Upon finishing high school, she was not exactly sure what she wanted to do in her career however she had always been designing clothes and experimenting. Her confidence booster came from winning the 2007 Catwalk Kenya competition where she realized that fashion was her chosen career. Combined with a tailor, in 2007, she succeeded in creating her first collection and began selling.
She thereafter attended the University for the Creative Arts in Kent, United Kingdom, to study fashion design for three years returning home in August 2011. “Pattern work is not design. Pattern work is the architectural element of a garment. It’s all maths. A lot of designers do not realize that there is math’s behind the work in creating a garment.” And this is the reason behind shying away from custom-made orders due to the intensive work behind each and every single garment.“It is very difficult to explain to them that I do not do custom made clothes. They don’t understand what a designer really means.”
When she returned back to Nairobi, she began seeking an internship to really get immerse into the fashion industry in Kenya. She began working with Lalesso, a fashion house based in Malindi, from October to December 2011. This is where she learnt directly from Lalesso what it meant to be designer, learning the ropes and especially the business of running a fashion house. While working with Lalesso, she would use her spare time on her own designs, experimenting and determining her style. She had come up with a few small collections of her own but her confidence in how people would react to her style was still a concern.
Lalesso then decided to move their offices to South Africa, which then spurred Katungulu Mwendwa to begin her own brand. She started it off with showcasing t the Zen Garden Fashion High Tea in Nairobi where she saw a positive reaction to her collections. Followed by Tribal Chic in 2012 in the Tribe Hotel Nairobi resulting in her stocking her garments in pop up shops. She additionally participated in 2013 Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week presenting her collection courtesy of Gen Art and Tribe Hotel. (See video below) She recounts how 2013 has been a learning year for her both on her style and collection as well as the business side.
“Fashion designing is something that requires passion and that reflects in your clothes.”
The Katungulu Mwendwa brand is about answering, “what makes you Kenyan?” In answering this question, she went back to older African cultures to imagine how it would look like today in terms of architecture and clothes particularly had there been no ‘interruption’. Using this source of inspiration she seeks to answer that question through her collections.
“What we have seen is a phase in fashion of promoting what is African. It’s in. They have chosen to limit the interpretation to what being African means to a single type of fabric/material.” By virtue of using western style cuts on African material, she explains that this is a contradiction in itself. She does not want to be limited to this school of thought and seeks to expand the interpretation of what being African and particularly Kenyan means outside those confines.
The Kenyan fashion industry is becoming more recognizable. There are more designers in the market than there were before, she explains, which is a step in the right direction. The downside, however, is the numerous fashion shows. “We cannot move forward when we cannot bring buyers to all these fashion shows.” She further mentioned the need for the fashion events to be properly calendared, for there to be consistency in the shows and its occurrences.
When it comes to trends, she says that Kenya has not really established its own fashion trends but rather built on established and international trends. “We have small trends such as wearing Kikoy pants or scarves and lesso scarves as small identifiers of being Kenyan. Our trends last up to 10 years.” The trends in Kenya do not work in the same way they do internationally.
“Here, in Kenya, there is no concept of selling. Fashion has become a social event. Designers are paying for events to showcase their work and not make money.” These fashion events, in her view, are not for the benefit of the designer but for social reasons. “The focus is lost. Fashion weeks should last a week as a standard. We don’t have that. These events are not about fashion unfortunately.”
“I don’t see the point of attending any of these events because it will not help me. There are no buyers so why should I attend.” In having this influx of endless fashion weeks the fashion industry in Kenya is being negatively affected.
Another aspect of the industry that she has noted is that designers are paying to participate in fashion shows yet you will most likely not sell anything. It is therefore not commercially viable to participate in many events but to selectively choose the most profitable events, which Katungulu Mwendwa has done. “Everyone thinks fashion is fun, glamorous and expensive. As a designer, you are still the struggling artist. That is the reality” The Kenyan market is so small so meeting new people and networking is a crucial way to market your brand and expand. Kenya does not have TV adverts and fashion campaigns so “its really difficult to market your brand. It is work and it is not as glamorous as some people imagine.”
In building a fashion house, one needs to make a collection, mass produce and find buyers then you stock. The reality is that you need to create and establish a name and reputation to do so locally and on a global scale. “You need to make sure that everything is up to par, grading and sizing” which does not seem to be truly followed in Kenya, she explains. To do all of this requires quite an investment bearing in mind the element of mass production. These are some of the challenges she has come across including buying the required fabric in large quantities. “It’s hard to get material in the market. To get the desired material, the amounts you need and the color is tricky.” The other alternative, she explores, is to import the material, which is also an added expense.
“Everyone thinks fashion is fun, glamorous and expensive. As a designer, you are still the struggling artist. That is the reality”
“Fashion designing is something that requires passion and that reflects in your clothes.” Are Kenyans ready to wear locally made clothes? In her view, Kenyans are starting to buy locally made clothes but in purchasing luxury brands, “not so much”. When it comes to new fashion designs and innovative fashion, Kenyans are not ready to experiment. “Its hard to sell a story.” If you understand a collection and the story behind it, a person will be more likely to wear it. Without the story, people will shy away from it because they do not understand and it’s too new for them to embrace. “Just dress the way you want to dress without being concerned about what people think” she advises.
“Its hard to sell a story.”
Her words of wisdom in venturing in fashion are these: “don’t be in a rush. Experiment, Do your research.” She would also advise considering carefully the fashion shows you choose to attend and how each will help your brand move forward instead of running yourself into debt. “Education is important, if you are able.”
One of the things she has learnt is the expense and especially the initial capital required to run a fashion house. “In Kenya, not many people are willing to jump right in and invest in a luxury item.” She also learnt that you need the right people around you to assist in learning as much as you can about running a business.
If she had to dispel one thing about the industry is that, contrary to popular belief, it involves a lot of work, its not about the glamour, its all work based.
It takes her about 6 months to do a collection. “Doing a collection is not as systematic as it seems.” From the creation, the sketching, the “maths”, pattern and polishing up to the final pieces, this involving process results in her collections which an average 15-30 individual pieces.
Her favorite colors are earthy colors because she has learnt that “they can be worn with anything, dress them up or down, and less offensive to different types of people.”
Here are a few pieces from her collection.
Courtesy of Katungulu Mwendwa: photos taken by Shifteye Photography
Courtesy of Katungulu Mwendwa: photos taken by Magiq Lens Photography