Musically adept and fashionably conscious: Meet Sauti Sol

Sauti Sol, formed in 2005, are as entertaining, humorous, energetic and free spirited in person as they are in their music. Sauti Sol is a four man group comprising of Willis Austin Chimano, Delvin Mudigi Savara, Bien-Aime Baraza and Polycarp Otieno. “Sauti Sol encompass the band’s mix of soulful voices with vocal harmonies, guitar riffs and drum rhythm” which has resulted in their local and international recognition.

They are not just a band, they are as close as brothers, they understand each other and support each other, in and out of the limelight. We got to sit down with them and discuss not just their music but particularly their views on the Kenyan fashion industry. If you haven’t noticed yet, Sauti Sol is one of the bands in Kenya that strives to wear Kenyan fashion representing both locally and internationally. Spotted mostly in Nick Ondu (Ankara Vintage) designs, the band is more than weary of their music and fashion representation.

Sauti Sol performs for a Field Recording on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge in Austin, Texas, during SXSW 201
Sauti Sol performs for a Field Recording on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge in Austin, Texas, during SXSW 201. From left to right: Delvin, BIen-Aime, Chimano and Polycarp
Photography by Sebastian Wanzalla
Photography by Sebastian Wanzalla. From left to right: Chimano, Delvin and Bien-Aime
Photography by Sebastian Wanzalla
Photography by Sebastian Wanzalla. [Chimano]
Being asked why Nick Ondu seems to featured the most, Bien-Aime explained that “I only wear Nick Ondu suits. He is reliable, his work is very good. Fundis can be crafty. They are good for the first three suits then they disappear.” Delvin jumped in to exclaim how sad the situation is with Kenyan fashion designers. Having used but a few, Delvin remarks that, in his view, the problem lies in the battle between making mass-market products and making limited edition pieces/bespoke. Furthermore, he went on to explain that post big brands wearing designer clothes, a designer can easily be faced with a higher demand. Delvin however states that the problem lies therein; their inability to match high demand in production, quality and consistency. “They don’t have the capacity to grow and match up when the demand increases, it affects the quality in the end” Bien-Aime added.

“They don’t have the capacity to grow and match up when the demand increases, it affects the quality in the end” Bien-Aime

Bien-Aime stated that the unfortunate reality is that most fashion designers make women’s collection. “ I have not met any designer who is making male stuff that really excites me. Other than the suit. Most of the things I get, I ask them to make it in a particular way.” Chimano, however does not necessarily think that women’s collections are made because of the ease and retorts that it is in fact harder because it changes too much. “Most designers make female stuff because it sells more especially in the urban areas of Nairobi. They spend on that. Men’s stuff, I haven’t met a designer who makes male stuff that is amazing. All I see is the infusion of Ankara fabric into a design, be it a suit. It’s getting to a place where it is uncool to wear Ankara.”

Delvin adds “it’s like you are trying too hard to look fashionable when you wear Ankara. Not in a bad away, I don’t wear Ankara in Kenya, only abroad.” Chimano agrees as well remarking that wearing Ankara has lost its authenticity seeing as though it is being worn by almost everyone in the world in one way or another.

“All I see is the infusion of Ankara fabric into a design, be it a suit. It’s getting to a place where it is uncool to wear Ankara.” Chimano

Another issue they deemed necessary to point out is that Kenyan fashion designers are way too expensive for people to buy into in mass. “When you go eastlands,” says Bien-Aime, “there are guys making jeans for 800 bob.” Delvin added that most people in eastlands wear jeans from Jericho simply because of its affordability. “How many Kenyans can afford people like Kiko Romeo?” asks Delvin. They went on to state that for the prices set by Kenyan designers, they can purchase international brands for cheaper, locally. Bien-Aime went on to state “if we want products to be consumed locally, we need an investor who will look into manufacturing the products in mass to make it cheaper. The product becomes palatable in terms of price for all Kenyans.” For example, he continues, safari boots from Bata is one of the best quality shoes and costs no more than 1800 Shillings for the past decade.

(c)Sauti Sol
(c)Sauti Sol

Chimano remarked that it boils down to the fact that Kenya does not have many investors in the country for locally produced clothing. “We need to go back to the days when the textile industry was in full force, access to EPZ and a growing cotton industry. When you think of mass market, it has be something that is providing employment for those making it and creating that market for the people who are going to buy.” Furthermore, he stated that the issue of supply and demand is a major hindrance to the Kenyan fashion industry as a whole.

“There is not much spending power in Kenya, people need to realize that. We are in a weird place. We are trying to find a balance in the fashion industry” Chimano

Delvin explained that for brands like Kiko Romeo, whom he loves and respects, whomever they are targeting have the option to buy original Louis Vuitton. “You need to target those people who can be happy without wearing Louis Vuitton. Perhaps, Chimano states, those people buying into such brands, do not want mass market. For them, they are more interested in the designers who are coming into the market. Delvin explained that to make your product sell locally you need to gel both quality and price. “That is how you can sell, when those two factors, at the base, make sense.”

Chimano went on to state “it also depends on the spending power. There is not much spending power in Kenya, people need to realize that. We are in a weird place. We are trying to find a balance in the fashion industry and answering questions such as what is mass market and how can you make it good quality without having to compromise on the price.” They went on to say that they have seen young people dress and look stylish with what they can get but “they can’t find new stuff so they look stylish but cheap.” Bien-Aime added “idea noted, visibility accepted. That’s nice but it is not that nice. We made a pact to ourselves that we were only going to wear new things. When I buy new stuff, it looks better, lasts longer and you feel good.” He further added that they would love to see it, the day when people wear even just one thing that is Kenyan. But, they remarked, if you are going to make a product that is 8000 Shillings and above- your salary needs to be 300,000 Shillings a month and above to accommodate such spending which is significant and only fits a small bracket of people.

Chimano further exclaimed that there are no local collaborations between existing retailers to stock local designers as it is done internationally ns between luxury designers and the likes of H&M and Zara. Bien-Aime stated that the other major problem is that anyone who can access a khanga print calls themselves a fashion designer. “When you patch khanga somewhere, you are a designer”, says Chimano.

Another major factor that Delvin mentioned is the Kenyan mentality. “Kenyans and East Africans but particularly Kenyans, we do not like showing off our own stuff, we like showing off foreign stuff. For example will floss that I drive German, not Mercedes particularly but simply German. We are not happy with what we have and prefer foreign brands. So it is a mentality Kenyans have.” He further explained that in most cases, if one asked a random teenager what they would like to wear, they would name international brands like Addidas, Louis Vuitton, Nike. “And it most likely comes from the parents talking about or showing that off, but we cant blame the generation for that because that it what they have been exposed to” adds Bien-Aime.

“Kenyans and East Africans but particularly Kenyans, we do not like showing off our own stuff, we like showing off foreign stuff.” Delvin

Not only do Kenyans not support their own, they also seem to expect that because something is local it should be practically free. Delvin explained how at his bank, one teller asked him for one his albums for free so he could support them. The contradiction in terms is too blatant to repeat but this is a situation that faces local musicians and albeit designers.

Furthermore, this problem of not supporting or showing off local products not only persists in fashion, they explain, it exists in art, music, nearly everything. Even getting local music on the shelves and sufficient airplay is just about in the same dilemma as fashion.

Delvin, in sum, stated “everybody right now is fighting it. This generation of ours, we can’t get jobs and so we have to create our own jobs. And you must love your own to create. People must love the Kenyan and African print in Kenya before you break out. So everybody is realizing that. We are preparing the way for the next generation.”

They are presently nominated for Africa’s Best Group 2014 in the MTV Africa Music Awards. Be sure to vote here and support when you get a chance. Here is a taste of their band’s mix of soulful voices with vocal harmonies, guitar riffs and drum rhythm. Our favorite song from them, Awinja, a dedication to all mothers.

All images have been Courtesy of Sauti Sol unless otherwise indicated.

Musically adept- fashionably conscious: Meet Sauti Sol

Musically adept- fashionably conscious: Meet Sauti Sol

The Designers Studio

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