Entering the Kooroo shop/workshop is a blend of seeing the designers working, interacting with the tailors and seeing the final product on the shelves. Clients are able to really see the process behind the garment adding value to their shopping experience. From the onset, it is already clear that they have a passion for what they do.
The woman who wears Kooroo is “a woman who knows her style and not led by trends. She is confident, well travelled, well informed globally and appreciative of cultures.”
Kooroo is the brainchild of Hebret Lakew from Ethiopia and Enid Lanez from Uganda. Hebret and Lanez came together to start something creative, to use khanga as clothes that would be appealing to many people. Starting off as a trial on a small scale, they contracted tailors and began to sell from their home. Kooroo began by creating children’s collections using the khanga material moving to collections for adults. Enid recounts how exciting it was not only to start this new project but also the creative process of going to Biashara Street in Mombasa town to purchase the material and creating the garments back in Nairobi. This is how they started off realizing as time went by that the interest was growing. Working from home was no longer sustainable when they started to get a following, which resulted in them opening shop in 2006. [Children’s collection pictured below]
Kooroo is an Amharic word, which means ‘be proud’. “We wanted a name that said be proud of your heritage, be proud of who you are” said Hebret. Lanez added that they were proud of their own heritage and the women who always wore khanga so they wanted a name to reflect that pride and where they came from. The woman who wears Kooroo is “a woman who knows her style and not led by trends. She is confident, well travelled, well informed globally and appreciative of cultures.”
Hebret and Lanez prefer to work with natural materials as much as possible such as cotton, silks, linens and wool. They however work with what they can get. They prefer to not limit themselves to one type of fabric as it is “more the concept of how we apply that fabric and how we combine them” says Hebret. They also incorporate saris (or sometimes spelt as sarees) with African print. They also recognize that being in Kenya and particularly in Nairobi, the cultures are varied. With Americans, Europeans, Asians, they try to not only appeal to Kenyans but also to these cultures. Kooroo’s clients are a mix of expatriates, Asian Kenyans and African Kenyans clients (although not as young).
“As a designer, you don’t want to be boxed into one idea. Every time you are inspired by something new and something different.”
Their 2014 collection is a steer in a different direction from their previous work. “We use different things in each of our collections.” A portion of it was showcased in London last year as part of the Festival of African Fashion and Arts (FAFA) initiative to propel fashion designers in the international market through pop up stores and will be expanded on this year. The concept is the use of laser cutting on fabric. The motif of the laser cutting was inspired by the Omo River Tribes in South West Ethiopia who do body painting (as pictured below). “We don’t have a name for it actually, I guess we can call it the Omo River collection” says Hebret.
“We have to always bring something new, from a creative point of view, you want to change and try something different.”
Although laser cutting is done around the world, there are not many places that can do it here in Nairobi especially on fabric so it was more an experiment for them. “They have never done laser cutting on fabric so it’s a challenge”, says Enid. “There is someone with one machine, a small one. It has its limitations, we can only do piece by piece” she further explains.
Describing their experience in the Kenyan fashion industry and their views, Hebret prefaced this discussion by describing the confusion in society between a tailor and a designer. “This is not an easy industry to be in. The culture here is more on tailors. People think you are a designer so I can bring my design to you…not really, that is not my business but there are people who do that.” There is a difficulty in making people understand that distinction.
The popularity and influx of tailors is engrained in the African culture where making a garment is done by your tailor so it explains why even in Kenya, there is a confusion in the terms. “The whole concept of a designer is new. Even in West Africa there are many tailors. It’s part of the African culture but the idea of a designer is a new concept.” Enid added that this culture is so prevalent that foreigners also look for tailors to make certain garments for them. Hebret studied fashion design in New York and recounts how her father, well travelled and educated, was not too happy about her career choice but he eventually began to understand the concept of a designer. “A tailor tailors to your needs and a designer creates a line” says Hebret. One of the misconceptions is that tailors are less important than designers whereas both of them are highly skilled in different ways and yet interconnected.
“A tailor tailors to your needs and a designer creates a line” says Hebret.
In addition, the industry lacks cohesion. Hebret further stated that designers in Kenya need to be more unified so as to be supportive of each other, learn to do things better and lobby as a group. “It is so difficult to get materials and many designers cannot get all the machines and the tools that they need. If we were unified we would be able to lobby for these things.” Enid added on that there is also a lack of recognition and support from the government. She noted that there are plenty of new young designers coming up with good work but due to lack of machines and other tools, many are unable to produce substantively. “Every designer is struggling on their own, there is no unity, no working together. You have one shop where everybody goes to buy his or her fabrics. It is difficult and limiting to what us designer would be able to achieve.”
The textile industry in Kenya is also in a worse for wear shape despite its glory days in the 1960’s and 80’s. They explained how the textile producers are not accommodating or flexible to small-scale designers in the amounts that you can purchase. They are more interested in selling thousands of meters rather than smaller amounts. Additionally, the few shops that do sell material do not do so on wholesale which means that the pricing is naturally not friendly to the pocket. Designers in Kenya, it appears, are not only limited by the availability, pricing but also quality which in turn directly links to the difficulties they face in mass production.
Hebret explained, “as a designer, your production is not going to be a thousand pieces. You produce a limited amount from the point of view of the market. If we only have ten meters, we tend to not reproduce the exact same garment. They become ‘limited edition’ pieces. We tell our clients that if they like this fabric they should get it, when its gone its gone.”
“Every designer is struggling on their own, there is no unity, no working together. You have one shop where everybody goes to buy his or her fabrics. It is difficult and limiting to what us designer would be able to achieve.”
Over the years, the industry is changing for the better, but it is a slow progression with quite a few bumps here and there. One of the things they noted was that younger Kenyans are more appreciative of Kenyan designers than the older generation. Enid stated, “I find that young people who are beginning to work and young students appreciate more Kenyan designers. People who are already up there, upper class who have money, will not buy something from Kenya. The society needs to be taught to have a more open mind to see that people are doing great things here. We don’t need to go and buy from out there.”
There is definitely potential in the Kenyan fashion industry. With so many people involved, exclaims Hebret, models, tailors, designers, photographers and especially a large amount of young designers, there is a need to build this industry.
They noted, that in the growth of the industry, there are too many fashion shows noting not simply the quantity but also the quality and motive behind the shows. Hebret mentioned the need for more focus around the planning of the shows and most importantly a schedule. “It seems like it is every two months. It is not possible to make a collection every month. You are fitting into models who are no the average size of people so this adds to the costs.” On many occasions, Enid added, the invites are sent with a three week notice which is too short. She further stated that “you have to plan ahead. To plan a collection you need three months at least. Just thinking about the collection takes time.”
“The fashion shows do not make sense,” exclaimed Enid. Hebret also noted that with this lack of planning and scheduling, it will be impossible to have people come here to see the shows because they would not know which one to pick. They are far too many nowadays but with one fashion week, Hebret explained, “it would be easier for people to plan around that and make it more meaningful.”
It would seem, unfortunately, that the fashion shows in Kenya are being put on as a social event. The frequency of these shows means that designers will be unable to meet the demands and guests will only go for a certain number as it is also an expense for them, monetarily and time. They both explained “the shows are really just for entertainment. You get lost after you leave the event. After eating, drinking, socializing you inevitably forget who even showed. It’s not like the shows internationally where there is no food, no drinks, no entertainment just chairs and the show. Fashion shows in Kenya have lights, camera, action, dancers, excitement which takes away from the point. The reason for them is that people want to go to a social event. Its not geared towards high scale buyers. There are none in Kenya, real buyers who will buy for their shop.”
For Kooroo, they carefully select the shows they will participate in. They look for shows with quality and the results they would have from participating. They noted that participating in fashion shows is an expense from creating the collection for the model sizes, the time it takes to produce a new collection and all in all not certain that you will sell those garments which have already been worn. “Unless we know that the fashion show is of high quality and that it targets the market we want, then we wont do it unless it meets those criteria” says Hebret.
One of these shows that meets such criteria and with which they are involved in is Festival of African Fashion and Arts (FAFA). Hebret and Enid both believe in FAFA’s philosophy of bringing together established and emerging fashion designers and providing them a platform. Kooroo was one of the five fashion designers taken by FAFA to London to showcase their work and sell in pop-up stores in 2013. This year they will be participating for the first time in the Fashion High Tea in Zen Garden.
From their experience, upcoming designers need to study dressmaking and all the techniques of making garments, making patterns and the construction of a garment. Hebret and Enid advises that they would need to either go to school or work closely with a designer thereby learning from the job. “I don’t think you need to absolutely go to school, so you can also learn from working with another designer” said Hebret. Hands-on experience is therefore invaluable. Designers must also learn all they can on fabrics. “If you don’t understand fabric then there is no point.” They also advised learning the business side of fashion such as production, costs, branding, packaging and other factors.
“Be business savvy, learn it. Have passion for it because it is not easy. Market yourself.”
Enid further added that she herself is not a designer but she recognizes that a designer should be able to take a vision, draw the garment and see it to the end when it is a finished product. She stated, “I have passion for what we do, I have some ideas but I don’t know how to draw and put it on paper. So I think that when you are a fashion designer, you have your drawing then you know how to transform it to the final garment.”
Hebret mentioned that designers need to find ways to recognize their weaknesses and counter that. She mentioned some designers she knew in New York who couldn’t draw but found illustrators who they worked with closely. Hebret admitted that despite having to learn sowing she cringes at the thought. A way to counter that was to get tailors. “There will be things that you will be good at and things that you are not so good at, so you work together with other people.”
“Its never been easy. Ever. We believe in what we do so we keep going. I cannot recall anything being easy. You just keep on going. Todays hurdle is different from tomorrows.”
Welcoming, accommodative, hardworking and creative women have created the Kooroo brand that stands uniquely and keeps on growing. One can easily tell that they are making their collections out of passion and love for it. It will be exciting to see their new laser cutting collection coming out soon so we look forward to it.
Here are images from their previous collections. Photos courtesy of Hebret Lakew and Enid Lanez from Kooroo. (Credits provided)