We saw a great opportunity to express our passion for design by establishing a brand that offers a contemporary take on Africa’s rich culture of adornment while projecting a positive view of the continent to local and global consumers.
Why did you start the brand?
El and I are of Kenyan and British heritage. We spent our first few years living in Kenya before moving to England, but always travelled back to visit family and stay connected with the country. After both studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, we worked in the development field in East Africa and came to realise that the creative industries have huge potential to act as engines for positive socio-economic development.
Why did you decide to base your collections on ‘reworks of some of the most iconic pieces from the continent’?
We have always loved experimenting with fashion and styling, and saw a great opportunity to express our passion for design by establishing a brand that offers a contemporary take on Africa’s rich culture of adornment while projecting a positive view of the continent to local and global consumers.We’ve noticed the brand’s decision to stock through other shops and sites as opposed to opening your own store. Why?
Opening your own store is very capital intensive, and as a start-up with limited resources this was a big barrier. With social media and e-commerce we have so many free or lower barrier entry opportunities at our disposal to reach new audiences and explore less conventional retail spaces.
You recently received funding from HEVA, what was the process and experience?
It was a very straight-forward process. The biggest challenge for me was putting together a pitch-deck. I had never done one before but they give you a template, which was really helpful. I’ve had to put together a lot since then so I found it very valuable to have had that experience.
What will the funding be used on and why?
The funding will be used on developing our e-commerce store and production with a centralised manufacturing unit.
We feel getting into the e-commerce space early on is important. Internet and smart-phone penetration is increasingly rapidly in Kenya and many consumers are increasingly comfortable shopping online. We think it’s a good space to move into that doesn’t come with the high-overheads and sunk costs of a physical retail space.
What new collections are you working on?
We’re currently working on a more affordable collection specifically for the Kenyan market. We’re excited to create a product that combines our aesthetic and production quality at a more accessible price-point.
When will it be available?
The collection will be launched through a sample sale on Kung’ara’s Instagram in a couple of weeks so follow our and their IG accounts to get some amazing one-off deals!
Any new developments in your entrepreneurial journey and the new direction you are going in?
2016 has definitely been exciting so far. There’s the up-coming launch of the e-commerce store for the Kenyan market, and we’re partnering with some fantastic local personalities. We have also been accepted on a number of programmes for start-ups, including a business accelerator and a market incubator for an international trade show in New York.The website says interiors coming soon… what is in the works? When is it coming to fruition?
We developed some great prints for the FA254 African Designers for Tomorrow competition in 2015 and have been waiting for the right time to turn them into a complete collection of cushions. In September we will be taking part in an ITC exhibition in Turkey and we will release the collection then.
What are some of the qualifications you use to determine an ‘ethically certified workshop’?
An ethically certified workshop would need to have regular audits carried out by an internationally recognised body, for example Fairtrade. They have set criteria, such as working conditions and minimum wages, which have to be met in order for the facility to pass inspection and receive certification.As board members of AFAD-Kenya, you state that you work towards a stronger, fairer fashion industry…. What does this mean to you and what does the fashion industry really have to implement to achieve this?
To us this means raising the profile of fashion and the level of engagement around the industry. The creative industries are not currently recognised in Vision 2030, which seems to indicate they are not considered as viable options for socio-economic development. However we believe that sectors like fashion can play a very important role in income and job generation, product diversification, as well as the creation of high value goods for domestic or international consumption.
At the simplest level, this conversation starts with those of us currently in the industry, ensuring we provide peer to peer support and share information with each other to achieve the highest possible output.
The challenges are considerable, but what we do have is talented designers representing a new take on the African aesthetic, improving production units and both local and international consumer demand for products made in Africa.Final thought: Inspired by your neon collection – any tips on how designers can break away from the static and stereotypical looks Africa is still often portrayed by?
- Research. African design is not just Ankara print and beadwork. There are hundreds of African societies with rich and documented design cultures. A great book to get you inspired is ‘Africa Adorned‘.
- Look outwards – subscribe to The Business of Fashion, follow international fashion bloggers and Instagram accounts. Exposure to new ideas and forms is really important.
- Use materials and colours that people don’t automatically associate with Africa. Silks, plastic, neons, patent leathers. There is something instantly engaging about traditional or heritage inspired design reinterpreted in a very modern material. For inspiration look at brands like Lalesso, Pichulik, Katungulu Mwendwa or Mille Collines.
- African fashion doesn’t have to mean bold and bright. There are a lot of examples of cultures that use monochromatic or monotone colour palettes, for example the Tuareg or Bamileke.
- What does African fashion mean to you? What definition do you apply to that term? We have been told in the past that our designs are not African enough. This led to us making a very conscious decision early on not to compromise on our vision of taking inspiration from international trends and traditional heritage to create pieces that reflect a contemporary urban African identity.
Other cultures are not limited to producing designs that are immediately identifiable as belonging to them – there is constant cross-fertilization and appropriation of ideas and aesthetics in international design. African fashion or fashion from Africa? It’s subtle, but there is a big distinction. Don’t let the label box you in and limit your output.