The must-have accessory from a brand doing big things
If you’ve been reading TEMPO for a while, or you’ve looked at running Instagram, or you follow any elite runners, you’ve seen the colourful bracelets wrapped around the wrists of your favourite professionals. What you might not know is where they come from, and how they’re far from just another hype product - they’re helping fund infrastructure projects (specifically around clean water - we’ll get to that) in Kenya. But before we get into that, let’s get the backstory.
ArtiKen was started by Christopher Hough back in 2016 as a side hustle while working at Nike’s WHQ in Beaverton, Oregon. Hough, who ran in college at the University of West Florida, was running the Hollister Trail one day when he jogged past some pro’s (commonplace on the Hollister Trail) and spied some Kenyan flag bracelets on the wrists of Paul Chelimo and Shadrack Kipchirchir, and remembered seeing the same bracelet on an old college teammate. Wanting one for himself, Hough ran back to Chelimo - unknowingly making a decision that would end up changing the course of his life.
“I asked Paul about them and he said ‘I’m actually going back (to Kenya) in a couple months, I’ll bring you back one’. He actually brought me back two - one had my first name and the Kenyan flag and one had my last name and the flag. And immediately, everyone who saw them was like ‘this is what I’ve been trying to get!’.”
Fast forward six months and Shadrack Kipchirchir had brought Chris some more bracelets, which Chris sold out within 24 hours. Twigging that this could be a viable business opportunity, Chris started taking orders and dealing with a Kenyan supplier via text. Through requests, he quickly put bracelets on the wrists of several notable US Olympians.
“Paul invited me out to Kenya to learn about where he was from and to meet the bracelet supplier that I had been talking to. This was just after the Olympics where Justin Gatlin had worn a bracelet, Mo Farah and Paul had worn a bracelet, Centro wore one in the semi’s, and it kind of jump started things.
When I went out to Kenya in January 2017, everything was getting made in Iten - the Home of Champions, but eventually we had to move it to Nairobi to be closer to the airport for logistical purposes.”
The past three and a half years has seen ArtiKen go from a well kept secret to the brand in their space. More and more elites are wearing ArtiKen bracelets, college cross country teams across the US have their colors on their wrist, and even run crews around the world are rolling them.
2019 was a breakthrough year for the business. Chris quit his job (then working at IRONMAN) at the end of 2018 to go all in on ArtiKen and take it to another level. 2019 saw collections drop with Tinman Elite, Bowerman Track Club (at the Chicago Marathon in October), and even selling wholesale through running giant JackRabbit. Just before COVID-19 took hold, Chris leased a space in St. Petersburg, FL for the brand to grow into, as well as securing ArtiKen’s future in Nairobi.
“We’ve just now reached a point where our artisans in Nairobi have a production facility to work out of. They used to just do the work at their homes but it became too much. We’ve got 8 to 10 artisans who are working full time making the bracelets for us, and they rely on us. Since COVID-19, we have seen a lull in sales given the current economic state but our team in Nairobi definitely encourages me to not let off the gas as we have to keep selling!”
It’s one of the remarkable products of entrepreneurship; the opportunity to employ people. Especially right now when global economies are balancing precariously, that ArtiKen can employ 3 people in Florida and be responsible for another 8 or 10 people in Kenya, is a true success story.
More than just employing some artisans in Kenya, Chris knew from the jump that he wanted to contribute back to the local community. Chris says this was in part due to reading ‘Start Something That Matters’ by TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie (Ed: for years TOMS had a pledge that for every pair of shoes sold they would donate a pair to people in need - they’ve since changed their programs but they remain equally sizeable).
“I actually went back to Paul and Shadrack and said ‘hey, where would y’all like to see dollars go back to?’ And they had a few ideas that we looked into, but clean water was the biggest issue - in some villages people are walking 3 miles to get clean water. Paul is the reason why we contribute to clean water initiatives.”
“I went and toured some of the villages and saw firsthand how people are impacted by lack of access to clean water. It still gives me goosebumps talking about it now, that was a pivotal moment for me.”
ArtiKen now donates 10% of profits to The Water Project, a foundation specialising in providing access to water in sub-Saharan Africa. And through this, Chris gets the opportunity to see these projects come to life and to share them with followers of the brand (#CleanWaterWednesdays are a thing on the ArtiKen ‘gram).
While COVID-19 might have slowed the world down, and certainly slowed down some of Chris’ plans with ArtiKen for 2020 (including some special projects for the Olympics), it hasn’t stopped everything. ArtiKen recently re-upped with the Bowerman Track Club for a special release to coincide with the 2020 Bowerman racing apparel.
“Collaborating with Bowerman Track Club is not only exciting given the amazing team that make up the club but also really special. Just 4 to 6 years ago, I was working within the doors of Nike and helping BTC as the race organizer for the annual Bowerman 5K.
They always push the envelope on design and we are thrilled to have nailed down a bracelet that mirrored their 2020 “Suspension” singlet.”
The Bowerman collab sold out with the quickness but you can cop other ArtiKen bracelets or design your own over at their website here.