Freshly made mint tea, cookies, relaxed artistic studio and great company was the setting for our interview with Yonathan, one of the designers behind Zeebaan designs.
Ethiopian and Eritrean born and raised fashion designers Yonathan and his wife Merry are the founders and creators of Zeebaan Designs; a leather accessories brand. Yonathan has lived in Kenya for over 10 years and states regularity when asked where he is from that he is a ‘Nairobian’, he states laughing. “I don’t think a race or tribe or citizen can matter as long as you live in a city you are comfortable and associate with. Its neither here nor there.” Zeebaan Designs, the brand, born and raised in Kenya, is therefore a Kenyan brand and not associated to where the designers originally come from which could be considered mere semantics.
The idea to create leather bags and accessories originated from Merry who loves fashion and started experimenting with beads, bags with faded jeans, doing it solely for fun. “She then started experimenting with leather and made brilliant unique pieces,” Yonathan tells us, which was the beginning of Zeeban Designs. Yonathan decided to join her and since they started together, they design together. Merry has an artistic background and Yonathan brings in more of the technical side. “We complement each other in the work.” The first time they started, unofficially in 2009/9, they invested in heavy-duty machinery and started from home.
“Leather was our aim material; it is really beautiful to work with.” One has to understand leather, Yonathan tells us, including where to get it, how to cut it, how to work the different textures. “It was an exciting learning process.” Officially started in 2010, they decided to transform their designs into a full fledged business after receiving positive feedback from their clients which made them create more and more bags. “Innovation, creativity and business can work together.” Yonathan and Merry worked closely with Njee Muturi, selling their products together. “We function nicely, we have a good flow. Njee Muturi is a very interesting person and a real artist.
Bag makers are everywhere, he notes, so one has to find out where they fit in the market so they decided to introduce the brand slowly to truly know that fit and what they could deliver. This was part of the learning process. “Here in Kenya, very few people do artistic bags” alluding to the fact that most leather bags made are functional without too much detail on the artistic side. At the end of the day it is a handbag but what they do differently is pay attention to detail, different craftsmanship, changing styles and designs and experimenting most particularly with color. “Africa is rich in color so why is it when making accessories, we stick to the same colors. We always like to work with combination of colors and prints and textures.” Zeebaan Designs are not afraid of color, making collections with vibrant colors such as blue, red, purple, turquoise, green, making them seasonal and paying attention to trends. They combine leather with varied and unlikely materials like wool, canvas, cashmere, Indian fabric and even some types of carpets as decoration.
Zeebaan, the name, is a small village in Eritrea, which symbolically translates to “be on top of something.” Yonathan and Merry felt that this would be a perfect fit for the brand they had created, one that seeks to be on top.
When it comes to the leather industry, Yonathan explains, initially “you don’t buy what you want but you buy what you get.” Until you have had experience with different tanneries, which takes a while, and can establish a relationship with them, some of the challenges you will face is getting the particular color or texture that you need. Zeebaan Designs have established such a good working relationship with a tannery that now they can demand particular textures and colors that works perfectly for them and what they are looking for.
The big challenge that remains is the cost of the leather, remarks Yonathan. “It went up almost threefold from when we started to now. What the Kenyan leather industry does not seem to understand is that when you have a demand, it does not mean you have to hike your prices so you can make a profit.” Yonathan does not understand how the leather industry works in that regard where the supply and demand makes the price more expensive instead of lower. “In a few years, leather will not be accessible because of the cost.”
“We’ve been given excuses from the leather industry players for why the price is hiking such as the cost of chemicals. If there is no healthy competition in this sector and if it continues to hike, it will collapse. From 2010, triple the price. Imagine.” Herein lies the irony, leather, in the past, was less accessible and now that it is more accessible it more expensive and Yonathan is worried about where this will lead the leather industry. The state of affairs with the leather industry, prices rising, will result in people buying leather from neighboring countries which will take investment out of the country, remarks Yonathan.
“Now, we can start talking about a fashion industry,” states Yonathan. At the moment, he continues, we need to change the perception of Kenyans to buy local products by promoting each other so we can become a multi-million-industry like other countries. “The key is awareness. People cant understand that a Kenyan product can be this good. How many people know about designers?” Kenyans are still buying from abroad still believing that Kenyan designers are the bottom end, Yonathan says, and that perception needs to change.
Zeebaan Designs mostly features their work in craft fairs rather than fashion shows. “When you hit the runway, the perception changes about your brand. The local fashion industry is still weak though when it comes to promoting designers,” states Yonathan. Yonathan remarks that designers have been showcasing on the runway but we still don’t have buyers bringing a return on that investment. Showcasing your products on the runway comes at a cost financially and getting your money back through purchases is not certain. Also, he continues, “you pay so much to go to the event and get nothing in return. To be able to spend that much on a ticket to attend then buy something from the show will make it damn expensive.” Although fashion shows in Kenya do not match international standards, Yonathan does believe that by demonstrating and having good fashion shows with different approaches, Kenya can get there.
“All over, you have to know where you fit in, where to sell your products and who to target” so that the economies of scale make sense. Yonathan loves leather and wants it to be accessible to everyone and not for a select few. He is hopeful that things might change as there are working on a new project to make their products more accessible, newer designs and strengthen the brand. We look forward to see the new product range soon.
Zeebaan Designs’ slogan is “accessorize yourself with living beauty” take a look at some of their designs below and see why that is true. Check out their Facebook page for more information.