Kiondoo Kulture: Here’s to new and colourful beginnings

[Image: Courtesy of Kiondoo Kulture]
[Image: Courtesy of Kiondoo Kulture]
Work. That’s what the kiondoo bag represents to any woman from the Kikuyu or Kamba communities. And with good reason. There was a time where sisal and a rough around the edges strap was all you needed to support kilos of weight of produce from the farm, the firewood you collected along the way and a toddler on top for good measure. Albeit at a tilted 45 degree stoop. The urban centre may not be carrying as heavy a load yet it is still used at farmers markets, the supermarket or at traditional wedding ceremonies; quick to remind the bride of her duties in the homestead. However, the bag has been going through a metamorphism; and not just in the colour department. The sisal bag has become more popular in fashion circles, with artists such as AAKS from Ghana taking colour weaving to the luxury level. Locally, Kiondoo Kulture wants to give the kiondoo the same treatment, creating a product that easily blends into the social scene. Ivy Nitta started the brand not just to reinvent the traditional icon, but as a new beginning on her personal journey.

[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
When did you start Kiondoo Kulture?

January 2016 but before that I was doing my market research and it came about because I had such a hard time at law school. I needed to find another option. Something that was more interesting to me and not so rigid.

You gave up law for fashion?

I was 18 or 19 years old when I had to make the decision on the way forward and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I started law school, I was just happy to study law because it’s a nice background for any filed that you want to go into. But then I find out that there are all these regulations such as pre KSL (Kenya School of Law) and KSL which is no joke. I’ve never been through such a traumatic experience… failing seven out of nine of the bar exam was a sign from the universe.

After that experience, I saw things clearer and I realised I really didn’t fit in. My parents were disappointed, especially since I made this revelation at the point of KSL. They were encouraging me to at least get admitted to the bar but I knew I had already given it my best shot. It really wasn’t my path.

[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
How did this experience lead you to the colourful world of Vyondo?

During the period of market research, I found this woman near Gigiri who sells kiondoos. The colours are striking and the bags are affordable but I noticed the leather was simple; there wasn’t much care in the production of the leather used. But I still bought a bunch of them, stopped using normal bags and I started using vyondo for everything; school bag, weekend accessories, you name it.

I think part of the reason I was so captivated by the bags was because of the nostalgia. When I was a kid, I’d go to shags [up country] for the holidays and I’d spend a lot of time with my great grandmother who used to make these bags herself. I was fortunate to see the whole process. She would cut the sisal, then use a machete to take out the pulp, dry the fibre and then do the whole twisting on the thighs. She’d finally have a product after some time. It’s a long process.

Then I got the idea that I wanted to do a more luxury product with good finishing. I just always had a kiondoo in my life. It’s not just a bag.

 [Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
Who makes the bags?

My production works on levels, with two groups of women from my village in Tala. The women, some come from Kinyui while others from Kyekyo, I work with either use recycled polythene but I collectively refer to them as Kiondoo Mamas. These groups both do bags for me but they are also trying to venture into other products such as carpets and space savers so that the technique can be incorporated in new ways. Eventually, I hope to open a Sacco for them so that they can sell to other people other than just me.

In time I want to create a situation where a percentage of profit or income goes to the Sacco, which would help to upgrade their situation, such as a building to work in because at the moment they are working under trees. It’s not bad but I want it to be bigger than what it is right now. Percentages of our profits and income would go into a sort of fund and we’d have set projects to invest in.

[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
Where do you get involved with the bags?

I create the designs. Apart from the traditional kiondoo, I’ve gone and done different and modern variations of the baskets. So I have square, carpet, totes, sling bags and backpacks.

Are you ready to wear or made to measure?

I don’t know, I’m still figuring that out. I’m planning on putting out a collection but I don’t want to put out more bags that turn into dead stock because production is a huge cost. I don’t want to be caught in a situation where product isn’t moving or not to people’s taste.

Kiondoo Twende Kazi [Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
Kiondoo Twende Kazi [Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
How’s the first collection?

The previous collection was called kiondoo kila siku and I launched that in April 2016. The feedback was really good, considering I sold out! Now I’m working on the next collection which will look nothing like a lot of the images you’ve been seeing on my social media networks. I want to expand the product range and also use this as an opportunity to find out what’s popular and base future production strategy on that.

The modern kiondoo must come at a cost…?

The bags ranged from 7,000 to 22,000 depending on the finishings and accessories. The quality of the materials I use – leather, canvas, brass – push the price up on the bags.

I also work with Gabriel of Gonzala Leathers to fuse leather into the kiondoo pieces. He also sources the brass for me; although I’m looking to become more personal with sourcing brass et al to get them at wholesale price. Hopefully this will bring the price of the bag down.

Kiondoo Klutch [Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
Kiondoo Kiasi [Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
Challenges you’ve faced so far?

First of all, I had no clue how to manage a business! Zero. Idea. Here I was telling people I wanted to quit law school and go into business and they were all ‘you go girl!’, but no one is going to give you solutions. Especially because I was coming from a place where people were so disappointed that there wouldn’t be a lawyer in the family. Well, I’m still a lawyer, I’m just not an advocate…It wasn’t my purpose. But since I’d made up my mind, I felt that I really had to prove myself and really push myself. Even working with almost no capital, because I just came and dived in. So far it’s working; taking it step by step.

Financing has also been an issue because I wish had more money to take the quality of the bags to the point I’m envisioning. My goal is to have the ultimate luxury product. Imagine an African and authentic kiondoo with Swarovski crystals. Something that will put it in line with Louis Vuitton or Chanel. So I decided to get the know-how in business management and getting my books in order right first. At least knowing how to manage a business because my education background so far was training to be employed. I’ve joined a course at Centonomy that has an entrepreneur class that runs for 11 weeks. Eventually I want to do an MBA but I thought this was a good foundation to start.

Another challenge I’ve come across is convincing people that a Kiondoo can be a luxury product. I think a lot of people have negative views about it. It just reminds them of the days they were in ushago, carrying potatoes from the farm. ‘Ah! Mimi siwezi kubeba hii kitu [I can’t carry such a thing]’. But I still try to convince them otherwise. I mean, look at it. It’s colourful and it cheers you up! At least that’s what I feel about them.

[Image: Courtesy of Kiondoo Kulture]
[Image: Courtesy of Kiondoo Kulture]
Highlights

Features like this, features in the Daily Nation newspaper and fun photo-shoots. It’s engaging and at the same time it gives back to the community. To be clear, it [this business] is not easy and it’s not fun all the time.  There are days I do want to slack off but I have to get out of bed and go do things like registration processes and I’ve already gotten it trademarked.

Such a lawyer thing to do! But wasn’t the kiondoo trademarked by a company in china?

Apparently you can’t do that to things that are considered natural heritage or icons. I thought the same and did my research into it. Even if they did, a patent last 20 years and that time has lapped since we heard that rumour.

Speaking of shoots, I see you model for most of your shoots… how do you pay for photography and there creative expenses?

I don’t know, I have just been very lucky. I just happen to meet individuals who want to collaborate. I’ll meet photographers that love the product and want to photograph them. So they photograph and give me the pictures without charging me anything. Thank you! So we just exchange with things they’re interested in such as experience, exposure and expanding their portfolios. For example I have worked with photographers’ Felix and MJ.

 [Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
[Image: Felix Laurens / Kiondo Kulture]
Your new collection:

I want to have it out by the end of August and it’s called the ‘Influencer’. People who influence and inspire … so there are bags there inspired by Kanye and Chloe as well as Kiondoo Mamas and Anthony Muli. The collection will also have pieces for the men, since there’s already demand for masculine pieces. So there are going to be briefcases in muted colours, not as bright as the kiondoo. What I see for myself is a product range and to expand. Whatever you think of in a bag, the brand will cater to it. Whether it is luggage, the lawyer and pilot mini suitcases, we want to have the presence that Ankara has managed everywhere. That’s how I want kiondoo to be.

At the moment you can reach out to Ivy directly to get any of the Kiondoo Kulture creations or even order your own bespoke piece via:

+254 (0)722 899191 | Facebook | Instagram

 

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