Cartoon Figures Give These Necklaces a Bit of a Twist

Irini Arakas has revived her Prova brand with a collection of whimsical jewelry.

A necklace made of large black beads dotted with colorful stones, and a figure of Mickey Mouse holding flowers.
Irini Arakas has given new life to her jewelry line, Prova, by using found items, including cartoon character figurines, in her necklaces.Credit...Emon Hassan for The New York Times

“I just like digging for things and finding treasure,” Irini Arakas said. “Even though I haven’t been making anything for years, I was always collecting beads and squirreling them away under my bed or in a closet.”

As for treasure, the New York designer was referring to one of her new necklaces, which dangled the Sesame Street character Grover from a pastiche of faux pearls, colorful glass rondelles, teardrops and strawberry shapes. He held a bouquet of flowers and flashed a hand gesture that some might consider offensive.

Ms. Arakas is the founder of Prova, a fashion line she started in the early 2000s after leaving her job as an accessories writer at Vogue. It has been dormant for almost 10 years, but now she has started its second act with the new line of necklaces.

The original Prova, featuring necklaces, scarves and apparel in mix-and-match fabrics with eclectic trims and a profusion of pearls and beads, had fans like Michelle Obama, a repeat Prova buyer at the Ikram boutique in Chicago, and Taylor Swift, photographed in one of its dresses for a 2011 Teen Vogue issue.

But in 2015, Ms. Arakas put it all on hold to become brand and content director at Lewis Miller Design, a prominent New York City florist.

Ms. Arakas’s necklaces, sold exclusively at Blue Tree, a fashion boutique in Manhattan, are one of a kind.Credit...Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Then something shifted this past spring. “There’s this quote that I constantly go back to — ‘the magic you’re looking for is in the work you’re avoiding,’” Ms. Arakas said. “I think for so long I was pushing away this strong pull to make again.” So, while still working at the florist, she decided to revive the brand.

Inspired by her young daughter’s collection of toys, Ms. Arakas said the centerpiece and starting point of each necklace is a cartoon character figurine that she has purchased online (“‘Late-night troller’ — that’s going to be on my gravestone,” she said).

In addition to Grover and Elmo, there is Mickey Mouse and Daisy Duck; Joe Cool, one of Snoopy’s alter egos in “Peanuts”; and a Care Bear.

Flower the Skunk, Bambi’s friend, “is such a little stinker, so if you’ve got a naughty side, she’s probably the one for you,” Ms. Arakas said. And as for Bambi: “She’s kind of looking up at you adoringly — if you need a little support, she’s there for you.”

Ms. Arakas said she does not have licensing agreements with the characters’ owners, but she has been assured by an intellectual property attorney that her use of the items is legally permitted.

There was just something about the figures’ fixed smiles that appealed to her, Ms. Arakas said. During and after the pandemic, “I had to keep a permanent smile on my face,” she said. “So there’s a darkness to the figurines, too — their positivity is a little aggressive.”

For her design of a Joe Cool necklace, Ms. Arakas carefully chose beads that matched the hues she had in mind. Credit...Emon Hassan for The New York Times

The cartoon necklaces, priced from $750 to $950, are sold exclusively at Blue Tree, a fashion boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and on the store’s website. Phoebe Cates, the former actress, is the store’s owner and was one of Prova’s earliest supporters.

“Irini’s got that uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist and forecast trends, but as an artist she’s making and creating things that set that tone, too,” Ms. Cates said during a phone interview in September, when her shop began carrying the necklaces.

Since then, Ms. Cates said more recently, the pieces have sold well, with purchases by Tracey Ullman, the actress and comedian, and Ola Itani-Chan, head of V.I.P. services for the fashion line the Row.

“These women are confident, they have their own sense of style and they come here because they like getting things that nobody else has,” Ms. Cates said. “They’re mixing Irini’s necklaces in with their Marni and Prada.”

Ramya Giangola, a fashion influencer and owner of the consultancy Gogoluxe in Los Angeles, also is enthusiastic about the new Prova. She said that she liked the idea of layering the necklaces with fine jewelry: “I think being able to mix a Lauren Rubinski chunky gold chain with something that might be a little bit more whimsical — and affordable — but has a really distinct point of view and makes you smile, is really important at the moment.”

Ms. Giangola compared Ms. Arakas to Tom Binns, the celebrated designer who often incorporates found objects into his jewelry. “When you buy Tom’s pieces, no two are ever the same,” she said. “And it’s the same idea with Irini. The use of found objects makes them one-of-a-kind.”

Ms. Arakas makes the necklaces by hand, incorporating as many as 20 different elements in one design, possibly including Krobo glass beads from Ghana, Venetian glass beads, doves and strawberries made of Japanese glass or vintage Swarovski crystals. Some necklaces also layer in some reminders of Ms. Arakas’s earlier Prova designs: lustrous faux pearls and black-and-white African batik cow bone beads. (As for the cow bone, “the natural oils of your body give them this glossy patina as you wear the necklace more and more.”)

She usually begins by gathering beads that match a color palette she has in mind. For a Joe Cool design, she said, the hues were eggplant, “a dusty, powdery, dirty lilac,” turquoise, cobalt green and “little pops of canary.”

Ms. Arakas said the mechanics of her creative process felt like a mix of painting, collage and arranging flowers. “The way that I work with color now is definitely informed by the fact that I work with flowers,” she said. “I’m less afraid of color than I was when I first started Prova.”

Ms. Giangola said she appreciated the necklaces’ exuberant color stories and that the pieces have a sense of humor. “Humor is part of being creative and I think that we need some of that creativity in fashion right now, “ she said. “It’s about designing pieces that are going to bring joy or make you think about things a little bit differently.”

Ms. Arakas agreed: “There is humor in these pieces, but it’s also slightly perverted; there’s something slightly off about them.”

And added Ms. Cates: “People either get it or they don’t.”

A version of this article appears in print on  , Section S, Page 9 in The New York Times International Edition. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe