A new gen­er­a­tion of so­cially con­scious de­sign­ers in Nairobi is putting African fash­ion on the map, writes Deirdre McQuil­lan

A new gen­er­a­tion of so­cially con­scious style movers in Nairobi is putting African fash­ion on the map – and chang­ing lives. Re­port by Deirdre McQuil­lan. Pho­to­graphs by Fionn Mc­Cann

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

‘ We are not sell­ing be­cause this is African, it is be­cause of good de­sign, de­sir­able, and worth wear­ing,” says Belfast- born Penny Win­ter, a former cos­tume de­signer with the Royal Opera House now based in Nairobi mak­ing cov­etable jew­ellery from indige­nous ma­te­ri­als such as horn, re­cy­cled brass and crys­tal. With a work­force of 12 full- time skilled ar­ti­sans and more than 100 out­sourced, she is sell­ing to lo­cal up­mar­ket ho­tels, ex­port­ing to more than 50 US stores and do­nates a per­cent­age of prof­its to the Bri­tish char­ity Tusk. Her clients have in­cluded Oprah Win­frey, Ali Hew­son and Edun.

“We are cre­at­ing vol­ume con­sis­tently and to a high stan­dard,” she points out when we meet at her gar­den stu­dio in Karen, an up­mar­ket sub­urb of the city. One of her craft­work­ers, Milka Ad­hi­ambo, ex­plains that her job en­ables her to ed­u­cate her six chil­dren. “I don’t know what I would do with­out it,” she smiles, bead­ing a leather belt.

African de­sign is gain­ing mo­men­tum these days. Fash­ion de­sign­ers and other cre­atives with modern ideas and a grow­ing com­mit­ment to eth­i­cal pro­duc­tion meth­ods are part of the buoy­ant Kenyan econ­omy. Be­cause of its boom­ing tech in­dus­try, Nairobi’s mul­ti­cul­tural cap­i­tal has been dubbed Sil­i­con Sa­van­nah – the M- pesa mo­bile phone money trans­fer sys­tem is wide­spread – and to a first- time visitor, bur­geon­ing pros­per­ity is ob­vi­ous ev­ery­where, not least in the city’s grid­locked traf­fic and over­whelm­ing con­struc­tion projects.

“Cre­atives bring the same rev­enue as min­ing, so the gov­ern­ment is lis­ten­ing and ask­ing more ques­tions, so that is ex­cit­ing,” says Sunny Do­lat, founder of Nest, a col­lec­tive of fash­ion de­sign­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers, film­mak­ers and artists which sup­ports about 30 busi­nesses, the ma­jor­ity fash­ion, with rev­enue from film­mak­ing. “The gov­ern­ment’s tax of 35 per cent on bet­ting will go to sport and the arts. Be­cause sport is big­ger, it will get the most, but even 5 per cent will make a big im­pact,” he reck­ons.

The coun­try’s lead­ing su­per­star, a de­signer com­mit­ted to slow fash­ion, is the award- win­ning Anyango Mping

a whose col­lec­tions, shown at in­ter­na­tional fairs such as Co­terie in New York, sup­port the liveli­hood of her team. “I make clothes that curvy women can wear and feel sexy,” she says at her apart­ment in Nairobi, ex­plain­ing her big break­through when she won a Ber­lin Vogue com­pe­ti­tion, beat­ing off en­trants from the big­gest fash­ion schools in the world. Her col­lec­tions – just one a year – are no­table for asym­met­ric cut­ting, Vic­to­rian ref­er­ences and prints drawn from her coun­try’s his­tory, from scar­i­fi­ca­tion rit­u­als to an­cient ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails. She is also a so­cial ac­tivist and cam­paigner against hu­man traf­fick­ing.

In Nairobi her clothes are sold in the De­sign African Col­lec­tive run by Diana Opoti, one of Kenya’s most pow­er­ful so­cial in­flu­encers with an In­sta­gram fol­low­ing of 72,000 and who was listed on the Busi­ness of Fash­ion as one of the 500 shap­ing the global fash­ion in­dus­try. The store in a mall in a wealthy area of the city sells about 34 lo­cal brands, all eth­i­cally pro­duced “and noth­ing stays on the shelves”, says Opoti proudly.

Fu­raha Bishota, a stylish char­tered ac­coun­tant turned fash­ion en­trepreneur, opened her shop in the same mall in February with her brand Co­co­l­ili made in Panah, a so­cially driven man­u­fac­tur­ing unit based in a leafy agri­cul­tural park near the city. Bishota, a sin­gle mother of three, quit a lu­cra­tive job with KPMG to start a cloth­ing line.

“I needed to do some­thing that would have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact pro­mot­ing African fash­ion, sup­port­ing work with eth­i­cal pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies to cre­ate em­ploy­ment. I wanted to have my own prints, so I could tell a story that was modern, high street and could be worn in Lon­don, Paris or New York, but still have a touch of Africa,” she says. Self- funded with all her sav­ings, her spear print blouses, sleek jack­ets and colourful dresses “are all about sim­ple clas­sic and not fast fash­ion”, she says. Panah was com­plet­ing de­liv­er­ies for her new shop when we vis­ited the fac­tory.

Own­ers, hus­band and wife team Morteza Saifi and Ev­geniya Khromina, ex­plained

Cre­atives bring the same rev­enue as min­ing, so the gov­ern­ment is lis­ten­ing and ask­ing more ques­tions, so that is ex­cit­ing

that they have 22 full- time em­ploy­ees and make for eth­i­cal brands such as Edun, Lem­lem and Elsa & Me ( based in New York). “We wanted to have a so­cially driven com­pany – brands who want to pro­duce eth­i­cally have no out­lets – so there were a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to grow here,” says Morteza, a former cre­ative di­rec­tor of US footwear brand Vince Ca­muto, founder of Nine West. The com­pany de­vel­ops its own pat­terns, op­er­ates paid in­tern­ships and the work­ers’ monthly salar­ies sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies.

Equally so­cially con­scious, lively Kenyan- born sis­ters Sisi and Elle Malindikin grew up in the UK with a joint in­ter­est in de­sign and founded their brand Dual mak­ing lux­ury modern jew­ellery from re­cy­cled brass and Per­spex. A cer­ti­fied eth­i­cal pro- duc­tion com­pany, their brand won a Best New Prod­uct Award in Lon­don last year. “A lot of fash­ion is com­ing out of Africa and it is seen as a more nu­anced way to tell a story about a con­ti­nent and we wanted to cre­ate our own im­age. Things are snow­balling at the mo­ment; there is such a mo­men­tum here and a core group of sup­port­ive fe­male en­trepreneurs,” says Sisi.

Their pro­duc­tion cen­tre is based on the out­skirts of Kib­era, the largest slum in Nairobi. There, Paul Otieno Asungo Aman runs a brass- mak­ing work­shop train­ing lo­cals. “We work like a family here and poverty is ev­ery­where, so if you are given some­thing small, you share it with oth­ers. I of­fer food and ac­com­mo­da­tion and we cur­rently have 16 work­ers. Most of our work is ex­ported to the US, UK and lo­cal jew­ellers. Our dream is to ac­com­mo­date more peo­ple and give them op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he says, point­ing out the var­i­ous stages of brass- mak­ing – the cast­ing, sol­der­ing and polishing zones.

For Katun­gulu Mwendwa, who trained in the UK and makes sharply cut dresses, struc­tured jack­ets and in­no­va­tive prints that sell in her Karen shop, her clothes must “be rel­e­vant and ap­pli­ca­ble to my cul­ture. I want to cre­ate a new im­age of Kenyan fash­ion, to grow and ex­per­i­ment and be trans­par­ent in my sup­ply chain”.

She works with Tosheka Tex­tiles, a silk farm run by women spin­ning and weav­ing silk from silk­worms in a farm to fi­bre to fash­ion oper­a­tion. Emma Mu­latya, one of the weavers and mother of four chil­dren, told us how the work en­ables her to pay school fees and sup­ply her family’s ba­sic needs. “We are a busi­ness,” says founder Lucy Lau Bigham, “but also a so­cial en­ter­prise and peo­ple buy from us be­cause of the qual­ity.”

These fe­male- led en­ter­prises are just a few of an in­creas­ing flow of so­cially con­scious fash­ion brands that source ar­ti­sans from marginalised com­mu­ni­ties in Kenya. We saw the African Shirt Com­pany whose bold de­signs sell in­ter­na­tion­ally and who are mak­ing for the Ir­ish eth­i­cal fash­ion com­pany Grown Cloth­ing, but most im­pres­sive was Soko Kenya lo­cated in Voi, a large town on the highway be­tween Nairobi and the port city of Mom­basa.

This is one of the high­est un­em­ploy­ment ar­eas in the whole coun­try with big HIV and pros­ti­tu­tion is­sues be­cause the road is the main link be­tween Mom­basa and land­locked African coun­tries. Soko, an eth­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing unit based in a Wildlife Works eco build­ing, be­gan in a small way with four peo­ple in a shed mak­ing a small col­lec­tion for Asos. Founded by Lon­doner Joanna Maiden, a young woman pas­sion­ate about sus­tain­abil­ity and ethics in the fash­ion in­dus­try, it now em­ploys 60 peo­ple, but she is aim­ing for a big­ger fac­tory with a work­force of 250 by 2022.

“We moved here to cre­ate jobs and we set up a Stitch­ing Academy where women could train and start their own busi­nesses. So far we have trained 90 peo­ple and 20 per cent of them have their own busi­nesses now, in­clud­ing one mak­ing re­us­able san­i­tary tow­els from left over fab­rics,” she says.

Colourful spring dresses and dun­ga­rees des­tined for Asos Made in Kenya were in pro­duc­tion dur­ing our visit while in an ad­join­ing unit of Wildlife Works, ma­chin­ists were fin­ish­ing cloth­ing items for a num­ber of US- based Fair­trade com­pa­nies. Lucy, a ma­chin­ist, ex­plains that her in­come not only sus­tains her family but also en­abled her to pipe tap water into her gar­den. Now, in­stead of queu­ing up as so many do in this drought- rid­den area to buy water, 20 lo­cal fam­i­lies ben­e­fit from her source.

Such are the ad­van­tages that so­cially driven fash­ion com­pa­nies can bring to poverty stricken com­mu­ni­ties. As aware­ness grows in the west, par­tic­u­larly among younger peo­ple, of the price of fast fash­ion, sus­tain­able al­ter­na­tives mak­ing de­sir­able clothes and accessories are cre­at­ing vi­able busi­nesses. The African De­vel­op­ment Bank cer­tainly be­lieves so.

Its Fash­io­nomics ini­tia­tive launched two years ago to help small busi­nesses reck­ons that the sec­tor could gen­er­ate 400,000 jobs in sub Sa­ha­ran Africa by 2025. With the an­niver­sary of the Rana Plaza dis­as­ter of 2013 on April 24th, Soko Kenya and Panah demon­strate how fair wages and pleas­ant work con­di­tions can em­power lives.

“What makes my job spe­cial,” says Stacey, an as­sis­tant pat­tern cut­ter in Panah, “is the abil­ity to grow as an in­di­vid­ual, to learn some­thing new and to sup­port my family.” This ar­ti­cle was sup­ported by the Si­mon Cum­bers Me­dia Fund, with the as­sis­tance of Vikki Brennan of Proudly Made in Africa; Goodie Od­hi­ambo in Nairobi; and Chris, Chris­tine and Lindi Camp­bell Clause in Voi. Anyuaga Mpingi’s clothes will be stocked by Atrium in the Powerscourt Cen­tre later this year.

Clock­wise from main: sis­ters Sisi and Elle Malindikin of Dual jew­ellery; de­signer Katan­gul Mwen­dra; and ac­coun­tant turned fash­ion en­trepreneur Fu­raha Bishota of Co­co­l­ili

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