Change is the only constant. While we all commence with a set vision and narrative, those too become subject to this truth. Airi Kenya may have launched its first collection in October 2015 as a commercial fashion brand, but the brand would then take a hiatus two years later to re-access their position. They decided to take a step back in December 2017 to properly understand the environment around them and address the issues facing their community; even in the pursuit of economic goals. Airi then re-launched in July 2018 as a for-profit social enterprise to accommodate their change in values. The result is the Signature Collection of Kiondos. A labour of love, hand woven by women from rural Kenya and merged with expert craftmanship of horn and leather work. What motions did the brand undergo to reach this point of social change?
Let’s start from the beginning of Airi, shall we?
Our brand name Airi translates to “two” in the Embu language which is the background of one of the founders, Sheila, and it was chosen to represent the two founders namely Sheila Gatumu and Claire Asingo. Sheila and Claire met in university and both shared a creative outlook on fashion, despite coming from business backgrounds. They saw a gap in the market in the lack of quality-made, relatively affordable options for fashion lovers. They then acted on that and created Airi Clothing-Kenya. However as of August 2017, the partners agreed amicably to dissolve the partnership leaving one partner, Sheila Gatumu, who now runs the brand in the capacity of CEO. We have a team comprising three full-time staff and seven independent contractors who we work with on different projects as required by the company.
Then came the second momentous change; the hiatus…
We wanted to have more meaning than just being a commercial fashion brand. Kenya is a developing country with economic frustrations at the heart of our problems. So why couldn’t we take something that we loved, fashion, use it as a platform to showcase the great talents of Kenyan women weavers and translate that to economic value for them without diluting the style aesthetic that is the Airi brand? And so, we set forth about achieving this.
Why was it vital to incorporate social change into the brand?
Social change, in our opinion, should be an integral part of any brand – whether in the fashion industry or not – that has been provided the platform and the means to achieve economic gain especially in developing countries. We manifest this by choosing to empower women weavers in rural Kenya by providing them a platform to showcase their handiwork together with other artisans. We also contract different artisans to create the hardware of the bags.
This resulted in the recently launched ‘Signature Collection’. Tell us a little more about that and why it was timely.
It features 4 designs namely, The Sishe Bucket bag, The Pevu tote bag, The Waridi shoulder bag, and The Jivu shoulder bag. We wanted to show a bit of diversity in the skill-set of our weavers. From the different shapes to the assorted colours, we wanted our first collection to be a representation of what our weavers can do. We were inspired by the bright colours of summer and having bags that could instantly transform a look into a fashion statement. We are a Kenyan brand, but we want to appeal to women all over the world to appreciate the beauty that is Kenyan sisal weaving.
We remain true to our story and our aesthetic. We are not looking to be compared to anyone else, rather, become the personification of the reasons we started the Airi brand; Kenyan sophistication with an edge.
Is there a specific niche of women you’re targeting?
Our target demographic is women who are within but not limited to the ages 25- 40 years. They are pure fashion lovers and identify with brands that are unique in design and have strong values. This is because our brand will resonate with their individual points of view about the role fashion plays in the society and their style aesthetics.
Why did you choose the Kiondo as your first product?
As mentioned earlier, we decided to add the bags as an initiative to give Women weavers a platform to showcase their expertise. Hand- woven sisal “kiondo” bags are a uniquely Kenyan tradition and merging that with contemporary design work will hopefully create a revolutionary movement of how people view Kenyan sisal weaving.
How do you make sure your bags stand out in this industry and internationally?
We remain true to our story and our aesthetic. We are not looking to be compared to anyone else, rather, become the personification of the reasons we started the Airi brand; Kenyan sophistication with an edge. We have been overwhelmed by the response. People are awed by the vibrant colours and the quality of the weave and the horn work. We feel heavily gratified for all our efforts.
Since the hiatus, what would you consider a major highlight?
The overwhelming love received for our designs. We love that people see what we were thinking when we were coming up with the collection. We hope the love spreads and enables Airi continue to do what we love best; create amazing pieces and provide economic sustainability for the women who help us in doing this.
Nevertheless, making the change must have come with its own share of challenges?
Of course, just as in any pursuit of a goal there are various challenges. Ours was mainly ensuring that the weaving was done to the highest level of quality possible for a hand-woven product. Our designs were uncharted waters for the initiative of weavers we had just created, and they were initially on edge about it. But through various trainings they got the hang of it and finally got the expertise required to fulfill the goal.
The talent in Kenya’s creative field in limitless, it just needs to be tapped into and nurtured.
The other challenge was time. Since the products are hand-made, the time needed to fulfill an order is longer than time needed to produce items made with a machine. The bags are also very delicate, and storage needed to be done in a very efficient way to avoid them losing shape and becoming deformed.
During your hiatus, did you also make observations concerning the Kenyan industry? what improvements/changes do you wish to see?
The Kenyan fashion industry seems to be closed and fragmented. We need to understand that for the Kenyan fashion industry to thrive, we need to open up more to creatives because the talent in Kenya’s creative field in limitless, it just needs to be tapped into and nurtured. We also need to improve on the quality of our products and our branding to be competitive on a global stage.
What do you have lined up for the future?
We are working on even better, edgy sisal basket concepts that ultimately translate into our second collection; helping to propel our project even further. For 2019, we’ve planned for more collections and, with a bit of luck, a surprise that will thrill our loyal customers and followers.