Hailing from Takaungu Village, near Kilifi, Zinj Design was founded in 2007 and now hires over 60 people. Amanda Seel-Mkare and son, Jesse Seel, evolved into fashion launching their brand, Zinj Design. Amanda spent most of her life as a lecturer in English Literature specializing in Post-Colonial Literature from Africa. After a long series of life adventures, she ended up in Kenya and saw a need for creating employment tied in with her love for traditional beadwork from around East Africa. Although she never studied fashion design, Amanda always had a keen eye for color and coupled with her own eclectic fashion taste, she translated those elements into her handbags and other leather goods. Creating timeless and beautiful pieces, Amanda has always been drawn to individual statement pieces and not necessarily following trends.
“Running one’s own business is extremely nerve-wrecking and scary, but also exhilarating!”
From lecturer to fashion designer, Amanda’s mental shift went from academia to business, employment to entrepreneurship and self-employment, which was quite difficult. One of her greatest challenges in making that shift was the lack of capital and lack of credit facilities in Kenya, which still remains a reality for up-coming designers. “There are days when I long for the security of the pay-cheque at the end of the month but there are many more days that I revel in the freedom of running my own life, schedule and workspace,” she says. Additionally, she adds, “running one’s own business is extremely nerve-wrecking and scary, but also exhilarating!”
Literature and fashion are not as different as one might think, Amanda states. With both fields sharing the need for skills in deep observation and awareness, Amanda explains that they both share an “analysis and synthesis, and the ability to tap into inspiration. Both require dedication and hard work to succeed. Teaching also requires ‘people’ skills, and these have come in handy when coping with the many different personalities, needs and issues that arise with a busy workshop of over 60 artisans.”
As stated before, Amanda is not driven by the latest fashion trend. Although she did try initially to go with the trends, Amanda quickly learnt to stay independent, original and above all, to stay grounded in her location and traditions that surrounded her. Zinj Design is not about trend but rather about timelessness and therefore creating frequent collections strays from their true essence. “We have certain designs, particularly handbags that have continued to be a mainstay of the collection for years and are still best-sellers. In fact, when this happened, I know I got it right!” she joyfully states.
“There is also a perception out there that Kenya is just a mass producer of cheap souvenirs – the ubiquitous wooden giraffe comes to mind…”
Having delved in the local fashion industry, Amanda felt the reception and growth of adoption of Kenyan fashion brands quite easy noting that Kenyans are seeking out new designers and products locally. “It is a fast growing market and one with room for more,” she says. She further notes that the industry is not flooded, yet, with the unique designs in the local market as distributors and importers still compete on price points which will be difficult for local designers as the source and cost of materials locally still remains quite expensive. Furthermore, she elucidates, the high cost of shipping from Kenya to the world also remains a financial obstacle in the ability to take Kenyan designs to the world.
“There is also a perception out there that Kenya is just a mass producer of cheap souvenirs – the ubiquitous wooden giraffe comes to mind – so I think Kenya as a brand has to do much more to change that perception of what we produce and the level that our creative aspirations can actually reach internationally,” Amanda posits. Speaking of creative aspirations, copying of designs still remains the thorn in the designers flesh both locally and internationally. For Amanda, she finds it demonstrating a lack of integrity and quite sad for those who choose to copy designs. Having experienced this with their sandals, Amanda still remains certain that their quality, aesthetic design and consistency remains the true mark and identity of their products.
She further adds that all fashion designers are in the industry together and possess their own distinct style. She strongly believes that “we should respect each other’s boundaries. If a producer cannot come up with his or her own designs, and stay away from other people’s hard-work, then they should find another job.” Rightfully stated. Having said that, the Kenyan fashion industry, she deems, is in serious need of investment and marketing. With financial backing, support in the form of grants and fashion events attracting global attention, Amanda believes that these would assist greatly those upcoming and established designers to get to global centers of fashion. “Ultimately,” she adds, “the potential impact the fashion industry could have on the local economy needs to be recognized.”
In part II, we delve deeper into the Zinj Design brand and what is in store for them in the future.
*Images courtesy and copyrighted to ©ZinjDesign