Discover the who's who within East Africa's fast-emerging fashion industry

Nairobi may be the giant in East Africa's fashion scene yet for a long time it has struggled to define its own identity. With mitumba (second hand clothing) providing the most accessible way to dress for the majority of people, in addition to cheap imports, the lack of a significant textile industry, and with precious little cultural heritage in terms of dress practices to draw on due to the rift of colonialism, designers have found it hard to make their mark.  But times are changing, and changing fast. Kenya's broader creative landscape has found a new confidence in recent years, fed by tech and social media, as well as the thirst for more positive, home-grown representation.

Thanks to early pioneers such as Ann McCreath, Adèle Dejak, Deepa Dosaja and John Kaveke, who have helped pave the way for the fledgling fashion industry and are still going strong, the latest generation of designers, industry insiders and influencers are well positioned to step up to the plate. “It’s an exciting time for Nairobi’s fashion scene and aesthetically there’s something forming now. You can start to see it. Designers like Katungulu Mwendwa, Kepha Maina and Ami Doshi Shah have got it,” says Sunny Dolat, and he should know. The stylist and all-round connector is a leading light in the multi disciplinary Nest collective, which is dedicated to promoting Kenya’s creative industries, both through their own award-winning, interventionist output (such as the film, To Catch A Dream film and coffee table book, Not African Enough) and through sponsoring emerging talents with their Heva fund.

Some of the newer names to know include the directional menswear brand Munga; jewellery labels Embody Accessories by Evlyn Kyegombe and ZikoAfrika by sisters Sisi King and Eleanor Mulindi-King; Wazawazi leather bags and Ria Ana’s casual line Lilabare. Whether drawing on kitenge, khanga, ankara and Maasai crafts, or looking much further afield for inspiration, each designer has his or her own distinct outlook. Together they serve Kenyan consumers who want to wear something that feels fresh yet speaks intimately to them.

Randy wears Haute Baso shirt and trousers, Embody necklace, own sandals

Style curators Twomanysiblings aka Velma Rossa and Oliver Asike shape Nairobi narratives via their social channels and pop up Thrift Social markets. Diana Opoti has long led the way in PR and is now raising the stakes in retail too with her concept store, Designing Africa Collective. Ichyulu by Cynthia Mbaru is helping to popularise fashion e-commerce with her pan African platform Ichyulu. And Tribal Chic remains the most consistent event, bringing designers together for a grown up catwalk show at Tribe Hotel each year.

But there’s still a long way to go, says Dolat. “More conversations need to happen around the business side of the industry as people realise that fashion isn’t all glamour. In fact it’s a tough sector." He also emphasises the importance of designers from across the region to connect. "Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan and Rwanda are all short flights away yet we don’t see those designers in our market.” Through Nest, and in association with the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme, he’s been travelling to these countries to meet with key figures and help build a network between them. From Gloria Wavamunno’s Kampala Fashion Week to Kigali’s CollectiveRW, East Africa’s fashion talents are quietly taking over.

Anita wears Lulu Mutuli dress, Embody earrings

Here we talk to some of the most exciting designers forging the future, today:

Ami Doshi Shah
Ami Doshi Shah makes statement jewellery using locally available leather, brass and raw stones. Born in Mombasa, she lived in Oman and the US and studied jewellery in the UK before returning to Kenya to work in marketing. She rediscovered her first love in 2015 and since then her collections have spellbound the local scene.

“I have Indian heritage and I’m Kenyan and both cultures have strong traditions when it comes to adornment. In India, it’s about the details and understanding jewellery as an asset. In Kenya, it marks your rites of passage through life and acts as a talisman. I love both of these connections, and also have European training, so I am into clean lines as well as whimsy in terms of my marriage of materials.

“Designing starts with visual research – an artwork or photography – then sketching and then making by hand, which is a process of discovery in itself as I combine textures and colours. I use sustainable materials that feel like they belong here. Designing in Kenya is a very compelling story, so it's important to add value to the resources available to us.

“The Nairobi scene is incredible and there’s a real mood of openness. We’re still at the beginning in terms of fashion and design but thanks to people like Twomanysiblings and the Nest collective, were gaining traction and changing perceptions. The future lies in more collaborations but it’s been a wonderful journey for me so far. Sometimes I pinch myself as I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Randy wears Katungulu Mwendwa jacket, SM trousers

Anyango Mpinga
Native to Nairobi, Anyango Mpinga worked in advertising and events before launching her namesake brand in 2011 and rebranding in 2015. She caters to women of all sizes with her pretty collections focussed on structured tailoring, bold dresses and bespoke prints.

“With fashion, what always fascinated me was its power of transformation. When I was younger and not so confident, I remember putting on a good dress and feeling so much better about myself. I’ve always been drawn to shirts, so that’s how it started - one white shirt. They’ve since become my signature. I love pleats, panels and construction and I use embroideries to introduce detailing.

“I design my own prints on silk and my inspiration always has meanings that talk about Africa. My first print was of an ostrich feather from a Luo warrior headdress – it is a symbol of strength and resilience. Another collection looked at the scarification markings of various tribes, which act as maps of someone’s personal history. More recently, I was taken by at the wall art and wildlife of Lamu, which for me represented freedom within the context of the island’s slave history.

“Kenyan fashion is growing and I see the potential every day but we have to work harder to transition from custom clothes to ready to wear and get our supply chain streamlined so that we can be export ready.”

Anita wears M+K waistcoat, Lulu Mutuli bra top, Anyango Mpinga trousers, AdèleDejak choker and necklace and rings, Embody rings, Zinj Design slippers

Katungulu Mwendwa
Katungulu Mwendwa is one of the most forward thinking designers in Nairobi. She studied at the University of the Arts in London, returning home in 2011 and gaining experience with LaLesso before going it alone in 2014 with her minimalist, often androgynous designs. Her best-selling dabassah wrap jacket caught Nataal’s eye.

“When I started I was one of the first brands not working with print, and I was criticised for not being ‘African’ enough. My designs were pared down and nomadic. Since then I’ve introduced more colour and texture and I like to play with function – a jacket that is also a scarf, a crop top with a hood. Now the market has evolved and people are more understanding of the different aesthetics coming through.

“My recent collection is about the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia and I’ve developed pieces based on vintage scarves and tie dye prints of the Woodaabe tribe. I’m constantly exploring Kenyan culture too, but it’s hard as colonialism changed our history and we didn’t evolve gradually. So I think about what that evolution would have looked like. I also work with a local group of female weavers to develop cotton textiles for each collection.

“Retail is a challenge here, which is why I set up a multi brand outlet with other local designers. The Urban African Lifestyle Company at The Hub is beneficial as it brings us all together. We feed off each other and that competition is healthy. We are constantly creating.”

Anita wears Haute Baso jacket and trousers, Embody earrings, Ami Doshi Shah ring

Lulu Mutuli
This young designer studied at the Savannah College of Art Design and interned with Omondi in New York before coming back to Nairobi in 2016. She set out in competitions such as the Heineken Challenge and Diana Opoti’s Young Designers Kenya Showcase and is now causing a stir with her uncompromising, afrofuturist womenswear.

“My fire burns for playing around with textiles and pushing the boundaries. There’s no rulebook as to what you should look like. I’m a big thinker so I’ll start with an image in mind and then try to map backward how to get there. I also resist the obvious by reimagining things that we take for granted, whether that’s Maasai beads or kitenge. I put images on my computer and make them crazy so that I can appreciate their beauty again. My message is that technology in Kenya is a catalyst for change.

“My first collection was inspired by Cristina de Middel’s photo series Afronauts. That was followed by Afroglitch, which focussed on nature’s earthy tones and tribal women through saturated digital prints. Next I’m exploring the heavy metal scene in Botswana and wrestling in Dakar. In future, I’d love to travel within Africa and share resources with other artists to make a collection in each country. Fashion is such a wasteful industry but it doesn’t have to be if you work with artisans and challenge yourself.”

Anita wears Gloria Wavamunno top, M+K skirt, I.Am.Isigo sandals

M+K Nairobi
New kids on the block, Muqaddam Latif and Keith Macharia, focus on simple, elegant womenswear made predominantly from leather. Latif studied fashion in Kenya while Keith studied history and lived in Botswana and Hong Kong. They set out together in Nairobi in 2016.

“When we met we just began by sketching and coming up with concepts together. Leather is sexy and beautiful and there’s an industry in it here so that was our starting point. We built around a colour scheme of natural tones and our first pieces where skirts and crop tops plus elevated basics like shirtdresses and cigarette pants with some embroidery. The debut collection was well received because no one was doing what we were doing at that time.

“Our woman is a creative professional who wants pieces that are distinctive and have a narrative. She needs clothing that is well crafted and that fits in with her life. At the moment we are also intellectually engaging with sustainability and how our designs can have a pragmatic influence on. It’s a less is more model for the M+K woman’s wardrobe.”

Randy wears Thairu shirt, Katungulu Mwendwa romper, own trainers

Haute Baso
Linda Mukangoga fronts one of Rwanda’s most established brands, Haute Baso, which since launching in 2014, has zoomed in on classic and ethically made womenswear. She has also helped spearhead CollectiveRW, a group of Kigali-based designers including Moshions, House of Tayo, Inzuki, Sonia Mugabo, Uzi Collections and Amizero.

“Haute Baso is about being sexy but not overly exposed. I make pieces you can layer and wear in different ways – blazers, jumpsuits, vests, parkas and high waisted trousers. It’s important that my designs are wearable and versatile but not a uniform.

“Rwanda does not have its own traditional textiles and few raw materials but it is known for sculpture and ceramics and we are very connected to our culture. Storytelling is strong so I haven’t had to seek inspiration from outside. It’s about looking at things from a different angle and how to use artisans with skills in basket weaving and home décor within a fashion framework. The Rwandan fashion scene is very small but has huge prospects. The collective helps to create awareness and funding for what we’re doing and allows us to support each other and share opportunities, too.”

Anita wears Haute Baso jumpsuit, Ami Doshi Shah earrings and rings, I.Am.Isigo sandals. Randy wears House of Tayo shirt and snood, own jeans and trainers

With thanks to Tribe Hotel and to British Council’s East Africa Arts programme 

Read our interview with Gloria Wavamunno
Read our review of Tribal Chic
Read our story on Nairobi’s digital artists

Published on 09/06/2018