June 14, 2012

Kenya’s fashion design industry is coming of age. On Saturday 16th August the inaugural Kenya Fashion Awards took place at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi. The night was a mix of fashion shows, music and awards to fashion professionals across the industry. The place was a buzz with media celebrities and fashionistas hoping to be on the winners list. Congratulations to the winners, who included a special recognition of Orie Manduli, well known for her dramatic head wraps (make sure you never sit behind her as you won’t see a thing!). Others recognised for their talent included fashion writer Carol Odero, stylist Connie Aluoch, fashion designer Patricia Mbela and photographer Emmanuel Jambo, who has done many photoshoots for KikoRomeo. There were also prizes for upcoming talent from models to photographers, giving encouragement to everyone.

What struck me as I presented the prize for “Designer to Watch” to Afro Street Collections, is how far the industry has grown, and how many young people have been inspired to join the creative industries. What sets East Africa, and in particular Kenya, apart is the variety of independent looks from the designers. Many are developing signatures, which are unique to their brand. Just as seen at FAFA 2014 there are many strong jewellery and accessories designers, which I find encouraging as these items are often the easiest to sell in volume and export, given that one size fits all. Also many designers are working with plain fabrics, a difference from West Africa, where many use African “tribal” print. Looking at East Africa from a distance, and comparing it to West Africa, the Asian influence is clear. It is an influence that comes from centuries of trading across the Indian Ocean, including fabrics and embellishments. There are also a number of 3rd generation Kenyan Asian designers coming to the forefront, their styles are generally even more influenced by the East.

A slight concern I have for some of the designers is that to distinguish themselves as designers as opposed to tailors in the Kenyan market, they need to push their collections further. They must develop a concept and interpret it throughout all the garments they are presenting. Without that coherency, which creates a statement and drives the public to embrace it, they are constantly following trends of other markets and are at the whim of each individual’s taste. It is understandable to adapt the collection’s look to the individual’s body shape/character/taste, but if the collection has no clear concept the designer will easily be persuaded to drift to the client’s desire, and thereby be the same as a tailor. In a tough economy the need for sales can drive a would be designer to compromise themselves too much. It is also clear that some of them have not had training in this, as they do outstanding individual pieces, but the impact is reduced due to the lack of a coherent concept.

We want to help guide these fresh talents into making their collections more coherent and therefore more memorable. It is time for fashion designers in Kenya to set the trends in the wider Kenyan market. A designer should be a visionary, anticipating the market’s next desires, looking ahead and offering a new look. A big up to those who already do this, let’s encourage the others to do so too, so that we can clearly distinguish the fashion creators, the fast fashion makers, and the tailors. All have a role in our fashion economy.

Ann McCreath

All photos by Radek Art Studio

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