Ikojn: Fashion’s Fast Riser talks about AFI, AFX and being proactive in the local industry

Take us to the moment you were announced as finalist for the AFI top ten

That was crazy! I remember when I decided to apply for that, everything just went so wrong. Because I initially had a two week window for everything –my inspiration, sketches – and I thought I could simply submit my previous collection; write-up, lookbooks, campaign and all.  So I wasn’t even fazed because I knew I had everything ready. Then six days to the deadline, I got a hunch and asked one of the organisers what kind of resolution the images should be and the organiser was like “what images? The images of the sketches or what?” Turns out they didn’t want an existing collection. They needed a whole brand new one! I had no idea!

For three days straight I worked on my sketches. I think I slept a total of five hours during that time and I felt like I was going mad. But I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t try.

So for three days straight I worked on my sketches. I think I slept a total of five hours during that time and I felt like I was going mad. But I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t try. The day that I sent the application, it was going to land on the deadline, leaving no room for error. Part of me had given up because it just may not land on time and I did it in such a rush. But then I received an email from AFI Fast Track, which I thought was just an inquiry on whether I actually sent the sketches through. But when I realised I had been selected for the top 10, I couldn’t stop screaming. I was so excited!

[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
But you didn’t showcase… what happened?

They sent the contracts and started to break down what we needed, such as our travel itinerary and they explained that they would handle everything for us. We were to just focus on our collection. It was a six look collection with 11 pieces, something achievable but the thing is I didn’t even know that I was meant to create the collection I had submitted. I don’t know what it was about that show!

The worst thing was that this was the first time that they had opened it up to other countries. Out of the 10, I was the only non-South African.  So everyone in S.A knew exactly what was happening and I was the only one who didn’t.

From the time they had sent the acceptance email to the time we were to leave there was the duration of three weeks.  I was just living my life, knowing that in three weeks I’d be in South Africa, and I thought that they would judge us on our sketches and the business model we would pitch. I thought we were just going to go watch the other runway shows. I didn’t think we were going there to showcase. So week before the leaving date, I was in the middle of Nanyuki with poor internet service but somehow I received an email that hinted at us having our collection ready. I was reading it two days after it was sent, wondering why they didn’t make it clear in the instructions that we had to produce the collection!

The worst thing was that out of the 10, I was the only non-South African. This was the first time that they had opened it up to other countries. So everyone in S.A knew exactly what was happening and I was the only one who didn’t. However, I called the organisers, explained my situation and assured them I’d still have it ready in time. I cut my trip short immediately and came back to Nairobi. For a week I slept two hours a day; just trying to complete the collection. My tailor and I would come into the studio at 4am and leave it by 2am the next day; surviving on coffee and monster.

[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Did you make it?

Then two to three days before leaving they sent us our itinerary online and I asked them when I should go for my visa… they didn’t know that I would need a visa. They really tried to pull some strings but they couldn’t produce a visa in time. So they suggested that I send the collection instead. They’d put it on the models and we’d do a judging via skype. So I did send them but do you know they were stuck in custom for two months. It didn’t make it to them. That was a really tough moment. But I consoled myself with the fact that, even though I didn’t showcase I still had a collection I could use in other ways.

[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Why were you so jinxed?

I know! But it made me think that maybe we just weren’t ready, we had only been around for eight months. Then I got the chance to do the Africa Fashion Exchange (AFX) and I had a little more experience going into it. However AFI did say that I would still have a spot in the next cycle of Fast Track; all I’d have to do is have an original collection ready for that. No application process again.

[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
After that experience you still applied for the AFX?

They actually reached out to contacts they had, trying to have one representative per nation in Africa. Somehow I was shortlisted and chosen. They told me in the beginning of June and I only had one or two weeks to prep. After the whole AFI saga I was a little sceptical.  With this one I was very prompt on the stages including applying for my visa very early. But even on the day of departure I was still bracing myself for something to go wrong. It wasn’t until I landed in Durban that I relaxed. Plus it was helpful to go with Diana Opoti, who knows a lot of designers down there. It was really inspiring to have the opportunity to meet all these people. You know as a designer if you’re in one place for a really long time you get comfortable and think you’re doing okay. Then you get out of that zone and you realise you really aren’t doing much. I love that jolt because it’s a wakeup call.

[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Speaking of S.A designers, how would you compare their scene to ours?

I think for them they are very business oriented. I think, locally we are still taking fashion as a sport, where people only think about it in terms of runway showcase and not as the business of fashion. So they buy tickets to shows, take pictures for social media and that’s that. Designer wise, our runways are more creative and very rarely do you see practical clothes that can be bought straight off the runway. In S.A, there is good mix of the creative and the ready-to-wear. I actually bought a coat off the runway. Another thing is the fashion council there does a lot for their designers.

In Kenya there is also the issue that designers don’t have a platform to showcase their product to a ready market. And that’s why I’m praying for initiatives and stores like the Designer Collective and TDS to succeed.

[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
[Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
The overall lesson here seems to be ‘being proactive’…

Oh yeah. Even at Mcensal, I remind the Dean every three months that if she hears about anything to forward things my way. So from the variety she sends me I can pick and choose what suits me and my brand. It also helps to be in AFAD-Kenya, they have a lot of opportunities too… if you keep active in those groups you’ll always have an idea of what is going on. Take for example; they let us know that H&M Africa is looking to partner with designers in East Africa.

AFX Runway [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
AFX Runway [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
A big issue for starting designers is finance, so how have you tackled the problem?

I don’t think I have. I think I’m still part of the broke gang. It’s hard… sometimes you just have to be smart.  What works for me is knowing what I’m actually producing for who and the quantities needed  – I only have to budget for my samples and maybe two or three social media people I can use to push it. Otherwise, I only produce what I have orders for.

There’s the thing in Kenya, where creatives don’t collaborate enough. I feel that if we came together we could help elevate each other.

Then there’s the thing in Kenya, where creatives don’t collaborate enough. I feel that if we came together we could help elevate each other. I don’t have a huge flow of finance where I can hire many people to aid my operation, but I’ve been able to talk to people who are willing to do it for mutual benefit. So a photographer can help me stock images and in return they get three to four Ikojn custom made pieces. For example, I’ve been fortunate to work with Lyra Aoko… we’ve done a couple of shoots before and she’s very accommodative.

I think people are also scared of the down and dirty hard work. Design school will teach you how to do the patterns and stitching, but when you are ready to create your own brand you want to find someone who already knows how to stitch. But that person may not have the same ethics. And the thing with experienced tailors is that it’s very difficult to get them out of their ways and into your way of thinking. Many of the designers don’t want to go through the process of teaching, which I did, because it’s a much longer process. But once you’re done, it’s like there is two of you because they’re going to do everything they way you like it.

Diana Opoti in Ikojn [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Diana Opoti in Ikojn [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Are you conscious about the cost of your products?

Yes, I’m actually very conscious because I want to produce a product that is attainable. I’m trying to appeal to a person who appreciates locally produced products but I know I’d never have something in my ready-to-wear collection that is above KShs15,000. Made to measure may be a little pricier.

So you do Made to Measure as well.

Yeah, I do that on the side. I’ve worked with a few companies, such as Mama Rocks and a hotel in Machakos, who want to aid their branding via specific type of uniform for their employees. As designers, sometimes you have to think about the business. You want to be all about the art but sometimes you have to be practical and earn the capital that will help pay the bills.

Behind the scenes at AFX [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Behind the scenes at AFX [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
What to look forward to from you

This year: I might be coming out with four or five looks for Designing Africa Collective (DAC). I love that she [Diana] pushes to create a platform for others. It’s rarely about her and she understands what the designers need to be seen. It’s a priceless asset to have.

I’m still setting up my website but I’m working with DAC, Republi.ke and TDS to stock and have as many outlets for customers to shop at their convenience.

Behind the scenes at AFX [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
Chris Njoki behind the scenes at AFX [Image: courtesy of Ikojn]
It seems like you just happen to be making the right moves… you’ve already worked with strong fashion professionals in the local industry.

I remember I met Diana at time when she was starting the 100 days and I wasn’t even a designer yet.  But I loved what she was doing and I told her that I would be featured in her next 100 days. When I had my lookbooks ready I emailed it to her and she featured me. From then on I think we became friends as well and one thing she’s always mentioning to me is that designers won’t push.

The thing is when you’re a designer, you are everything to that brand

You may make your lookbooks or your samples and then you think that your work is done. She says that if you send something and they don’t respond, send a reminder. If you decide on a date of delivery with a client, send it on said date or earlier. It’s the little things that make you stand out. I remember after she said she’d wear my clothes in her series, I sent her the clothes with a hand written thank you note; which makes all the difference.

The thing is when you’re a designer, you are everything to that brand- marketing, PR, sales, accounting, name it. I do a lot of research on how international brands conduct themselves and they add small details that go a long way to differentiate them from their competition.

For me it’s about my business, I rarely think about the fame aspect. I’m about ensuring I have and maintain quality standard that keep people coming back.

*Join her on her spectacular, roller-coaster of a journey (and place your orders) at:

Facebook |crisnjoki@yahoo.com | +254 (0)720 722 240| IG or shop online at www.shopattds.com/ikojn/

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