Mambo Pambo: The ‘Proudly Kenyan’ Afro-contemporary Brand after Africa’s Heart

It’s about the experience. Since its inception in 2015, this design house has been on a mission to change the way people view and experience clothes and accessories made locally. Adding to the growing movement that aims to shift the notion that ‘Made in Kenya’ can mean high quality, beautifully crafted, and client satisfaction. Mambo Pambo not only specialises in afro-contemporary apparel in both ready-to-wear and made to measure orders, but also has interior décor items and soft furnishings in their production capacity. Young or the young at heart, Mambo Pambo (MP) continually experiments with novel trends to craft pieces that reflect each clients’ unique personality. Adding to the ‘proudly Kenyan’ banner, each piece is designed and produced locally by a closely knit team of designers, artisans and craftsmen. TDS talks to founder and designer, Kawira Mirero, to find out more about this budding brand.
That has got to be one of the catchiest names we’ve heard for a brand. What inspired it?

I wanted to start an African brand that embodied everything we love about Africa: vibrancy, energy, colour, sophistication, hope, never-say-die attitude, love, and culture. I also knew I wanted a Swahili name for the fashion brand since I was born and raised in Mombasa, making Swahili a big part of my identity.

In 2013, when our children were two and one, my husband and I sat down to brainstorm on a name for MP. I love the word Pambo….Pambo means decorative in Swahili. I kept saying Pambo and my husband after trying out a few words said Mambo! – meaning ‘things’ – and Mambo Pambo rhymed! And that is how ‘all things decorative’ was born.

[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

So MP has been in the pipeline for some time?

I started thinking about Mambo Pambo in 2012. I came home for the holidays from Abuja in December 2013 and registered the name. In 2014 I started working on our first collection in Abuja Nigeria. The collection….Mmmmh….two items sold really well. A few were so-so….The rest tanked! Oh…and yes someone bought out all our ties!!

I started with bespoke pieces because I wanted to understand the Kenyan fashion scene. I could only do so by meeting and interacting with more people.

In July 2014, we moved back home, I bought my first two machines and we started in our servant’s quarter (SQ). I started with bespoke pieces because I wanted to understand the Kenyan fashion scene. I could only do so by meeting and interacting with more people. We are designing and making clothes for people, so obviously interaction was a key success factor. I wanted to immerse myself in service to people, and bespoke offered that opportunity.

In 2015 we moved into an apartment and MP moved into my guest room.

[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

Why did you decide to start the brand?

This requires a little background…..Art & design has always been a big part of who I am. I studied art & design all through high school at Alliance Girls. I graduated with a BA (Design) First Class Degree Hons from University of Nairobi in 2000. All the jobs I held from 2000 to 2014 had a design component. I have always loved design, I enrolled for an MBA soon after my undergraduate and started a career as a Marketing Communications Manager in 2004. I worked in Marketing Communications full time until 2014.

I wanted a brand that is not named after me. I wanted a brand that lived and grew outside of me. My dream is that Mambo Pambo will eventually have a design team working on gorgeous pieces for women across Africa!

When my husband and I moved to Accra Ghana in 2008, I loved it! I loved the prints! I loved how Ghanaian women embraced their femininity and invested so much time designing and putting together their outfits.

I love that! I know many Kenyan women who love that, but will not do it because they just do not have time to invest in fundis, having long discussions and sometimes fittings that do not go well!

When I moved to Nigeria in 2012, I loved the fashion even more! Every wedding was an opportunity to give my outfit a fresh spin!

Then I came across http://sapelle.com/ and the idea that African fashion can be edgy, high quality, very well finished and the brand idea took root! I remember emailing my friends in excitement, telling them…One day! I will own a fashion brand like Sapelle!

When it was time to move back home, I knew Mambo Pambo – the brand – is what I wanted to create and spend my time on! I wanted a brand that is not named after me. I wanted a brand that lived and grew outside of me.

My dream is that Mambo Pambo will eventually have a design team working on gorgeous pieces for women across Africa!

[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

Mstatili Sleeveless Coat [Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Who is the brand’s target audience?

Kenyan middle class men and women aged 28 – 60. By 28 – 30 most people have developed a sense of identity and a sense of where they fit in, in the world. Their clothes are a big part of self-expression and they put ‘wardrobe’ in their budget. They are more likely to invest in timeless pieces that transition well from work to play. From office to Radisson Blu. They want clean-cut, excellent quality clothes. They will shop in Cos, UK, Zara or Mango. Given a chance they will buy Made in Kenya of the same quality.

Price range at Mambo Pambo?

KES3,500 – KES15,000

[Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

[Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Challenges you’ve faced so far?

I am responsible for design, client service, operations and business development. That leaves me little time to actually sew. I rely on my production team to turn vision into reality. With that, comes challenges in consistency and speed of production.

  • Fabric – Once we put out a collection, we must ensure we have enough fabric stocked to supply stockists and our clients. Sometimes the fabric runs out the first week! Then we have to apologise and offer the client alternatives. Other times we tie up a lot of capital in fabric, which affects our cash flow.
  • Scaling – Fashion is a capital-intensive industry. One has to be careful to ensure that cash flow remains stable. That means declining or delay in taking up stocking or show casing opportunities.
  • Tailors – We pride ourselves in producing impeccable garments. We rely heavily on a gifted production team. It has been challenging identifying gifted tailors who will consistently deliver or stay on the job.
From left: Mstatili Pencil dress with Mstatili crop blazer & Mstatili Pencil dress and Njano Blazer.[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

From left: Mstatili Pencil dress with Mstatili crop blazer & Mstatili Pencil dress and Njano Blazer.[Image: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Speaking of tailors, how does your production team work? How do you fuse each member’s contribution into every Mambo Pambo piece?

95% of our production is in-house. While I design and have final say, a tailor will cut and construct the garment and the design assistant will finish (buttons, ironing, etc.). That way, each one of us has contributed to the garment. Sometimes I am also the design assistant. We only outsource embroidery and specialised work like beading.

The team, which is made up of 1 designer, 3 tailors, 1 design assistant, is based at Woodland Trails. When a client walks in or when I design a garment, I discuss it with the tailor who will assist me in production extensively. We discuss the prospective client’s unique needs, fabric choice and actual garment structure. While I have strong opinions of what will work and what will not work, I am open to new perspectives, and I give the team space to make suggestions. I take all made-to-measure measurements with a tailor present, as we discuss various features, e.g. waistband placement or hem lines.

You’ve mentioned that MP works with varied fabric and nuanced textures – kindly elaborate and why you selected with them.

Varied fabric has different texture and responds differently. Kitenge/Ankara cotton has no give. [It’s stiffer and more structured] Jersey has ‘give’ [It’s stretchy] but is very unforgiving…it shows every single bump! Chiffon is awesome but suitable for warm weather…and sometimes looks cheap. When you combine jersey and kitenge, you have to be careful! For instance, kitenge cuffs on a jersey sleeve, the cuff will be too tight to be functional. Unless….you cut it on bias/across the grain.

I select fabric depending on the occasion, weather, body shape, body size, season, and function. For instance, celebratory events call for luxe-fabric with sheen. However a size 22 could look like an over decorated Christmas tree when dressed head to toe in a luxe-fabric with sheen. This is an opportunity to design something flattering that works with nuanced texture to bring out the best in the client. Head to toe sheen will not work, head to toe print will not work…a blend…just might!

Tatu waterfall and duster jumpsuit [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo]

Tatu waterfall and duster jumpsuit [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Despite the challenges, I’m sure you’ve had your share of memorable moments so far…

They have been many!

  • Our first client ordered clothes for his entire family! It was so encouraging!
  • Getting funding from HEVA! That enabled us to move from my guest room to our own premises in 2015.
  • Our recent skills exchange trip to UK!
  • Stocking at Republi.ke
  • Our first celebrity client. Carol Odero!
  • Our first bridal client.
  • Our first styling client.
  • Clocking 2 years this month.
  • Our first collection as Mambo Pambo in Kenya.
  • Launching our website.

You WERE in the first cycle of HEVA, what was your experience?

It was an easy experience because my financial records are in order. Part of the HEVA evaluation process is that they audit your finances and the basis of your business such as projections and profitability. I can’t stress the importance of having your business in order.

The world awaits. We just need to be confident enough and of course we need to deliver. ~ Kawira Mirero

Should other designers apply for it, is it beneficial for the industry here?

My first question to young designers is are you in it for the long haul? Being a designer is a grind. I don’t get a monthly salary, anything I earn goes back into the business. So if it’s your life’s work, apply for funding, because you have to repay the loan at 14 per cent. It’s not easy money, nor is it free. If this is what you want to do and not going to quit 6 months down the line, it’s a lifeline. Designers need funding because even I can’t say that I’m solid. I have stockists that want clothes from us but I don’t have the capital to create the collection and stock in different stores, waiting for the end of the month to get paid. Even the Diana Opoti collection right now, I am working on it but I don’t have money to actually create it. It’s on hold. At the end of the day…. if your serious about it and understand that it may take 6 years to actually make money that you can easily take home…. Then apply, finish repaying, and then apply for a bigger amount.

Tandaze Shirt Dress [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Tandaze Shirt Dress [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

We noticed you were also at HEVA week in London… tell us a little bit about it. Lessons and experiences?

It was a skills exchange programme sponsored by the HEVA Fund, UK based Creative Industry Finance and British Council. We visited Britain designer’s studios, shared our experiences, opportunities and challenges. I was selected as one of the first HEVA investees and I showcased the Mstatili Collection.

Lessons: We visited the http://fyodorgolan.co.uk/ studio. That was the highlight for me. It was affirming to learn that we are on the right track. Our challenges are not unique or impossible.

Opportunities: The world awaits. We just need to be confident enough and of course we need to deliver.

Tatu Jersey Dress [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Tatu Jersey Dress [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

What was the inspiration for the Mstatili AW16 collection?

Mstatili means rectangular in Swahili. My daughters are learning shapes, and their names in Swahili. I love shapes, and when I was designing this collection, shapes and silhouettes were on my mind.

Standout pieces in the collection?

The ‘Jeshi’ military inspired pencil skirt, the Mstatili dress.

Jeshi Skirt [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

Jeshi Skirt [Images: Courtesy of Mambo Pambo / Brian Siambi]

What’s next for the brand?

I am an artist at heart. I am currently working a purely artistic collection titled “Nai Ni Who?” It is inspired by the GoDown Arts Centre’s current “Nai Ni Who” campaign by my Mentor, Judy Ogana. This 10 piece collection is an artistic interpretation of what Nairobians wear and will be unlike the commercial everyday wear I usually do. They’ll be showcased on the 3rd September at the Kenyan Fashion Awards at the Village Market. I’m really excited by this project and who knows? Perhaps in future I’ll do an interpretation of this line for a commercial basis.

 

Want your dose of ‘all things decorative’? You can easily find Mambo Pambo at:

www.mambopambo.com | Republi-ke at Garden City and Valley Arcade | Mambo Pambo’s Studio on Woodlands Road. (2, Woodland Trails, Woodlands Road, Kilimani Nairobi) | Soon…at Store 66, Valley Arcade (Designing Africa Collective)

+254 701 118 618 | IG, Facebook and Twitter – Mambo_Pambo.

 

%d bloggers like this: