Lilo Allen is the artist behind Papyrus & Charms, a company specializing in culturally conscious wearable art. She, along with Tiffany Miller (who owns FlyBlooms, a bold handcrafted adornments company), co-founded Bronzeville Collective MKE in 2018. The collaborative storefront is located at the corner of North Avenue and Vel R. Phillips Avenue in the Historic Bronzeville Arts and Culture District and features over 25 different local Black, Brown and queer-owned brands. They are Milwaukee’s first boutique that focuses specifically on Black and Brown creatives; their inventory contains candles, crystals, jewelry, books, soaps, clothing, prints and much more.
Allen explains that Bronzeville Collective began when RISE MKE gave them money to start the business. “Tiffany and I had been collaborating for years. Summer’s the only time when folks get to really sell their wares, and at the time there wasn’t exactly a great brick-and-mortar space that had representation of Black, Brown and queer artists.”
With those ideas in mind, Allen and Miller went through a small business incubator program and got the opportunity to do PopUP MKE, where they got the space free for 30 days. Allen continued, “While in the space we tested the model and then pitched the success of the model in our RISE MKE program, where we won some money and were named a fan favorite; we did that with the help from our other two Bronzeville babes Tomira White (Designs by Tomira) and Jasmine Wyatt (BeElegant).
“I think that more people should look into collaborating so they can have a brick-and-mortar. It’s something different altogether to be creative, but I’m a very tactile person—I want to see and touch and feel. When you create the things that we do, there’s something that has to be exchanged in order to feel fulfilled about their purchase, so I’m really grateful to have the physical space.”
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Bronzeville Collective celebrated their four-year anniversary on October 4. Since then, they have collaborated with local brands, businesses and individuals such as NaturalE Beautiful, Alice’s Garden, Anna Rose, Diana’s Designs, Instant Karma Apparel, Quiescent Candles, Gbroolo Art, Rachel Hughes, Indigo Thyme, JazzyRae Jewels and more. “We’re really excited for what this new version of Bronzeville Collective that’s being built looks like and how we fit into that puzzle,” Allen added.
She shares where her own artistic touch stems from. “I’ve been making jewelry since I was about four years old. I started taking it seriously when I was a senior in college as a way to work from home while I took care of my mom, and also to connect with my father who lives back home in Jamaica. My father’s always been creative, and my mother’s always been really good on the business side of things, so it’s been a perfect marriage of the traits I get from my parents.”
Allen launched Papyrus & Charms in 2016. She named it as a way to pay homage to old traditions meeting new wisdom, and she honors her Afro-Caribbean roots right down to the logo. “If you pay attention to the tail of the P in Papyrus, it’s a hieroglyph from my aunt’s feather, which represents peace and justice,” she explains.
That said, Allen’s roots influence much of her art and products. “When I was little,” she recalled, “my dad would take me to the market where there’d be fresh fruits and authentically ethnic foods, and I’d pull inspiration from the people I came into contact with. We’d go to places like the Mitchell Park Domes and get crystals, so it’s always been a part of me. I’m very intentional about using natural products in terms of seeds…shells…genuine stones…real gold and silver. Everything that my dad creates is right off the land.”
In fact, Allen just went to see her dad in Jamaica a few months ago, gathering materials while there. “All of my crystals and metaphysical pieces I sourced by hand, which is an added benefit of having a local crystal store because I can tell you exactly where something came from,” she said.
Lately, Allen has been making pieces inspired by the new Marvel movie Black Panther: Wakanda Foreversharing, “I made my good friend Mikey Apollo an amazing headpiece that she showed off at the theaters, which was great (laughs).”
Soon she’ll be debuting a new line of candles, plus Bronzeville Collective will once again be collaborating with King Drive BID on the Bronzeville Bingo Card. “It has 25 squares on it, and each square is a different discount from a local Black-owned business,” Allen explained. “It’s a way to shop Black with intention for two weeks. If you get bingo, you can bring the card back to Bronzeville Collective and win a raffle prize, which is a really big gift basket.”
On the biggest things Allen has learned from co-running Bronzeville Collective, she reflected, “When you go into business, you need to have a sense of humility no matter how much you know about what it is that you do. You should always be a student of your craft and also understand that there’s so much that you still don’t know. Be prepared for the unexpected and be malleable. When everything shut down, we didn’t even have a website yet, but Tiffany and I managed to build one in a week so that all our vendors could still sell their offerings during that time. Learn how to pivot – I attribute a lot of our success to that.”
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Lilo Allen plans to collaborate more with her father on Papyrus & Charms. Bronzeville Collective MKE is open Wednesday-Sunday 11 am-4 pm and closed Monday and Tuesday. On Black Friday they’ll be having pop-ups and sales as part of Black Business Friday. Visit their website at bronzevillecollective.com.