To be honest, we really haven’t covered a lot of streetwear brands. So, when we stumbled upon a CNN (Cable News Network) article talking about a Kenyan based brand, we had to meet them for our Designer’s Focus series. Especially since that article was published in 2015 and the brand has had little to do with the media since then. As we start the interview, Jeff Wanjala- the creative director and founder of Wan Fam -seems distracted. He admits that he doesn’t like interviews… at all.
That’s a great place to start! Is that why it’s been almost two years since the last interview?
[Laughs] It’s definitely a problem. I think I need to find a brand ambassador to take that up on my behalf. And then when CNN was looking to interview us, I didn’t even think it was true. I thought it was a shifty site trolling us so I avoided them for about four months. They kept calling us so I decided to just do it.
But you’ve been in the game for a while?
Yes, the hustle started from 2009. Although I count Wan Fam’s commencement from 2011 because that’s when it became a serious company endeavour. In 2009 we were doing anything and everything that we could possibly do but by 2011 we had developed a strategy and a vision for Wan Fam as a brand.
Are you still running it with your brother, Emmanuel?
No, for him this was a side hustle. However, he is a silent partner and still helps where he can.
What’s the idea behind the name- Wan Fam?
When we started, I had a friend and classmate who used to paint t-shirts but then he stopped. My brother, who also used to do graffiti, thought that we should try it out. So, we asked him for his paint and paint brushes, bought our own batch of t-shirts and started. We did a few, took pictures of them and posted them online. From there we got our first orders. And what happened was those people referred their close friends to us and they did the same. It became one family since it was word of mouth that led to our growth. We then changed One to Wan and the brand name was complete.
What was your aim now that you had switched to brand status?
I had always seen it become a legitimate business. I didn’t have an epiphany or the answers designers typically have; that they started to change the world. I had this idea because I was broke. I had studied civil engineering in school but the market tends to be different from what you think the career will be. It kind of kills the dream but I still work as a civil engineer; I have a contract with KAA until March and do structural designs for individual clients.
Do you stitch the products yourself?
No, I had wanted to learn but shelved that idea real quick. Instead I come up with the designs and work with a team of seven. However, when the workload gets too heavy we get additional tailors to work at night or we opt to subcontract the work.
The 2015 article really focused on your brand being synonymous with the Maasai Shuka. Why didn’t you pick something from your own community?
Since I’m Luhya? As Kenyans, we really don’t have an identity and what we used to have, we sold it. Like the kiondo, we sold it. The Maasai is the closest thing you can look at and see that it’s probably Kenyan. Even though it’s in Tanzania as well.
How do you make sure you don’t fall into the cultural appropriation category?
I think it’s the objective you approach the situation with. It was simply one collection and we haven’t produced it in many months. People associate Wan Fam with the Shuka by mistake. I think we did it so well that people expected that to be our trademark. There was a television show that came to interview us in the store about two months ago, and they still focused on the Shuka. We made it strictly for that particular collection.
How long does a collection last?
We always plan to have a collection on the shelves for three months before we roll out a new one. But that never works out. It ends up being sold out a month and a half in, demand and supply. Like now, we have two collections but plan to do another next month.
But you keep pieces of each collection in stock?
No, once it’s done we move to the next collection. People still us ask why we aren’t reproducing the Shuka bag but the answer goes back to the brand name. We have loyal and repeat customers who are always looking for something fresh. If they came back two, three times and saw the same Shuka bag they’d not want to come back a fourth time.
You have two collections right now…
Yes, the No Limit and the Luxe collection. The reason we chose ‘No limit’ was because people were so used to the Shuka that we wanted to do something that we’ve never done before. We wanted people to stop limiting us to the Shuka and show them that we can do other products and designs too. We’ve incorporated some new details as well.
The Luxe edition, which we had to restock as it sold out, was strictly backpacks that cater to the luxury items we carry around today. There’s a panel for your iPad, your charger and accessories bag so that you can keep your makeup too or maybe flash disks.
We probably role out about 100 pieces per collection and it roughly takes us two weeks from sample and the washing tests to the final product.
Apart from the bags…
We also do bomber jackets, sweatpants, hoodies, travel bags… We occasionally make Khaki pants for specific clients (and myself). Originally, we were very scattered out but we decided to narrow it down and understand each product completely.
We decided to go in the streetwear direction because, for one, street wear is something I really understand, I wear and the people around me wear. Could we do suits or handbags? Sure. But we’d have to do it in collaboration with someone who understands that field. We can’t just branch into something because there’s money or demand in it.
Who is your target demographic? Because the models in your campaign look pretty young
We create for 16yrs – 35yrs but also push to mid-40s since we have clients in that age bracket as well. Our older clients buy our products because they like it, but we’ve come to notice that the younger demographic who buys it are trend setters. These are the people that when they see it, buy it and promote the brand on social media and the like; pushing the brand. But we’re still planning to do projects with an older demographic in mind.
How cost effective is the brand?
The cheapest product is our travel bag at Ksh1,800 and our luxe edition back packs top the price range at Ksh3,500. We make our clothes and accessories for functionality as well. The bags for example will have leather on the bottom because most people put it on the floor or leather straps because of carrying it. then we use canvas and upholstery and a cotton lining which is long-lasting. We have decided to keep the prices pocket friendly so that we can move more pieces as opposed to selling just four in a month. Jackets we make from khaki and twill.
Why did you choose those materials?
First, availability. Take for example the Shuka bag, we did it because we were sure there was abundant material. The portfolio we have is something we can do for the next five years. There have been projects we’ve had to postpone because finding the material is difficult or finding the skill. Such as leather bags, finding good leather, and then someone who understands how to work with it, isn’t easy.
You’re very practical with your approach…
I design for people. I’m inspired by them and I want to create something they want. When I was working on the ‘No Limit’ collection I sent picture samples to my WhatsApp groups to find out what they like and what they don’t. But we don’t copy. If we notice someone else is doing something similar to our idea, we cancel the entire project. I don’t want a scenario where my product reminds the consumer of another product.
It seems you feel very strongly about this. Is this because you’ve had copy cats of your own?
It’s gotten much worse since 2015 but we appreciate that it’s a worldwide issue. There hasn’t been a brand that has successfully managed to stop knock off brands. You’ll find brands contract makers who would create their products in the morning and then proceed to make the knockoffs in the evening. And most people can’t tell the difference between the real and the fake. Prada may have the book but even the fakes have that as well.
So how do you tackle this?
And Kenyans are good at copying ideas. Remember the dashiki hoodie? Overnight they were everywhere and much cheaper than the originals or quality products. It’s a horrible feeling to see your idea being reproduced. There are certain elements that I add personally once the subcontractors hand over the products. These final details make them true Wan Fam [goods].
Where can we find Wan Fam?
We have a store in Westlands Commercial Centre but you can also buy online via our Facebook page and we deliver. We used to have a website but because the product was moving so fast, they’d come to the site and see a line was already sold out. We wanted to minimise people’s disappointment.
Shipping! We get orders from outside Kenya but the cost tends to be much more than the product. If a hoodie is Ksh2,500 it can cost me Ksh5,000 to send it. That’s why even though we ship bulk to America, the price is different from what you’d find here.
Started sending to America in November 2016 but this brings an added challenge. How do you market a product when they move differently in different time zones? You could be pushing a product that just landed in the states but was sold out a week ago, in Nairobi. We’re still trying to find a balance.
Also, trying to find other brands to collaborate with has been a challenge. I’ve sent out proposals and don’t get feedback. But when I go ahead and execute the idea alone, that’s when they get back to me. I don’t know why Kenyans don’t like to collaborate. It’s an opportunity to learn from each other or even reduce the cost of manufacturing/ production or shipping.
We’re going to continue designing under the collection ‘No limit’, since we’re following the theme of doing something different. We also want to add shoes into the mix and we eventually hope to source everything locally or on the continent such as from Ethiopia. But most importantly more delegation on my part. I am one man show because I want to bring in expertise that will grow with the brand. If you’re a good stylist and photographer, I want to work with you for more than one project.
The family theme runs through and through with this streetwear brand. From the loyal customer base to the creative teams they choose to work with. It’s functional style with an edge. We can’t help but wait to see what they come up with if they get the right brands to collaborate with (ehem, Wazawazi, they like your leather work!)