Stories are powerful. Fashion brands are constantly being advised to share their stories with consumers, and the world, for a good reason. The human mind has a way of taking an evocative story and processing it in deeply affective ways that end up influencing the motor and sensory cortex. Consequently, a story ceases to be just words. It’s a feeling customers can experience. a point of connection in human communication that we evidently crave. But also, a trust foundation between a brand and customer, that turns into more than just one transaction. A fact that Njema Helena embraces well.
It could have been any other brand. Designer and Design Director of Njema Helena, Cecilia Castello, has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) New York where she majored in Fashion Design. She has the necessary design skills to draft patterns, make samples, work size gradings and has the additional gift in her ability to train the Njema Helena dress makers. But the brand’s foundation story steals the show and makes you want to embrace the clothes even more. TDS talks to Castello to find out a little more:
Your brand’s inception is rooted in a very personal story…
The company was founded in 2012 in memory of our deceased daughter and sister, Helena, who loved Kenya and was passionate about investing in Africa. [You can read a little more about her story here] In Swahili, ‘njema’ means good, as Helena will forever be the good force that drives this venture forward. We are an ethical fashion brand in Kenya dedicated to empowering the women who make and wear our clothes. Made with the passion of a loving memory and with that sharp edge only Africa can bring, our clothes are timeless yet playful, comfortable yet elegant.
Was your first time in Kenya to launch the brand?
We have been coming back and forth to Kenya since I was a child. I spent three years in Kenya while growing up. My father has since retired in Kenya and my sister Helena, the company’s name sake, came to Kenya is 2008 to work. We came to Kenya to start Njema Helena in 2012, because we wanted to do something productive, together as a family, to honour our dear Helena’s memory. But also, do something we could be proud of; something that had a sense of purpose.
The brand translates as very wearable sophistication…
I take a lot of my inspiration from the 1950’s and 60’s. I love the very well-tailored dresses and silhouettes that were fashionable then. But, mainly I just want to make wearable clothing women can feel good in. I don’t want our clothes to be intimidating, I want it to be accessible and plausible for almost any woman to wear. I would describe my aesthetic as feminine and elegant, but also sometimes cute and a bit sexy.Ethical Fashion is a strong mission for the brand…
I think it would be an incredible waste of an opportunity to not to strive to be an ethical brand. This is not just a business for us, this is an opportunity to improve the lives of those who work for us, and maybe make a difference, perhaps small, but a difference no less, in someone’s life. As a socially responsible brand, we support ethical and sustainable sourcing, always striving to source our materials and fabrics locally in Kenya or on the continent. We also provide fair employment and advantageous working conditions for our dedicated dressmakers.
Ethical fashion is great, I believe it is the future and the world needs more of it. But, quality cannot suffer because of it. If we want to compete with other brands our product needs to be just as good, and the quality needs to measure up.
You’ve previously highlighted the local team, also known as the ‘women behind the seams’ as an integral part of your work.
Our team is extremely important. I still spend the majority of my time in the UK. We manage thanks to our great team. Everything continues to run even when I am not there. We are very thankful to our team.[In addition,], we take great pride in the quality of our work, and work very closely and diligently to achieve that quality. We are a very small team and each member plays a vital role in the success of our brand. We think it’s important for a socially responsible brand to acknowledge each individual effort that contributes to our team. In a world where information is so accessible and everything is digitally in the palm of your hand it’s even more important to put a face to the work, to show the human side. [We couldn’t bring ourselves to chop out anything from each of their stories, hence You can read more about their team -Dorothy, Edith, Violet and Wilimina – here]
Who is the Njema Helena Woman?
Whenever we think we’ve identified our key customer something will shift and we will get a new wave of women. I like to think we design for most women who like to feel well dressed. Because we are a family and have two generations working very closely we can relate to a large set of demographics. I like to make things that I would wear, but also for the woman I think I will be in 20-30 years.Is that a factor that influenced your price points?
We try to keep a range available. Right now, we have a very good value top called the Cleopatra top, an off the shoulder blouse, that retails for Ksh4000. Our most expensive pieces are 100% silk dresses and fully lined woollen dresses that retail for Ksh13 000 – Ksh19 000.
Speaking of material…
We get our inspiration for our collection mostly from the fabrics we choose. Each fabric has a mood and a feeling, I go from there. But I am always on the lookout for new silhouettes, styles of dresses that I would want to wear and that I think other women would look great in.[You’ll find] a lot of Kitenge. I love the bold colours and prints of the traditional Wax Prints and love to make garments that are worthy of their splendour. We also like to use Kenyan Kangas and Kikoi, but we have had much less success with them. We usually complement our Kitenge assortment with some 100% Cotton Sateen in solid colours, and sometimes we will do some bold stripes to contrast the busy prints. We recently did a small collection of Tartans, wools and silks. This was our first ever autumn collection and we will see if we bring it back in the future.
How often do you do new collections?
Our collections or seasons are not very structured, we bring in new things when it’s needed. But we usually do new things 2-3 times a year and we try to do 4-5 new dresses and perhaps 2-4 new separates. We have ideas all the time about things we could do; men’s shirts, handbags, juniors’, sleepwear, but we always come back to the same ethos: dresses are what we are good at, it is our strength, we need to focus our efforts and resources on that first and foremost.
You mentioned in a 2014 interview that “We make dresses for women. We don’t make fashion.” Why did you decide to focus on the functionality rather than take the flashy ‘fashion’ route?
It was not a conscious decision; we sat down and made, it was just natural. I love to make dresses, design lots of things, try new things, and play with new ideas, but at the end of the day this is a business, not a self-fulfilling hobby.
Tell us a little bit about your latest collection… we hear you’re launching it soon.
We are launching our latest collection at Zen Garden High Tea on the 25th of February. We call it “A Celebration”. It’s a beautiful and fresh colourful collection with lots of great dresses and separates that all go together. It was initially meant to be a formal wear collection with Kitenge dresses and a few solids in happy spring time styles and colours, but it has evolved. So, we have also added some khaki coloured separates with a safari feel. The collection includes elegant and feminine dresses and separates, a beautifully tailored Safari Jacket in both Kitenge and solid khaki cotton, some wide leg Khaki trousers, a bubble gum pink strapless dress and a statement evening gown, just for the drama.
Some of the challenges you’ve faced as a brand in Kenya?
Yes, finding fabric and the quantities we need is still a major concern. We have tried several different avenues and continue to do so, but because we are a relatively small brand we do not have too many options.[However,], the challenges we face would perhaps be no different anywhere else in the world. How do we increase productivity without increasing our overheads? How do we best source fabric at the best price in the quantities that we need? How do we make sure we have enough of the right stock?
Best part of your brand journey so far…
All the people we have met and who have become part of our lives. From our staff whom we have seen grow and become great at their jobs, to our customers who have become great friends, to our models who become part of our brand, to friends who have become huge supporters. We have met and gotten to know so many wonderful and different people.
The best way to interact with this brand is to see it for yourself. Their story has shaped their existence and allowed them to show honour for the brand’s heritage; while permitting them to remain present and fresh. Their business model shows that customers that it isn’t just buying a product but a part of the story. It’s a chance for their story to live on and give back. They say it best on their website, ‘By showing interest in our brand you are not only helping us honour Helena’s memory but also supporting the “Invest in Africa” principle.’ Will you be at the Fashion High Tea to see their latest collection?