It’s always better to watch people in their natural habitat. Well, in this case, leather products. In a glass-like box, in-between a cosmetics store and a coffee shop lies the Wazawazi store at Valley Arcade. Having come in early, I manage to take my time perusing through the products; occasionally pulling one or another to the side. I had just narrowed down my own little cluster, about to begin the deliberations of who will make the cut, when a man walks in dressed in a print suit paired with a black statement necklace. He quickly scans the store and spoke confidently to a Kenyan colleague he walked in with, in an accent that sounded akin to the Caribbean islands. A disheartened look washed over his face. But after hearing the store does take cards, it lit up again with a new wave of elation. He quickly lands on my little cluster that is still in question. Let the fates decide, I figure and give him the go ahead. He chose four of them, whipped out his card and was on his merry way.
It was that little incident that really brought Wazawazi (a combination of two Swahili words to mean open mindedness) home for me. Here was a dream, started out by Chebet Mutai in 2012 after leaving her job in the banking industry. In many ways, she’s managed to stay true to that vision to date:
‘To make a brand that is a celebration of diversity’
It’s a fact that you can spot a Wazawazi product from afar. There is a sense of style that is inherently hers. Great attention is given to the quality, aesthetics and craftsmanship for each of the pieces. Yet, there is also a very open-minded approach to her creations. It’s clear that she encourages self-expression and individuality with her products. You could taste the rainbow in the shop with the range of hues you find. Yet, she manages to execute it in a tasteful and elegant manner.
And you’re always guaranteed to find something new in the store. Partly because Mutai creates as inspiration strikes (which it does often) but also because she has a large network of repeat customers. A fact I witnessed in the store, when a client – an apparel designer – walked in with a Wazawazi purse on her arm. Cheptoo Mutai, Mutai’s sister who assists with sales operations, informs her that the new bags will be in next week, in a rapport that suggests that they’ve known each other for some time now. She leaves with a promise to come back next week, and if possible to keep one aside.
‘Functional and fashionable leather art’
When I first met Mutai, she immediately picked up on my quirky habit of lugging around large bags. You know, just in case I need to carry the kitchen sink too. While she tried to help me downsize (fighting a losing battle) she points me in the direction of some of her bigger tote bags, aka my Valhalla, that manage to look elegant despite being half your body size.
In essence, it’s a store that meets the modern-African’s needs with style. Whether you run around all day, spend your mornings at a café, locked in back to back meetings or a night owl, it seems that the brand has thought of it all and designed a complimentary line. From card holders, wallets and travel luggage, to evening bags and rucksacks. I even spotted a cheque book holder. Because having a fancy pen to sign those zeros isn’t enough anymore!
“We are bold ambassadors of Africa as we tell our stories”
One thing that is a big bonus for the store is that the price range is quite accommodative. With a price range of Ksh 500 to Ksh 40,000 at a leather store, it means you can always find something that suits your pocket and your style tastes; (without having to do that weird ‘I forgot my wallet’ or ‘I’ll come back’ dance because it’s way over your budget). You can start off small and work your way up to their more expensive pieces.‘Live and Die in Afrika Twist’
Sauti Sol (check out there interview here) is already one of the biggest acts in Kenya at the moment, but they went a step further with the release of their Live and Die in Afrika album in early 2016 with a Limited-Edition album set. One that Wazawazi designed. It wasn’t just aesthetically pleasing, but kept with her overall functionality theme. It’s as if Mutai has a secret well of creation she taps into because the ideas just won’t stop coming!
Bonus: Sense of humour
When asked if it would be hard to clean the leather pieces, Mutai laughed and asked ‘have you ever seen a dirty cow?’. Despite being successful in her own right, she’s still very down to earth and it’s very easy to be yourself with the designer.
You’re almost left with a FOMO (fear of missing out) sensation as you interact with other customers. That you should have been on the Wazawazi train already! And with timeless, chic, and functional pieces that share the modern-African story, there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t be.