Not all heroes wear capes. Some come dressed in fabulous kimonos and disarming, genuine smiles that put you at ease. And that’s just the first few minutes of meeting the talented freelance stylist, Brian Babu. If you’ve watched any Kenyan media lately, or perhaps you follow its fashion and red carpet scene, you’ve probably seen his work. With A-list clients from Janet Mbugua, Amina Abdi, Wahu and Sarah Hassan, to mega music artists, Sauti Sol, Brian Babu is the reason so many media personalities look as good as they do. A skill that has garnered him quite the covetable reputation in the fashion and media industry. Not to mention his work has been a part of Netflix’ hit show Sense8, where he dressed some of the actors. Or the fact that he was involved with Coke Studio Africa.
Interestingly, this incredible journey started out by accident. According to an interview with Nation Media, “While a high school student in 2009, one of my sisters was shooting an East African Breweries Ltd commercial at the coast for a “Don’t drink and drive” campaign. Since back then some of the actors used to dress themselves, she was really nervous because she didn’t know what to wear. I came to her rescue by putting together a really nice outfit for her,” explains Babu.
But one could argue that the experience sparked something that was already inherent in Babu. His late mother used to make clothes for media celebrities such as Christine Nguku and Catherine Kasavuli. So, while he may have studied economics and finance at Kenyatta University, his love for fashion –which he’s adored since childhood – would prevail in the end. A man of few words, we caught up with Babu for a quick-fire session to learn a little more about this behind-the-scenes (BTS) guru.When did you start styling?
Well, I’ve been styling all my life but I started doing it professionally in 2014. It wasn’t a decision, I was doing it as a side gig and thing just worked out and it became my main gig.
What would you call your big-break moment?
That would be Coke Studio Africa Season 3 in 2015. I was a stylist for the band and V-DJs under Diana Opoti PR. I would meet Diana a lot in the industry, and we just happened to meet when her firm was asked to do the job. She asked me if I was available and I was. As they say, the rest is history.
Apart from TV shows and commercials, what other projects do you do?
Once in a while I do magazine editorials such as with True Love Magazine and Couture Magazine.
No personal projects?
I haven’t done this in a while. There’s been a lot of work so I haven’t had the opportunity to do as many personal projects as I’d like to. Also, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when it comes to styling for my personal projects.
When you’re styling for TV and commercial assignments, are you given the directive to follow or do you have a say in the outcome?
I am the one who comes up with the lookbook which needs to be approved by the client. The process starts with the client providing a story, which highlights the characters and what elements, individualities or mood needs to be portrayed. I use this to then develop the moodboard, which visually represents the direction I would take when it comes to styling or designing. Note: You always create the moodboard to meet the client’s needs. Then once this is approved, I’m clear to do what I need to make it happen.
There’s a lot that goes into styling but people aren’t privy to all the work that goes into making the final shot or the outfit you see on stage or at an event.
Most people assume being a stylist is a glamorous job. What is the real scenario on the ground?
I don’t think there’s anything glamorous about styling. The amount of running around and work you have to do basically makes you a glorified ‘mtu wa mkono’ (loosely translates to extra hands/helper/labourer), if I may say. Basically before a shoot you have to meet and talk to the client. Develop the mood board, get it approved. Then you have to source the items. If you’re not sourcing, you have to meet up with the designers or the tailors who are supposed to make the clothes. Then you have to source the accessories for the shoot, get them to the location be on set and styling for the duration of the shoot. Once that’s done, if you’ve sourced items, you have to do returns and reconciliations. You also need to take care of laundry. There’s a lot that goes into styling but people aren’t privy to all the work that goes into making the final shot or the outfit you see on stage or at an event.
Who would you say is your biggest inspiration or muse?
Wow, I can’t name just one. Nairobi is a great source of inspiration for me. The people, places and events. I’m enthused by afro-punk street style from the events and how people dress. I’ve also been inspired nature itself. Even with some of the drama or mishaps the city is facing. That’s because I refer to my styling as beautifully chaotic. I always believe that there is beauty in the midst of chaos.
Speaking of chaos, do you have some horror stories from the BTS?
There are a lot, but I’m not willing to share for confidentiality reasons. In my line of work you have to be very discreet.
Fair enough… Which areas in Nairobi do you derive the most inspiration from or find unique accessories?
I’d say the open-flea markets are the biggest gems in Kenya like Gikomba and Toi. Also there are a lot of underground artists doing amazing work such as Nairobi Apparel. There’s also the designer/artist project that Diana Opoti did for young, upcoming designers which was also quite interesting.
What changes would you like to see in the local fashion industry to see it grow?
I think we need better fashion events, where designers aren’t required to pay. As much as Gikomba is a gem, the government can create fabrics and create systems where they work with designers in the country such as taxes reductions and subsidies on things that designers need for their craft.
How would you say your styling approach or skills have evolved since 2014?
I’ve grown since I first started. My looks are much cleaner and they’re better thought out.
Is there any looks you’ve done that you look back on that make you cringe?
Well, in my personal fashion choices, yes. But in terms of work, I don’t think so. I believe everything worked out for that specific period and for the specific projects.
And how would you describe your personal style now?
Minimalist. I wear a lot of black as my everyday style but I break the monotony of the colour by incorporating pieces with interesting cuts or textures. I also use a lot of custom-made kimonos to break the black which can come across as a little dramatic.
It just works for me as a person. I feel like I’ve done the full cycle of colour already. I’ve colour blocked, I’ve done the street style and suit phase. I found black and discovered that it’s very comfortable and easy to work with. That way, I can focus more on what I do instead of what I wear, while still looking classic.
How did you get such an amazing roster of clients?
Word of mouth definitely features but I believe that it’s my work that just speaks for me and that my client list has been consistent for some time.
Which designer do you admire at the moment?
In Africa, I’d say Orange culture and Monoxrome; I find their work interesting. Internationally, I’d say Public School New York for their minimalistic style.
Whose wardrobe would you like to raid right now?
André Leon Talley, he is the king of kimonos. I do get a lot of what is he wearing and why is it so dramatic.
Advise for people just starting out?
‘Go hard or go home’. I don’t think that people give their best. They want to make it now instead of focusing on the long-term success. I feel very few people are willing to do free wok anymore. But I feel if you haven’t been in this industry before, you need to present yourself to these opportunities and put yourself out there so that you’re able to learn the ropes.
Who would you love to collaborate with and why?
I’m actually collaborating with a designer pretty soon, involving a men’s line but you will know when the time is right. I just know it’ll be interesting.
This sought-after celebrity stylist may be making moves in the industry, but he does so while remaining grounded. What may appear as an effortless endeavour is a refined positioning strategy that has seen him cater to a specific audience and working tirelessly to ensure their experience is impeccable. Most importantly, he continues to put the client first. Catering both to the overall brand and to the individuals underneath. You can see for yourself by following his #StylingEscapades through the media handles below.