The Bonsu’s: Fashion is in their Genes

You know what they say: Family first! The international fashion world plays by the same rules with siblings and big family names dominating the scene. From siblings such as Poppy and Cara Delevingne, to Gigi and Bella Hadid who have been joined by their 16 year old brother, Anwar Hadid earlier this year. Then there’s the mother daughter combos such as Kaia Gerber who takes right after her mother, Cindy Crawford or Lily-Rose Depp who like her mother, Vanessa Paradis, have been spokesmodels for Chanel.

But family fashion dynasties don’t just exist overseas. Locally, we have our very own fashion forward family that have dominated in both the pageantry and high fashion arenas. Meet the Bonsu’s. A family that not only have remarkably good genes but a wealth of humility despite their success, articulation and ability to command the attention of any room they’re in. TDS sits with siblings Kwame and Yaa Bonsu to learn more from their vast fashion experience that’s clearly in their genes.

Number years as a model:

Yaa: 4 years

Kwame: 16 years

You’ve been featured in:

Yaa: MaXhosa by Laduma, Suit Supply, Cape Town Fashion Week

Kwame: Naivasha Fashion Weekend, Tribal Chic and Malindi Fashion Weekend. Designers: Mille Collines, John Kaveke, Blackbird Jeans

[Image: Shifteye Photography]
[Image: Shifteye Photography]
How and why did you get into modelling?

Yaa: I started off as a Fashion stylist then I got reeled into the modelling world and eventually fell in love with the experience.

Kwame: Aqua Bonsu is the reason. I was always at her shows… Miss Tourism, Miss Kenya, Miss Earth. And I saw the amount of attention the male models used to get from the ladies and I wanted a piece of the action.  Okay the real reason is… I was at Wilson Malaba’s office (Real Concepts) and got interested when I saw other male models in the pictures. I was told that I would excel in both the commercial and runway plus make some money for myself. So I thought why not. Although at the time most of the currency was exposure, it helped with the training.

Perks of modelling?

Yaa: Free clothing and make up and great pictures: and if you do it well and professionally the pay is good.

Kwame: You get to travel and meet new people. Apart from being a celebrity for those little 15 minutes on stage, the experience as you prepare for the show several days or weeks before is the real deal. It does feel good to look good.

[Image: Courtesy of Yaa Bonsu]
[Image: Courtesy of Yaa Bonsu]
Disadvantages:

Yaa: The long working hours, shooting at random odd timings and locations.

Kwame: It’s a requirement to look good all the time. Sometimes you just want to bum and look like a total mess. Then there’s the fact the most organizers / agents / clients don’t seem to understand that Exposure is not Legal Tender.
You’ve done both runway and editorial… It can’t be just glitz and glam. What’s the real experience?

Yaa: It means running around half naked backstage and trying to fit into the clothes as fast as you can. It’s trying to make it to each and every casting your booker sends you to with a heavy pair of heels in your purse. Spending hours at the gym to ensure a fit physique and healthy skin is part of a daily routine.   The glitz and glam is just a tip of the ice berg. Even the super glamourous like Joan Smalls work hard and train hard.

Kwame: It is glitz and glam with the right company handling it. I did an advert with FCIA (Film Crew In Africa) I was treated like a celebrity. I’m talking three APs guarding me, personal aid… The works. But anyone who knows the industry can tell you the most common things we face in ordinary productions: lack of water, food or transport budget during the shoot or show. Also the use of this sentence by agents “We are still waiting for the Client to send the payment”.
Is there really growth for Kenyan models?

Yaa: Yes there is. There is a lot of untapped natural beauty from Kenya; I think our local beauties just need some form of guidance/mentorship on what exactly a career in modelling and fashion is. I also feel we need more adequate scouting agencies.

Kwame: Yes there is, however it will take a collective approach to issues such as remuneration and package. I believe the best way [to transition into the big leagues] is to search for a scouting agent outside the borders or continent.

How did you gravitate into styling?

Yaa: I have always been attracted to the fashion world. During my teenage years I would tag along to see my sister, Aqua Bonsu, on the runway and get to meet her designer and model friends.  I also started hanging out with Designer Liz Ogumbo, she would let me hang around in her fashion shows and style her shoots.  I go way back with her and it opened doors for me. I built my network from there.  I got acquainted with Fashion Stylist Sunny Dolat in the process who also gave me referrals to publications such as Healthy Woman and Kenya Concierge.

Yaa's Styling [Images: Thandiwe Muriu]
Yaa’s Styling [Images: Thandiwe Muriu]
Are you purely fashion full time gig or do you having another career too?

Yaa: I also work for an architecture firm; 10 Design in Dubai where I handle the Marketing and Administrative work for the company.  I also intern part time Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. At this stage of my life the experience and networking is crucial.

Kwame: the latter, because unfortunately, it [fashion] is not a full time job where I am based. If we had agencies that took care of our basic allowances such as accommodation, transportation whether or not there are jobs then that would be a different case. Career wise, apart from TV presenting and modelling, Music and acting are in the mix. It’s hard to do so when you have to be your own manager due to time constraints. Luckily all four are somewhat related.
What projects are you currently working on?

Yaa: There’s so much on my plate right now, I don’t know where to begin. It’s challenging when you are trying to multi –task and the results take time. But I enjoy it all the same. It’s a bitter sweet moment.

Kwame: I am working on my music and acting. My band SVNL just got a video out. I just finished working on me my first film called ‘Dear Mother’, produced by Philipe Bresson of Insignia Productions.  I have a two fashion projects that will be revealed at the right time.

[Images: RadekArt Photo / Fotogeric]
[Images: RadekArt Photo / Fotogeric]
Are you often met with stereotypes when people find out you model? Such as?

Yaa: Yes of course! People think you are narcissistic and shallow and are not willing to put in some work.

Kwame: Yes, people tend to think I’m a primadonna at first. Also, there’s a misconception that models have a lot of sex and drugs. That’s half true.

What’s your view of the fashion industry in Kenya?

Yaa: It’s fantastic to see how the fashion industry has grown rapidly. There’s definitely a lot of interest from the masses as compared to a decade ago. Local fashion is becoming more practical and less “avant-garde” which is such a relief. However, we need more structure, and we also need to develop the business and profitable aspect of it.  That way everyone; from the production process to the consumer can benefit.

Kwame: I think to some extent, we play it too safe and I think that finances too also hold the fashion industry back. Designers struggle with selling outfits that most Kenyans can afford, but won’t spend on. We spend KShs20,000 a night in a club but find it hard to do the same for the wardrobe.

[Images: BareFace / Polka Boka]
[Images: BareFace / Polka Boka]
What kind of legislation would you like to see concerning fashion in Kenya?

Yaa: Start off with a fashion board regulated by a (corrupt –free LOL) government. More fashion, talent and model agencies that actually care about their models should be established and also regulated under the law. The problem with models “free lancing” is that they deal directly with the client and the client takes advantage. They also take advantage of the fact that some models just want to be seen working for “so and so”. Models also need to take themselves seriously.

Kwame: Definitely lower rates in materials and infringement of designs.

How would you say designers treat models in the industry?

Yaa: I have had my fair share of bad treatment from publications but not designers. But from what I have heard, things could be better. I think models also need to be careful about what clients they work with and they need to be fully aware of what they are getting into.

Kwame: Designers are not the problem, it’s the agencies. But also, designers should know that it wouldn’t hurt to offer a model an item from the collection. After all, my face is on your pictures or runway.

[Image: MALE Magazine / Louis Nderi]
[Image: MALE Magazine / Louis Nderi]
Speaking of designers – what have you always wished you could tell Kenyan designers that they need to start or stop doing?

Yaa: I appreciate the use of African fabric but I discourage designers from using a print that has been used by several designers. It takes away the originality from your brand. Attention to finishing and cut is also important

What is your payment experience as a model?

Yaa: Well I never got paid for my first editorial here in Nairobi. LOL apparently the magazine went bankrupt and shut down and did not pay any of their models. Then I remember styling a shoot for a different publishing company and having to run for payment for myself and the models I had hired for about 8 months.

Kwame: Bad. One of the reasons I backed out on full time modelling it because the pay wasn’t satisfactory. Especially with veteran (if I’m allowed to use the word) models.

Yaa: Moving forward, models are underpaid locally, part of the problem is there is lack of structure or legitimate model representation. A lot of models (including myself) start off naive and are easily exploited. There is also quite little empathy from the client.  In general, the commercial/campaign work will always pay tones more than the print and runway jobs, even in international industries.

[Image: Mombo Shillah/Polka Boka]
[Image: Mombo Shillah/Polka Boka]
What are some of the dark sides of the industry?

Yaa: Let’s just say it’s a superficial world, you need to have thick skin and a strong personality to survive. I know a lot of people (myself included) who have side tracked because they let their emotions get in the way. I’ve learnt to treat it like a business. Do what you came to do and go home.

Kwame: I have heard of the common ‘sleep your way up’. It existed during Dr Nyamu’s reign but I’m not sure it does now.

Yaa, you were in South Africa in 2013…. What’s your comparison between their industry and ours? The fashion industry is quite different. It is very European/Western influenced and massive especially in the commercial and fashion retail aspect as compared to Kenya. It attracts models, clients and production companies from all over the world.  The models are diverse and competition is stiff. I have never been to Jo’burg, but it seems more of an afro-centric market attracting the biggest African designers and stars from the continent. I see Nairobi heading more towards that direction.

[Image: Magiq Lens]
[Image: Magiq Lens]
What poor habits have you noticed fellow models doing that they need to stop ASAP?

Kwame: It’s not about the gram. It’s about your brand. That’s all I have to say.

Yaa:

  1. Do not stroll into a shoot 1 hour late with make up on your face.
  2. Learn to be humble; the key is to look like a model not act like one.
  3. Avoid always looking angry in front of the camera. Sometimes a nice genuine expression or a laugh works great.
  4. Avoid bad grooming and eating habits. Ensure you have clean nails, clean clothes, clean hair and a fresh face. Working out, taking care of your body and skin is also important.

Clients want to work with a down to earth, clean, friendly and polished mannequin.

[Image: Roy Ncheeri / Phocus Photography]
[Image: Roy Ncheeri / Phocus Photography]
Do you see yourself staying in the fashion industry or you’ll eventually retire?

Yaa: Fashion is not a job to me, it’s something that I am passionate about and you can’t retire from that.

Kwame: I’ll never retire from the fashion industry. Sixteen years of modeling, eight years of fashion and retail management and visual merchandising retail in GAP, Banana Republic, Mr Price, Jeans Bar and Alcott, three years of organizing fashion shows, plus a brand that will, God willing, take over the contemporary fashion in Africa.. Do you see me quitting?

There was the rumour Polka Boka was making a comeback?

Yaa: Polka Boka is still here.

Kwame: I cannot stress this enough, Polka BOKA never left, we had to reconstruct and rebrand.

[Image: Courtesy of Polka Boka]
[Image: Courtesy of Polka Boka]
Yaa: We just haven’t officially re- launched it as a brand. But there are pieces available.  I am also happy to say that we are now a brand that designs and produces its own clothing.

Kwame: I do realize the amount of anxiety that is existing with our shoppers and we love it. I mean, in the short time of retail operation, we left a mark. That’s part of what has kept the brand alive apart from our passion. The plan for the future may include a male line as well.

Three Bonsu’s have already taken to the catwalk, would you agree for future generations to follow suit?

Yaa: Yes of course (funny you asked, my mother was also a model in her teenage years.)

Kwame: Our Mother, Isabella Mfaida Bonsu, was Miss Coast in her days. My three sisters and I have both done the catwalk. But Aqua Bonsu was the one who did it on another level. With six titles to her name (First ever Miss Earth Kenya, Miss Tourism 1st Runner up, and Miss Kenya 2nd runner up amongst others. So that actually makes it five Bonsu’s.

Yaa: Moving forward it’s a great industry to be in. Despite a few disadvantages and I would encourage it.

Kwame: But to answer your question, I will let my children follow their passion, whether it be aeronautical or agricultural… But I do believe entertainment is in our family’s blood.

 

[Image: Courtesy of Yaa Bonsu]
[Image: Courtesy of Yaa Bonsu]
What’s in the cards for you in 2016?

Yaa: I’ve learnt to let my work speak for itself. Let’s wait and see what happens.

Kwame: I currently work with Nigeria’s Ebony Life TV representing Kenya as a Host on two shows… -EL Now, a daily lifestyle and entertainment show that comes every Weekday at 8:30 PM local time and Destinations Africa, every Saturday at 10:30 PM on (DSTV Ch. 165).

In 2016, I’ve a lot coming out. SVNL is definitely doing some studio time and shows at the end of the year. I have a male African brand called ‘Gye Nyame’ that I am working on. My sister Yaa is now running Polka Boka. And the rest… Well I’ll just reveal in time. I prefer showing to telling.

 

 

3 Comments
  1. Amazing interview. I have never met either of them but I remember cutting out papers of Aqua Bonsu during my primary school days. I have seen Kwame Bonsu only on TV and Yaa on social media. Am sure they don’t know me or have never heard of me but this family is amazing. I love how they are genuine in their interviews and dropped some powerful and educational statements. God bless…!!!

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