Njeri Gikera, founder and Designer of Chilli Mango launched the brand to do things differently with regard to fashion products in Kenya – seeking more authentic and relatable. “I opted for something that I would wear.” Starting in 2009, she recalls seeing people buying clothes from Mr Price and was really annoyed that people would feel pride wearing something foreign rather than something from Kenya. Njeri Gikera began thinking about street wear, ready to wear clothes and in particular khanga hoodies, which was her primary focus.
When she got into Maker Faire Africa for a t-shirt competition, coming in second place, Njeri Gikera never realized that her t-shirts would spark such interest. After her contract ended with Tinga Tinga Tales, she started the Chilli Mango t-shirts adding on to the already established khanga hoodies. With a background in multimedia design, this was the hobby that became a business.
Chilli Mango is “an Afro urban street wear brand.” Njeri Gikera further explains that Chilli Mango is a mixture of cultures combining historical Kenyan iconic images and sayings merged with hip-hop into an Afro urban design. “I wanted to design images that pay homage to African heritage. The fact that our stuff is being eroded by western culture I wanted to remind people who they are, to remember and make you think.”
The craziness and loudness of Kenya is what inspires her to create her designs in an attempt to capture and communicate that beauty. “The people we are trying to emulate do not necessarily have a culture and we are so colorful. Africa, the way it is, is very beautiful.” Steering far from the high fashion affairs, Njeri Gikera feels that Chilli Mango is more inclined as a design/art based brand rather than a high fashion brand. “Even how the space is made in my shop, I was trying to make a gallery setting and work on the shirts as art pieces. Something you would like to hang on the wall.”
Not following the collection creation aspect of a fashion brand, she releases her pieces in small batches. She views fashion as a trend and that is why she steers away from calling her brand, a fashion brand. “I am more than just the clothing and the fit on someone, I am trying to create art pieces.”
Her view on the fashion world internationally feels to her more cold and unattainable; a high society that is exclusive and closed. When attempting to explain the difference concerning her brand, the high fashion world would be Hollywood and Chilli Mango would be the independent film. Chilli Mango was also made to create something proudly Kenyan, “to make Kenyans proud of their own.”
Concerning her views on the Kenyan fashion industry, Njeri Gikera really feels that copying the style of fashion out there makes her wonder who they are targeting – elitist in way that fails to communicate to Kenyans/ Africans. “We have copied a lot of that soulless elitisms from the west. The industry is also affected by the division, disconnect and particularly disunity. We are a very small industry so I don’t really get that. There are people who are coming up trying to change things for the better.”
Kenyans, she states, unfortunately do not believe in locally produced apparel and accessories quoting someone who stated to her that what is made in Kenya is not good quality. Recalling at Nairobi Fashion Market, one lady she met told her “I don’t get why it is expensive. I shop in the UK and you’re selling your stuff like it is from the UK.” She expressed her sadness regarding the fact that most designers’ clients are expatriates who appreciate locally made products and less local clients. “Everything we make is handmade whereas things made out there are made in factories in China and have more capital and support”. Njeri Gikera states that people should realize the work that goes into it and support the local industry.
“I am also embarrassed to a certain extent of the things that we are making here. We imitate what is out there and do it badly in terms of quality and standards. Be proud of where you are from.” When it comes to fashion, Njeri Gikera feels that people should cut off the thinking of the west and remember that you are trying to sell something they don’t have. Competing internationally, you have to provide something they don’t have in their markets, she remarks. “Culturally we are the richest people in the world and I wish people could realize that.”
Chilli Mango is preparing to release new pieces and a new t-shirt cut design. Njeri Gikera couldn’t be more excited. “I am really excited about those t-shirts. We have been selling mostly to guys so we want to create something funky for the ladies.” Chilli Mango, always looking forward strives to remain true to its brand and its message.
Take a look at these art pieces from Chilli Mango: courtesy of Njeri Gikera: Chilli Mango.
Photography by Osborne Macharia; Styling by Thogi.