on this script in collaboration with Bioscope director Aadil Dhalech. The concept digs deep into the working life of an actress and what that strange but beautiful job entails. It was a big undertaking and we worked on it in our spare time, but we think it's a great piece.