John Kaveke has been in the fashion industry for 12 years. With an early interest in art, he used to draw never thinking of it as a business. Thereafter, he began to delve into the fashion industry. An incident in Nairobi city center triggered his interest to go into fashion when he saw a lady inappropriately styled for day wear. “I thought to myself, are their no designers or is it that people do not know where to get proper clothes. ”
He studied in the former Woodgrove Fashion School and taught there for two years thereafter leaving in late nineties. By the time they, those who were designing, were called fashion designers in Kenya, was late in the millennium. He recalled that they were still called tailors and could not understand what a designer was. “This industry is very tough and demanding. In the differentiation between tailor and fashion designer…you have to create yourself to be fashion a designer. You wont deserve the respect of the name simply because you studied fashion.” In this industry, he explains, regardless of the name you are given, you have to earn the name of fashion designer. “The ignorance in Kenya is that designers do not exist. We ourselves have not put in enough effort to give them the notion that we can create and design from scratch.”
On the one hand, you can work hard to be respected as a designer or not and do what the client’s request, Kaveke explains. The danger he faced with the former is that, in reality, people are scared of fashion designers because they assume you are expensive, unreachable and therefore rule you out before they ask. “People have placed me so high up there that they believe they can’t afford me. They have assumed I sell for 50,000 a piece yet they don’t take the time to ask.
“I needed to press the refresh button. There was so much happening at the time and it was easy to get caught up.”
John Kaveke has been out of the fashion scene for about a year plus to analyze the way forward for his brand. He explains that he had reached a point he was doing too much of the same thing over and over again. “I needed to press the refresh button. There was so much happening at the time and it was easy to get caught up.” The other reason, he explains, is that he had successfully built a brand and not quite so much a business. He needed to stop and think about making the brand, John Kaveke, a successful business. “That’s what I am now, I am big name and yet my finances are not at the same level. It was a risk to take off from the industry but at the same time, nothing is without risk.”
While having a chat with one of his good clients, he made a remark that “you are everywhere and no longer unique.” He knew it was time change. “When I started my brand I wanted my clients to feel special and it was all about the small fine things, but I lost that. In Kenya, you have to build the hype unfortunately.” For John Kaveke, it came with a price.
One of the qualms of fame in Kenya, he explains, his that he experienced the highs and the reality financially. He recounts a time when people spoke about him everywhere and anywhere dropping his name right, left and center. He was in every media and his brand had grown but the reality was that no one was buying like it should be, despite the hype. “People like to talk too much…those who just talk and don’t do much else. We have a lot of talkers in Kenya and not real buyers.
“It is time to build our land and Africa”
When he started his brand, his motto was to “build in Africa. Make viable business in Africa.” The harsh reality is that to do so, one must go outside to build the hype and only then do people in Kenya take an interest in you. “I experienced that, after I showcased in London. People want to be associated with me but they are not buying the way you want them to buy.” He further states that the market is still very conservative with regard to what they wear and the colors they choose.
John Kaveke in Africa Fashion Week London 2013: (Collection Inspired by moods and experssions. Photos courtesy of AFWL official photographer.)
“The second-hand market is great because it is helping a certain level of people”, he explains. Kaveke also uses the second hand market as a source of information to know what the trends and seasons are. When it comes to buying locally, Kaveke says that the stereotype that products from outside are better than products made locally is the reality. This is improving though, compared to how it was in the late eighties in terms of quality and fabric. He does however explain that locally made textiles still remains an issue but “it is not an excuse for people not to buy. Designers have raised the bar. It is sad that we live in such a community where people are willing to spend a good amount of money to buy an imported suit or dress rather than buy locally. It is time to build our land and Africa.”
Right now the international focus is on Africa, Kaveke says, and people are looking here for inspiration. “Now is the best time to start cultivating what is local.” The major problem is that “here in Kenya, we have conflict because if the fashion industry needs to blossom, it requires all the team players.” The fashion industry will not grow, he says, if we do not speak in one voice. Bickering and classicism and segregation and oneness are what is killing the fashion industry at the moment, Kaveke remarks. “The industry needs to settle down and look at the bigger picture and stop having a hundred and one events while we evidently lack the capacity. We are not that many designers.”
See more of what John Kaveke has to say in our Part II.