Silk, bright colours, flowers and butterflies. These are just some of the elements Deepa Dosaja used to create her ‘My Flowers’ couture collection for New York Fashion Week (NYFW). On 11th February 2017 at Studio 450, New York, she took to the coveted runway with her distinctive designs for the first time; with the undertaking of showing the beauty of Kenya and Africa. Through her 12 piece collection inspired by nature, she sought to convey vibrancy, culture and diversity but also the spirit of joy, freedom and unity. Partnering with Le Colane di Betta for the accessories to complement the clothes, it was also an opportunity to prove that this continent creates beautiful things and at international standards.
Since her fashion design beginnings in the 1990s, her vision to create exceptional clothing for every silhouette while commissioning the utmost ethical and eco-friendly standards still rings true. TDS learns more about her design journey:
Take us back to the moment you got the news you were going to be showcasing as NYFW.
I was standing outside my store at 14 Riverside with one of my close friends, Daisy, and Ajay [her husband] called and told me that I had been chosen for NYFW. We just looked at each other and that information just completely went over our heads. I remember Daisy had to call me the next day to confirm if it was true.
Some of the most notable you met.
It was a pleasure that I met my fellow Kenyan designer, John Kaveke, straight away. And then I had the pleasure of meeting a designer called ‘The Prodigal Daughter’ from Australia who had a very interesting collection. But the truth is that runway preparation is so involving that you hardly got to meet anyone.
What I would have done differently is go for a little longer to really get a good chance to network. I’d also carry an ironing board. Luckily they had a small one at the venue. Who knew designers carry their own steamers and irons and things? We had to iron the entire collection with my sister and her daughter on the day of the show. The ‘glamorous’ side of NYFW.
It must feel like a lifetime away from starting out in the 90s…
It was very difficult at the time because in the 90s Kenyans we more inclined to buying imported stuff and there was absolutely no respect for fashion or design here. I was called tailor for the longest time. But now it has completely changed which is wonderful.
And now you’ve got a strong customer base…how did you make the transition?
Which I am so happy and grateful to my clients for! When I worked at small exclusive boutique (Filly and Colt) in Montréal, my bosses – Mariam and Robin –– were fantastic because they taught me the importance of selling garments that suit the client. They also taught me how to form client relationships. I have clients who have been with me for 25 years now, and who have become mentors, and close friends.
And then you moved to Hardcore Clothing Company as a Merchandising Manager
I worked there or a couple of months. It wasn’t for me and that time I had just graduated from Fashion College I was exploring different things about fashion on my own. Reading lots of books on design and pattern drafting because that’s more of the direction that I wanted to take.
Why? Especially at a time when designers can just create sketches and their team bring their ideas to life.
I think that being able to work on a piece from conceptualisation to the finish product is important for a designer. Often you’ll find me on the sewing machine. I love stitching, drafting, and every aspect of the business. For NYFW, I stitched the sequence and beads on my finale gown myself. Everyone was so busy doing other pieces for the collection that I just decided to stitch it.
After Hardcore you launched Va bene (Italian for fine) Couture…
Yes, we were trading under Va bene couture or many years and then we rebranded under my own name about four years ago. Tory Burch had given a talk on using your own name and the importance of that. And I saw that, because now every piece that I make is a personal project. I feel like it has to be absolutely perfect because you can’t hide behind a label. If something is wrong with the dress or design it’s my name on it. So I’m very happy to have the support of a very specialised team. Dealing with silk is not like dealing with other fabrics; you have to have a very special hand and a keen eye.
Silk as your main fabric… it seems to be a special occasion kind of material.
We do silk for 24/7 wear because I like my clients to wear silk daily. I do! I even produce a line of my own limited edition luxurious stretch silk prints, with plans to start generating higher volumes. Silk is one of the easiest materials to take care of in my opinion. You can wash it. And it’s not as easy to burn when ironing as commonly believed. I love the lightness and flow of silk.
The Deepa Dosaja label is designed for the confident, stylish and international woman. How does that translate into your style aesthetic?
Our aesthetic is very minimalistic but I love to embellish it with adornments such as my signature flowers. My pieces are elegant but we like to add an element of playfulness. So adding a flower, butterfly, eagle or a stroke of paint is perfect for modern femininity. I like my clothes to be classic pieces with simple silhouettes sans frills and froufrou.
A fact that translated very well at your 25th Anniversary Fashion Show in November 2016…
The interesting thing about the show was that we used a lot of the silhouettes we’ve used over the 25 years and that actually showed how timeless the style is. It was in my studio in Loresho and I actually showed 25 pieces from my couture collection and 25 from my ready to wear (RTW) line I’m going to launch. The show was unbelievable because I experienced so much love from my clients.
Is it a specific type of flower that inspires you?
I know to the naked eye that they may appear to be similar, but each flower is hand painted and one of a kind. What I like is that there is nothing that is the same in nature. Just as we celebrate the uniqueness in nature, I feel that human beings should also celebrate the uniqueness in themselves. There are never two dresses that are the same. A client may like a dress and ask me to make it for them, but it won’t be identical to the first.
Yes, we only use natural fabrics such as silk, linen, wool and cottons to make the clothes; which I expect should last people a long time. I have pieces that have lasted me 10-12 years. And of course using natural dyes and fabrics helps the environment. When it comes to my staff, I treat them with the utmost respect that they deserve because they are the heartbeat of my company. Exploitation is something I can’t understand or condone.
How do you deal with the pressures of keeping it green?
You know, Wangari Maathai said that her little thing was to plant a tree. My little thing is to use natural fibres as opposed to synthetics which never biodegrade. We have the ready to wear collection which is mass produced, which for us means a maximum five to 10 pieces of RTW. The couture is one of a kind because of the hand work involved.
I know that environment is one of the most important things for me so I try to do the most I can within my capability. Do what you can as much as possible.
Now that you can say NYFW been there, done that…what’s next?
I am opening a bespoke studio in Loresho and it will be more ready to wear at the 14 Riverside store. I’m also going to be supplying The Designers Studio at Two Rivers Mall which I’m very excited about. Not to mention the launch of my new RTW line which will come out a little later in the year.
From Lupita choosing to wear her brand to showcasing at NYFW, this brand has definitely received the validation every fashion designer strives for. But as distinct as her design philosophy is, is her endeavour to never take her loyal client base for granted. As she tells her team, “If they choose us, we have to give them the absolute best.”