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Breaking the mould of the Maldives souvenir market

The products aren’t always made in the Maldives, but they are designed by Maldivians.



Want to wear the atoll formation of the Maldives as a pendant? Or a sarong that can almost camouflage you as a whale shark? The presence of two boutiques in Malé – Island Bazaar and Toddy – serve these looks and do much more than that.

The items on display are not always made in the Maldives, but they are designed by Maldivians. More importantly, they represent a departure from the usual fare in souvenir stores that line the capital’s bustling streets.

– Local Flavours –

In Island Bazaar there are swimsuits from Kandumathi with giant crabs printed on the top half. Trinket gives a new twist to the typical Maldivian scene of tall and swaying palm trees by painting them on ceramic jewellery dishes.

Handmade jewellery from Elhaabe can be seen along with scarves and sarongs from Maskula which are inspired by different patterns of local fish. Those looking for smaller gifts can find dhoni key tags, handmade fridge magnets of the Maldives map and locally produced wooden boxes.

“Island Bazaar was born out of necessity,” says owner Fathimath Salah. An interior designer by trade, she was hard pressed to find items with a Maldivian flavour to complete the interiors she was working on. Salah says her first product was cushion covers, which she sold through Instagram before opening her shop.

Ocean shades of blue dominate most of Island Bazaar’s collection. The cushion covers and tote bags have fish and shell designs with Dhivehi Rajje – the Maldivian name for the country – written on them in local script.

Island Bazaar has a loyal following. “About 80 percent of our clientele is Maldivian,” says Salah. The first floor location of the shop means passing tourists don’t find it as easily. “We also don’t pay a commission to tour guides, as we sell the items at the same price to both locals and foreigners.” Price tags are visible on all items, a change from most souvenir shops where prices fluctuate depending on the person’s nationality.

Salah had to find local artisans who wanted to stock their product in the shop when it opened two years ago. “But since then we have been contacted by many, through Instagram or clientele who come to the shop and ask for specific products.”

What she didn’t expect was the number of creatives out there.

“Our shop is small, so we haven’t been able to accommodate all the products we have come across,” says Salah, who plans on doing more collaborative work with people from the outer islands. “We want to find those who don’t have Instagram accounts, but have the skill to make artisanal items,” says Salah, who already sources some of the items through the NGO Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society.

– Paving the way –

One newcomer to the souvenir scene is Toddy, which has an outlet in the capital’s STO trade centre. Ahmed Riyaz is managing director and co-owner.

“We had been making t-shirts for about 10 years now, for friends and events like the 350 campaign,” he says referring to an environmental campaign that culminated, in the Maldives, with the famous 2009 underwater cabinet meeting.

Like Island Bazaar, Toddy was created to fill a gap in the market. “The souvenir shop scene is a monopoly, it is hard for independent craftsmen and designers to get a foothold. Most shops want to sell their own product or want things at a cheap price so they can sell them with a big markup.”

Riyaz says that local hand-crafted or designed items cannot be sold cheaply. “We have to value the time, design and work artists put in.” Toddy stocks products from local designers and craftsmen along with their in-house products.

There are products from Oevaali, which uses the geography of Maldives as its inspiration on phone covers, notebooks, pendants, and plant pots from Gadheemee Collection, with recreations of old limestone carvings.

The Maldivian alphabet books from Thakethi feature alongside the Dhivehi Radhun playing cards depicting Maldivian kings and queens, a nod to the country’s past of being ruled by royals until 1968 when it was declared a republic.

– Michael Jackson with a fish –

Toddy’s desire to deviate from the usual manta ray and turtle prints on shirts is clear from their own products. There are t-shirts that sport the design of Thudu Kuna, the distinctive Maldivian woven reed mats, and a fisherman appearing to mimic a Michael Jackson dance move albeit with a fish in his hand. Toddy aims to be a Maldivian beachwear brand.

“Basically we want to produce everything that you would need when you go on a picnic to an island,” says Riyaz. Toddy also plans on collaborating with local designers. “There are a lot of creative Maldivians around, but not all of them can create their own products, so in the future we would like to buy or pay a royalty to Maldivian artists and designers and use their work on Toddy products, to give them a platform to showcase their work.”

Some of the products are made outside the country because creating t-shirts and digital printing on fabric are not possible in the Maldives. “Unfortunately there are no concessions for small businesses, import duty is very high. Even for something like tote bags, that more Maldivians are using for eco conscious reasons, there are no tariff reductions,” says Salah.

The items sold in these shops are not widely available, although a few resorts have started stocking them and hold occasional pop-up shops.

“There is demand for original products, we have even delivered items to the airport for clients who cannot make the trip to Malé but what is lacking is policy to facilitate local artisans and designers,” says Salah. Island Bazaar has not been been able to get its products stocked in airport duty free shops despite numerous attempts.

Obstacles aside, the two boutiques are paving the way to showcase local arts and crafts. The items on display are limited in range and the prices are higher than in other souvenir stores.

But both are worth a look for those wanting to support local artists and designers, as well as a chance to own something a little more Maldivian.

Photos taken by Island Bazaar and Toddy

This article has been amended with the correct name of the swimsuit designer in paragraph three.