Photo courtesy Antonina Odindo
Glitter Trotter: Thank you for being with me today, Antonina! I am happy we can finally hear your story!
Antonina Odindo: Thank you for inviting me too Ana! Where do we start?
GT: From the very beginning! Where did you grow up?
AO: I was raised in Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya.
GT: That’s a beautiful area! I love the Kenyan coast – so much color and culture!
AO: Very true! There is something special about our coastal life. I had a very happy and stable childhood. I was encouraged to embrace my talents and just learn to be me. From an early age I was taught to love and appreciate inclusivity. You know, my parents always opened their doors to people from all walks of life which formed my attitude towards building relationships with all people regardless of creed, color, or background. I grew up in a house filled with friends, family, and strangers who became our friends and family.
GT: This is very similar to my house, when growing up. I think such inclusivity makes your life experiences very rich.
GT: Is this how you learned about fashion?
AO: Well, it was not necessarily fashion at first. But growing up I was definitely more aligned to the creative space - my aspirations were being in the performing arts, music, poetry and directing local productions. I acted; I sang; I read widely; I wrote poetry; and I remember my first dream in the designer space was to create clothing for the modern day African woman -- the brand name would be “Hip!”
GT: So you knew right then and there that you would be a fashion designer.
AO: I think it was more of an aspiration at that point; and life took me on a journey before I actually started my fashion brand. I went to university to study Business and ended up in banking. But my quest for exploration of different cultures led me to banking in South East Asia, where I moved from managerial and strategic roles to marketing, and I finally felt well-placed to embrace my creative needs.
GT: It sounds like you traveled a lot globally. Any favorite places?
AO: As an avid traveler yourself, you know that every destination has something to offer! I have travelled on various continents and always found something I love. I greatly appreciated my repeat visits to Tanzania, Nigeria, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, England, Italy, and many spaces in the United States. Every time I went back to one of those countries, I discovered something new to love, to learn, and to admire. My one-off visits to Myanmar, Bhutan, Spain, and Greece have all been phenomenal. I would love to go back to any one of these places -- and I am sure there will be more exciting discoveries. Travel is always so invigorating – even travelling in my own country, Kenya, has been very inspiring.
GT: Aside from traveling, what else do you like?
AO: I like to think of myself as an open book. I don’t really “play favorites” because I love life and everything it has to offer. I absorb information broadly - people, places, things. I enjoy new experiences and the learning and knowledge they bring. I like good food - the choice depends on the “mood of the day”. But whether it’s Thai, Chinese, Indian, Kenyan (whatever that means) Continental, or Italian - I’m happy with and grateful for the variety I get to enjoy. I like movies and TV Shows, especially those witty and entertaining. Finally, I really love books. I started off in my early years reading romance and thrillers: from Danielle Steele to Stephen King, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and many more. I lapped these all up before the age of 11. I’m not as a voracious reader as I used to be, but I do still love my time with a good book.
Lately I have veered into appreciating African writers like Taiye Selasi, Chimamanda Adichie, and was recently introduced to Jennifer N Makumbi by a good friend. Needless to say, I also had a lot of exposure to local Kenyan/East African writers in our literary forays. Plus my father was an avid collector of East African books based on local personalities and by local personalities like Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Grace Ogot, Tom Mboya and Francis Imbuga.
GT: With such a broad range of interests and talents, how did you decide to go into fashion?
AO: I came into this space because it was a visual celebration of self and culture that I could get involved in relatively easily. I’m still very much interested and invested in the creatives on all front. With my brand I have the fortunate ability to work with all disciplines - design, film, photography, fine art, storytelling, graphics and illustration. Actually this is my dream job - making the magic happen with the people who make the magic.
GT: You are really building more than just a fashion brand – it sounds more like a creative hub, where fashion is just one way of self-expression. At least this is how I think about Sol Dada – the fashion hub. By the way, what is “Sol Dada”?
AO: Sol means “Sun” in Spanish, and “Dada” is Sister in Kiswahili. So, Sol Dada stands for a “Sun Sister”. In our world, “Sun” is what delivers a positive vibe. This is what we want to do – participate in creating products that make people feel good about themselves, give them a sense of freedom and individuality. And “Sister” stands for our aim to create a Sol Dada community, which supports your aspiration, whether you are an artist, or a designer, or just looking for a product that speaks to your individuality. And our community is fully inclusive of both sexes, because in my mind, the “Sisterhood” does not exclude men.
Photo courtesy Antonina Odindo
At Sol Dada we strive to create a haven where like-minded souls can meet, share ideas, support, inspire and encourage each other on their individual journeys to self- actualization and fulfillment. We aim to do this by creating an environment where each person’s natural talent is supported; and our customers are not only able to find products that meet their needs and desires but they also have a chance to explore those needs and desires in their quest for individuality. It’s not just about the product -- it’s about the support and encouragement our artists and customers feel in their journeys' to freedom, self- expression and self-actualization. We aim to play our part in building communities where people feel free to be their best and true selves amidst diversity.
GT: This is a beautiful philosophy! May I ask what inspired it?
AO: Our inspiration lies in people, nature, local culture. When it comes to people -- individuals like yours truly – we seek creatives who have been actively creating designs that speak to people. Designers like Blackfly Designs, Janet Asembo, Kitu Kali have been my go-to sources for different design inspirations. Graphic designers and artists like Kavulani and Kache Orawo, Stacey Nduta, Blizzy, Nelson Tum, J. Zainab, Lord KPuri, Helen Lakew have all lent us their artistic creativity in their own individual way. Photographers like Cleve Chiro, Eric Eric and Canelle Kuyabi have been a fundamental part of my story telling process..
Photo courtesy Antonina Odindo
Speaking of nature, Eve’s Mandala print was created by Evelyn Kache, who sought inspiration from nature. Another example is Liz, with whom we designed our upcoming Lobster print, inspired by a lobster shell from Tanga, Tanzania. Wing Chan -- a truly formidable force in the graphic design world -- has also done a series of prints for us based on nature. And there’s also Heather from Australia, Joanna from India/Singapore, and a few others, whose art inspire us to the point that we decide to translate it into a print. Our talent pool is large and very diverse; and we are continuously blown away by what “ordinary” people bring to the table.
GT: Don’t forget about “culture”.
AO: Never! The Sol Dada Korosho print is inspired by the Indian Ocean khanga culture that puts the cashew nut at the forefront of all its designs. Just so you know, the coastal communities refer to cashew as a symbol of fertility; this is one of the many learnings we’ve gathered along our journey as a brand. But the “cashew” is also present in the Scottish paisley design. So, Korosho was our foray into a print that is easily recognizable and appreciated globally.
GT: Let’s talk some more about your brand. What are some of the values Sol Dada stand for?
AO: There are actually a number, but they are critical to our daily decisions: (1) we stick to the integrity of the Sol Dada dream to make authentic, different, and exclusive products that people love; and (2) we listen to your community - our designers, artists, and clients. As many other local designers, we are often faced with commercial pressures that conflict with the vision of Sol Dada. Choosing integrity over money is tough, but giving up integrity means losing our identity as a brand. So, as long as we can, we will prevail.
GT: I am sure you will because this perseverance and strong values are what your customers seek when they come to Sol Dada. I noticed that each of your collections has a unique name and most likely a unique story, right? Can you tell me some of those stories?
AO: You are absolutely right – our collections tell stories of people or issues that we care about. For example, Nyota is not a Sol Dada original; it was inspired by a print that my sister saw in Accra, Ghana. We worked with a Singaporean partner to reconstruct the print; and now we use it for our “Stardom” collection that celebrates each individual for the star he or she is – that is for their unique contribution to the world. We use this print on bags, shoes and hats.
Another collection -- Bibi Leopard – grew out of a version of the beloved leopard print, but with distinct color-combination, which was selected by my childhood friend – the designer behind a company called Beach and Bush (BB, or BiBi). The print and the collection are inspired by the best of Kenya – the Beach and the Bush. By the way, this was our first print on active wear.
Ankara Solo is a collection celebrating well-known Ankara prints. Like all of our collections, it has a twist, which is – we use unique combinations of Ankara to highlight the individuality of each print, but also the uniqueness of each wearer. The collection was put together by my friend’s son; we use the prints to make active wear as well as an eco-friendly fabric for clothing and shoes.
Our Korosho and Tatuu prints were designed by partners from the Coastal region. The former is inspired by the coastal khanga culture; and the latter is a reflection of the ocean’s water, when you look at it through the sunlight.
I can tell you stories from dawn to dusk!
Photo courtesy Antonina Odindo
GT: I can see that! Now tell me, have your collections traveled anywhere outside Kenya?
AO: Since our journey started in 2018, we’ve done shows in Kenya and the USA. But in today’s world, your internet presence is a global presence, so our community spans far beyond the physical borders of any given country. Fashion is often driven by community trends. As Sol Dada we seek to set ourselves apart from the conventional. And we have found individual souls, who appreciate our uniqueness, in many global markets – and we appreciate each individual soul that connects with our community. Somebody would say, this is a very niche approach to marketing, but it works for our brand and our clients.
GT: Your production cycle is set in Kenya. And the creative community that support and inspire your brand is also local. Have you ever thought of manufacturing Sol Dada products elsewhere?
AO: You know, my aspiration has always been to work with local manufacturers. We’ve been diligently working to build our base in Kenya, by experimenting with local manufacturing I have to be honest, at the beginning it was not easy for us to engage large-scale manufacturers in Kenya because their production costs tended to be prohibitive for companies like ours – with low production volumes. But in 2019, we found a few local manufacturers, who were able to offer competitive prices on lower volumes, which has been a big plus.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, a lot of local organizations as well as the Kenyan government put a strong effort to promote the “Build Kenya and Buy Kenya” mentality, which greatly benefitted Kenyan brands. This new trend to support all things local helps us engage with local consumers and also gives us a selling edge in the international market. Surely, more work needs to be done because our shipping costs and duties that come with international shipping are still fairly high – thus, making it difficult for us to compete globally. We also need to continue educating local consumers about the efforts made in creating quality products in Kenya while fully embracing the individuality of custom prints or products. But I see the story of Kenyan brands getting louder on different platforms. I am definitely very grateful to be a part of this story.
GT: And talking about the story – what is the next chapter for Sol Dada? What’s your happily ever after?
AO: Our vision is to connect and engage with like-minded people and build a community that embraces and supports individuality. Hopefully, this will be a global community, although we recognize that such an ambitious undertaking will take time and a lot of marketing efforts. But nothing can stop us from dreaming, and we dream of being the platform that people go to when they have an unconventional artistic idea with very conventional commercial “legs”. We want to be able to support each individual in their artistic dream and offer the tools to make it happen.
We also recognize that this is a very lonely journey that comes with challenges. So, our immediate goal – the goal for today – is to set up networks that lift, support and uplift individuals, artists and art lovers alike, along their unique journeys.
GT: Is this a call for action? Call for likeminded artists, designers, and creatives to join your community?
AO: Sure, why not! If you feel that our story, our philosophy, and our values are aligned with what you believe being important in life – come and join our community. Let’s create #MadeInKenya legacy together.