Loulou Quinet, born in Ethiopia from a French Father and Ethiopian mother, she grew up in Paris, France and started her fashion design house, Aryam Designs in Kenya.
She recalls that when her family had moved to Paris, she wanted to show people that she was not French. Not negatively, but positively showing that she was different and came from Africa. Being the only black person in her class she always made sure to wear something Ethiopian. People would respond positively to her creative work, embellishing her clothes with a touch of African print/material. This was the beginning of her fashion designing career.
“I don’t follow fashion and I really try not to make fashion. I don’t do fashion, I do style. I love style.”
After finishing high school, she needed to choose a career. She went to fashion school for four years specializing in graphic design and fashion in ESMOD France, the first fashion school founded in 1841. She thereafter went to London to work for the renowned luxury fashion house Joseph for 2 years then moved to Kenya with her husband. She has always loved fashion and at the time they moved to Kenya, there weren’t many people doing fashion design.
Together with her sowing machine that has accompanied her in all her travels since she was 16 years old, she started to create her daughter’s baby clothes and clothes for her friends. Her friends started to encourage her to take fashion design seriously. “I didn’t think much about it, where or how, I just did it.” She participated in a fashion show in Paris thereafter and when she returned to Nairobi, she sold what was remaining at the Soko Soko Fair at the Holiday Inn 4 years ago. After a good reception, she thought, “maybe I should do this seriously, just maybe. It wasn’t calculated or anything.” Now she has a boutique, Aryam Designs, at The New Muthaiga Shopping Mall in Thigiri. “This boutique was destiny,” she says.
The company name, Aryam, is half of her Ethiopian Amharic name. Her full name is means ‘The Throne of God in Seventh Heaven.’ “I love the name but its very hard for people to remember, let alone pronounce or spell. I wanted to use it because it has a beautiful meaning. So I stuck to Aryam which means heaven.” The name Loulou came from her younger brother who gave her that name since he couldn’t pronounce her full real name. “I have to thank my brother then for giving me an easier name. He facilitated my life,” she says laughing.
“I don’t follow fashion and I really try not to make fashion. I don’t do fashion, I do style. I love style.” Fashion, she describes, comes and goes by virtue of its seasonal nature but style is something that stays and is very personal. Your own style is unique to you and it matches ones personality. “Someone as crazy as me wears crazy things. You would never see me in a suit.” Her designs are created to be more personal. Loulou Quinet creates around 120 garments to be present in her store, “so I make 120 styles.” With a collection once or twice a year, she strives to create collections of style, each different from the other so as to allow her customers to select a garment suiting their own unique style.
On the racks, they are samples. When a customer selects their style piece, she then measures them and creates that garment to their size. All her clients are more than just clients. Through such a personal shopping experience with her, they end up bonding and creating friendships. You not only pick your style, Loulou Quinet engages with you on the garment and whether it matches your style, the color and sizing. She also advises her clients which garments would complement them the most – she may refuse to sell a garment if it won’t suit the client but will alternatively suggest another piece. She is honest in her dealings and is not interested in money without making sure the client is happy and that her brand is represented in the best way.
Her choice of material is mostly linen and cotton embellished with Ethiopian fabric which represents her African touch. “I like natural fabric, I wont work with any synthetic fabrics. Cotton, linen, silk, wool, jersey. Its our body, we need to treat it right and its comfortable.” Although linen creases, she continues, she has found that people tend to understand the nature of linen so they are not so worried about that. “If you wear cotton and its creased, people will look at you funny but linen is different,” she explains laughing.
The Ethiopian fabric is woven by hand. She uses the embroidery and works with a little piece adding it as the final touch in her designs. She also uses khanga material here and there but usually only traces of it.
“A lot of my stuff is a mistake. Truly.” Her creativity and her passion are truly evident. Although she jokingly explains some of her works are mistakes, they are rather innovations in the spirit of creativity and in doing what she loves. “I work a lot with pattern but sometimes I drape and figure it out. Some of the designs, you calculate.” One of her designs was originally meant to be a kaftan top (Indian inspired) with pants. When she wore it to try it out, it was far too long for her so she decided to tie the bottom ends of the kaftan in the middle. That was her Aha! moment. She then stitched the bottom pieces but then realized that if you wear it, going to the bathroom would be impossible. It was a great idea but it wasn’t practical. “So, now when I make that piece, I put in a zip.”
Some of the trousers she has made has taken her up to three weeks to design and produce simply because of how complicated it was whilst others took 30 minutes. Those trousers were a combination of a skirt and pants in one piece. The problem was, she explained, was that people were too confused about it. “I used to do some crazy pieces but realized people don’t know how to wear it. They would call me and ask for instructions.” What she enjoys is combining material and manipulating it to make it creative and fun. She doesn’t employ simple cuts to her garments. She rather manipulates the fabric to create pieces to have interesting folds in unconventional ways and different geometrical shapes to shirts and dresses.
In her view, Kenya has a fashion industry although it is slow. “Kenya can do much better in the industry and be like South Africa. There is a lot creativity but it is not out there as much. They need to open up and show what they have.” In one year, she explains, she would not have been able to open a boutique in Paris, the competition there is incredibly fierce. “The industry is there, the demand is there. People want to wear what is Kenyan.”
She went on to discuss the designer versus tailor challenge in Kenya. There are those who bring in clothes from elsewhere and sell, calling themselves a designer. “There is a lot of confusion in the industry with regard to the designer versus the tailor- they work together but they are two very distinct skills.” Loulou Quinet has also seen this confusion in Ethiopia where some so-called designers would make a garment and she would ask “so what did you do exactly?” The creativity there would be lacking which then begs the question of whether you are a designer. “A designer is someone who takes nothing and creates into something. An expression of the designer, even mistakes, its my mistake.” She further explained that the low number of fashion schools available in Kenya plays into that confusion by not informing a large part on what being a designer really is.
“The industry is there, the demand is there. People want to wear what is Kenyan.”
When I started, I found it hard to gain information about the industry and how to get certain items. “It took me 1 year to get labels, shop bags took me a long time to find- they are not online. So when I would ask people, they wouldn’t share. This was my biggest challenge. People really do not want to share- they are afraid, they don’t know who you are and what you are capable of. Now, I understand that fear but I also share all the information.”
One of the biggest challenges she faces is, ironically, tailors. “If you are a designer, you need a team; really good tailors and shop assistants.” Her tailor, called John is a mzee, she laughs, but he is the only one she found who truly understood her designs and is able to stitch accordingly. It took a year for her to find him. “For me, material is not a problem to get but the mass production is an issue with regard to the number of tailors I can have.”
All in all, she explains, “it has been fun, a journey so far working here and growing as a designer. Every single day has been a new experience.” She is looking to challenge herself more and grow more.
Take a look at her designs below. (Photos Courtesy of Loulou Quinet- Aryam Designs: for more see website)