You founded your brand after studies in communication and art: why?
Passion for the arts and various forms in which to express different ideas and emotions had a lot to do with it. I have always been an artist and I often found that sometimes words alone were not sufficient, so I needed another outlet in which I could express my thoughts and ideas. I took up communications studies out of necessity because I was still young and getting ready for university and I was indecisive about what I really wanted. However, Studying Social Communication and Broadcast Journalism was probably the best decision I ever made. My career prepared me for my journey as a fashion entrepreneur. I started my brand because I wanted an alternative to what I could find in the market. My style has always been a cross between Androgyny and a touch of bohemian femininity, opting for detailed, structured shapes and forms in solids nudes or the complete opposite with vibrant prints. These two aesthetics for me are my way of balancing things that I am drawn to. I wanted a brand that was authentic and I started realizing the value of telling my own story through my work. I wanted my work to stand for something meaningful and have a positive impact on my immediate environment and starting a brand through which I can share parts of my cultural heritage with the world; and subsequently create work from it that anyone in any part of the world can connect to and wear is the very reason I found my place in fashion.
The communications studies and work experience taught me how to express myself better.
How do you “use” what you learned from the communication world and from the radio presenter work?
My work in Radio wasn’t very long because by that time I had already started working on my brand and in the end, I quit my Radio job to pursue fashion full time. However, my work in the advertising world is probably one of the most important phases of my life in terms of growth and understanding my purpose and myself better. I learnt a lot about the value of building a good work Ethic and the importance of giving good client service. We are here because of the people we serve and sometimes that means going the extra mile to make sure your clients are well accommodated and this is not always as simple as it seems. I also got a better insight into branding and how it’s so important to be consistent in your image, messaging and aesthetic. You can’t be one thing one day and another thing the next day.
Did you study something in Fashion, after your decision?
When I made the decision that fashion was going to be a part of the rest of my life, I started investing in knowledge acquisition. Technically I have no fashion training. I took a few basic sewing classes and pattern making courses from friends to get a better understanding of garment construction. I spent a lot of time talking to anyone who would spare some time to give me information. I started paying better attention to some of the Designers I truly admire like Diane von Furstenberg and Victoria Beckham; they have individually created an aesthetic that easily identifiable and this is what I want for my brand, to be know for one particular thing. I also spent a lot of time studying trends online and understanding market trends. I got curious about textiles, how different fabrics drape with certain cuts. When I was selected as a finalist for Africa Designers for tomorrow by Berlin Agency FA 254, part of the mentorship program they took use through included a draping classes taught by teachers from the Berlin Esmod Fashion School. The one thing I will admit is that my hand stitching has always been impeccable ever since I was a child. My mother had a perfectly organized sewing kit and that paired with home economics classes in elementary school meant that I have always comfortable with a needle and thread.
What inspires you?
My love for Africa and my desire to get people to understand and fall in love with it as much as I have, and not just because I am from here. There is so much beauty and richness to discover and explore. My new collection, The Proverbial Dreamer is one example. I have always been fascinated by the history of scarification, how it affects an individual’s body image and the symbolism behind the practice. Scarification, which is an old common practice among African tribes, was regarded as a boundary marker of the various stages of an individual’s life. In relation to women, it symbolized the transition a girl made from puberty to adulthood. The tribal markings are symbolic of the scars that mark every person’s journey as they go through various stages of self-discovery in their lives. Scarification was used as a symbol of civilization; these scars distinguished the civilized, socialized human body from the body in its natural state and even from animals. It is a long and painful process transmitting complex messages about identity and social status; a mark of pride rather than shame. So in a sense this collection is really a defiance of a society that teaches us that we should be ashamed of our scars. The prints from this collection are adapted from actual scarification patterns from various tribes across Africa such as the Akan people of the Congo Basin in West Africa, the Toposa people from South Sudan and the Bodi from the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. I wanted this collection to explore various ways of promoting a positive body image for all women, who at various stages in their lives wear both visible and invisible scars. Rather than hiding them, these scars must be celebrated as a mark of beauty and strength. I also get my inspiration from the people around me everyday. For instance one of the other influences in my latest collection in terms of styling is my favorite dress when I was 3 years old.
While doing research for my collection, I visited my mother, who surprised me by pulling out this dress that she had saved for 30 years and in it I saw parts of myself as an adult. I love to travel, and that gives me a lot in terms of content for my work. While working on this collection, I spent a lot of my time at the Lake Elementaita Serena Camp located within the Soysambu conservancy. It has the perfect balance between nature and wildlife so it was only natural that I would go back there to shoot my Campaign for The Proverbial Dreamer there as it offered me the much-needed inspiration to create in a calm, peaceful environment. I also love the fact that it is by the lake. I love being anywhere near water.
How much you are influenced by the places you live?
I am heavily influenced by the places I live. I once lived in Ethiopia and I remember how my style and appreciation for certain things was influenced by my exposure to the culture of the people there. I love to travel and explore and have often enough it’s the little things that remain forever etched in my mind. The smells, the sights and the sounds all resonate with a part of me that feels as though every experience should be enjoyed fully. I remember patterns and distinct colors.
Who is your muse?
I would have to say I have three. Michelle Obama, Janelle Monae and Beyonce. None of them have the same style, but somehow there is something they all have in common that draws me to them individually. I probably have a dress I can see each one of them wearing from my collection in terms of their individual aesthetics.
What is the meaning, for you, of “slow fashion”?
Slow fashion for me represents a conscious consumption of fashion. It means that clothing is manufactured in an Ethical, safe environment. I value high quality with low environmental impact over low quality, produced in mass, with a negative impact on the environment which then contributes to the massive wastage that we are currently witnessing from fast fashion companies. I would rather sell fewer things, that are well made and are of high quality which the consumer can wear for a long time rather than produce something which will last only a few months, forcing the consumer to buy more than they need at the cost of human dignity particularly in connection to the workers who are often poorly paid and forced to work in inhumane conditions whilst churning out garments that the world can barely consume.
Where do you produce your collections?
I produce in several places. My bags are made in Kenya through an ethical manufacturing initiative LULEA (Luxury Leather Africa), founded by French Leather Craftsman Edmond Chesneau, who moved to Kenya and started the initiative to train local artisans in the craft of producing luxury leather goods. For my Apparel I am currently producing in Mauritius and Romania. I have my Silk scarves produced in India through an Ethical Manufacturing cooperative that works with a community of women using old traditional hand loom techniques. The silks are then digitally printed with natural dyes and finished with a hand- stitched hem.
Where do you sell your garments, how did you create your retail structure?
I wanted a model that would not be too expensive for me to manage when starting out so a big retail shop was not really an option for me at the onset. I am currently selling in Kenya through my Atelier and also host trunk shows where I partner with other establishments. For export I work with an agent who has a showroom for global brands, which takes care of my U.S and Canadian Market. I recently won an International Design Award from UN ITC (Geneva) sponsored by Inspired Luxe, a global retail platform for Luxury Brands curated by the founder Denise Bradley-Tyson. This means I will get to sell my products at a Trunk Show in San Franscisco. I will soon start selling online through a retail platform from where goods will ship from the U.S to the rest of the world to make my products more accessible and also to make it easier to manage logistics.
Which are the major challenges when you start a brand in Africa?
Starting a brand in Africa has several challenges. The biggest one, which is not necessarily unique to Africa, is access to finance. Our governments are still not taking the fashion industry too seriously because there is still an age-old mentality of looking at designers like seamstresses or tailors without having a bigger picture about what the fashion industry is about. Another challenge is finding the right production facilities to work with. When you’re starting out, you don’t have large minimum quantities to produce and a lot of the production facilities here are supplying overseas retail chains. The other thing is that we have a lot of manufacturers who are great at producing basic apparel for the mass market, but when it comes to specialized designer wear, it’s a bit more difficult to find the right skill set. Access to raw materials remains a constant challenge. We rely heavily on imports and for instance in Kenya the tax imposed on imported textiles is quite high, yet we are not producing textiles to supply the market. When you take the example of Mauritius, you can import fabric duty free, so this makes it a preferable destination to manufacture. Shipping overseas takes longer and depending on the country of origin, the paperwork required can make things take longer to clear.
Any collaborations? Which one will be your favorite designer to work with?
For my Kondo Udo Collection, I collaborated with Kenyan Jewelry designer Ami Doshi Shah and so far this has been my favorite collaboration as our aesthetic and values are very much aligned. We produced a small collection of Jewelry together using elements from our distinct aesthetics and lucky for us there was a natural synergy between both our ideas. I would love to work with Yves Rocher to create a range of Skin Care products and Fragrances. I have always loved their range of products. I would also love to work with shoes manufacturer Clarks. I am a big fan of their Brogues and I can already envision creating a wonderful range with them.
How will be the future for African brands?
African brands have an opportunity to create something unique that compete with other global brands on the same playing field. In Africa alone, there is a huge market for products and consumers are ready to buy from Designers, so essentially brands should look inwards whilst also trying to get into global markets. No one can tell our stories better than we can, we live it and its all around us. We see other well known global brands producing collections that draw inspiration from Africa. What those brands have managed to do well is taking this inspiration and creating something that can be consumed easily, and by anyone around the world. There is no reason why African brands should not be able to tap into the resources around us to create an unforgettable global movement. The key is to invest in creating brands that can sell next to a Dolce and Gabbana rack in the same store and there will be no difference in the quality of the product.
Photographer: Joseph Manglaviti (Clique Photography Mauritius)
Stylist: Sunny Dolat
Make Up Artist: Sinitta Akello
Hair: Diana Akech Custom Wigs
Location: Serena Camp Lake Elementaita Kenya
Models: Mary Esther, Laura Anjili, Mauryne Theo
Original source: Vogue Italy