‘Hello, I’m Michelle. The Co-founder of La Kwetu, although my background is in aerospace engineering.’ The 26-year old entrepreneur laughs as we unsuccessfully try to conceal our shock and bewilderment. We had questions. We thought this would be a simple conversation about a brand that worked with an artisan community, using ethically sourced material and a combination of indigenous techniques to make high quality products. Well, that does feature in the narrative. But, as we soon discovered, there’s so much more to the story.
How did you move from a technical field to fashion?
I tried to escape the fashion, but it still found me. My parents are both really into fashion, but I’ve always been the technical one of the family. However, I am a maker, so I have made a lot of jewellery, clothes, hats and cards for my friends. I eventually followed my technical ways to college to study aerospace engineering. I finished, and when I came back home my friends were still asking me to make stuff for them. Nonetheless, I think the thing that made me go into jewellery is when I found out about the industry in Kenya and how it works. I haven’t abandoned my roots per say. I have two companies; La Kwetu and an engineering-based one which helps to take care of my technical side.
What did you learn about the industry?
The projects I’ve worked on led me to people working on things that I didn’t know could be done in this country. The more projects I took on, the more work I got. But I also used to work for a jewellery company, about a year ago, so that exposed me to a lot, such as the techniques used to make jewellery. I worked as a product developer, where I would play around with my engineering and creative mindset.
What made you decide to leave the jewellery company?
I left that company last year mainly because I didn’t agree with their conduct. I also found that some of the choices they were making as a company weren’t really in-line with my growth. So, I figured if they could do this, I could too. La Kwetu officially launched its retail in 2017.
Is there a story behind the name ‘La Kwetu’?
It was my co-founder’s idea. She had named a school project ‘La Kwetu’, and when I heard the title, I thought it would be perfect for the brand because it means ‘Our Own’. To me, it meant fighting back; where it symbolized our designs and manufacturing was made by just us. Because most people in Kenya, especially if you have money, look at big brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Nobody looks at home. Everybody is always looking at what’s trending outside Kenya. So, I thought I should bring back the attention to local business.
Is that why you decided to start with the Princes & Warriors collection?
I based this collection on African royalty because I was trying to remind people that we are powerful beyond measure. That we have strengths and at the same time we have weaknesses. You’ll notice that we’ve used the names of African royalty that were either inspirational or had controversial backgrounds.
With Princes & Warriors, I was trying to remind people that we are powerful beyond measure. That we have strengths and at the same time we have weaknesses.
I like to be an advocate for black people because I feel like we’re really mistreated. Especially in the company I was in, it happened in clear daylight. I felt like I needed to remind people that we used to have our own way of life. That you mustn’t just follow orders given, you should ask questions.
Do the series fall under collections or do they exist outside of them?
Both. The series jump in and out of collections. We discovered that we could take an earring, for instance, and turn it into a cuff. We also found that we could match a specific necklace to a specific ring. Instead of coming up with a whole new word and describing it in a novel way, we take similar pieces and give them the same name to be in a series. For example, the Makeda series which is beads and brass. We have the Nerfeti series which has wings. so, every time I introduce the wings in future designs, I’ll have to refer to the Nerfeti series.
When you make a piece, is it limited edition or continuously available?
That depends on two things. When I’m designing I can believe that one design is going to blow people’s minds and then when you take it out into the market, nobody’s mind is blown. When something like that happens, you must swallow your pride and make the decision to cease production of that item. Then there’s the scenario where the collection sells so well, but the name of the collection is 2009 Fall. Most people differ from something that’s old. In those two situations, we will cease manufacturing them under the brand. But La Kwetu Manufacturing can make it for someone else who might want it.
La Kwetu Manufacturing?
It’s an empowered, sustainable supply chain. La Kwetu Made is a side of La Kwetu where we invite people with ready-made designs – designers, retailers, people who have hobbies and enjoy making their own things. We take the designs and make them for you. We specialize in bags, jewellery, accessories and shoes. It’s a distributed manufacturing model that gives you access to over 200 artisans and collaborators with a spectrum of capabilities.
La Kwetu Made is an interesting approach… but what inspired you to offer manufacturing services?
I noticed that so many people have the need of manufacturing services but if you go to areas such as Industrial area or Kirinyaga road, you must go there with the numbers such as 10,000 bulk. Figures that are hard for someone who’s just starting out without capital. We make as low as five units, so, you don’t have to dig into your wallet to make something happen. It’s a way of supporting people coming into the industry.
It’s rare to find someone who is willing to share information or resources about their production process.
Before I started all this, and I was trying to set up, one of the hardest things was getting information or getting something done by the correct person. I’ll ask someone where they get a specific material from and they would rather act as the middle man than give the information. I really don’t like that mindset; it stumps people’s growth. With this initiative I’m trying to remove all those middlemen that end up inflating the cost for everyone. You also get so many mess ups when you can’t talk to the artisan directly. A lot can get lost in translation or misconstrued in the chain mail. So, we just wanted to skip these lines and say if you want something made, well make it for you. If we can’t, we’ll direct you to someone who can.
You design a bulk of the pieces featured, but we noticed that you also have Artisan’s Designs featured on your website. Namely, The Mamita Dangle Earrings & Kagure Hoop Stud, which are designed by the artisans themselves. How did this come about?
I walked into one of their workshops one day and they had this big order which the client ended up dropping. They reached out to me to help them sell them, so I went and talked to the individual who commissioned the order and asked if it was okay for me to put it up on the website as the artisans’ design. That’s how it started and now it’s blown up into this whole thing. I’m sitting on 15 other designs that I’m trying to decide whether I should release them or not. On one hand, you don’t want to be stepping on other people’s toes. But at the same time, these are people who worked on these products and if there’s someone out there who is willing to wear them, why not?
Are you working on a new collection?
I am. We’re still figuring out which items will make the cut, so we are sampling. We don’t want too many pieces that will overwhelm our audience. So, we do short small releases and then when people get used to seeing it we release the entire collection, the name of the collection, what inspired it and where the pieces came from. There’s an entire story behind the process and if you rush, it won’t make sense.
I think the only thing I can say is that we won’t have any princes or warriors. This time around we will be playing with a lot of mini jewellery. We are trying to make our pieces with the every day woman or man in mind. Or everyday dog should we decide to do dog collars; which is also another thing we might do.