Glitter Trotter: Thank you for taking the time for our coffee date! I know today has been a busy day at the Bizarre Bazar, and I sure appreciate you taking a break to talk to me.
Cynthia Owor: No worries, coffee breaks are great on a busy day; two energy-boosters combined – a break and a cup of coffee!
GT: True! So, let’s do coffee with a story, your story about your journey into fashion.
CO: Sure! My story is that of a pursuit of a God-given gift. I am originally from Uganda; my family moved to Kenya in the late 1990s; we left after a short while only to return a few years later and stay for good. I do not have formal training in fashion design. But I come from a family of creatives – the sort of a talented bunch you often see working together in the artistic industry.
GT: I know what you mean, it’s like a dynasty of sorts – a dynasty of creatives.
CO: Right! So, you can call me a self-starter. I began by sourcing and mending thrift clothes and putting together outfits that appealed to me. Then the kimono boom happened – and everyone wanted a kimono. I really liked kimono, they are very versatile. So, I decided to try my hand on those. My first small collection was made of upscaled fabric; there were just about five or six pieces. But my customers liked them, and I ended up taking quite a few orders and also getting some referrals from happy customers. Long story short, that’s how my brand – Sheer Poise – started in 2015. As you can see it’s quite a simple journey.
GT: It’s simple, but I am sure to has been special.
CO: Yes, it is definitely special. As my business grew, I started getting serious about doing it right and learning about fashion as a craft and as a business. Last year, for example, I did a program called Mitreeki, which had a big influence on my work as a fashion designer.
GT: Can you tell me more about the program?
CO: Well, it was a program for people, who were ether already working as fashion designers or aspiring to do that. The program gave me a lot of clarity about my brand and also my vision for the brand. Before I enrolled in the program, I was not sure what my message as a designer was, you know what I mean?
GT: Yes, I understand; you were not sure about the values you wanted your brand to represent.
CO: Exactly! I was not sure what made my brand distinct, different from other brands – and what were the values I wanted to portray. The program helped me define the “character” of my brand.
GT: Ah! This is a perfect transition to my next question – what IS your brand about?
CO: My brand is called Sheer Poise; and the logo I chose for my brand is a little sun. I want my brand to remind people to shine bright as they are meant to. I want my brand to create an easy, happy, and positive vibe. Most of my pieces are one-size-fits-all, because I want people to feel free, unconstrained in my clothes. I make a lot of t-shirts, t-shirt dresses and kimonos – easy, versatile pieces that help people open up and breathe.
GT: Now, this is the vibe that will resonate with most people – free, unconstrained, and happy living. You started telling me about the fabric you use. At first, you used upscaled fabric, right? What type of fabric do you use nowadays? Where do you source it?
CO: I source all of my fabric locally, no exception. My goal is to create a sustainable business that contributes to the reduction of waste. I go to Masiwa, the place, where all leftover fabric from different manufacturers accumulated before it goes to the landfill. That’s where I find fabric for my unique, often one-of-a-kind, pieces. I help the fabric to be released from Masiwa – instead of being thrown away and becoming a burden on the environment.
GT: You said the place is called Masiwa?
CO: Yes, it’s just off Jogoo road. It’s one of those places where you go, and you're like, yes! Today's is going to be an adventure!
GT: How did you learn about it?
CO: It’s one of those discoveries that are so plentiful in Nairobi. You never know what’s around the corner – people keep telling you, “Check out this place” or “Check out that street”. You follow the recommendations – and boom, you find these gems you’ve never known about. Masiwa is quite big; there are areas that I have not even had a chance to explore yet. Usually, I go there to find a particular type of fabric, but I really need to find time to just explore that whole area.
GT: So, when you get the fabric, you go home to design and stitch?
CO: I go home to design, but all stitching is done by a professional tailor. Don’t laugh, but I do not really know how to stitch.
GT: Oh, never! I don’t know how to stitch either. I stitched my finger, when I was in middle school. That accident left me traumatized forever.
CO: Imagine, I had the same accident. So, I decided that I will leave the stitching to professionals. It’s also good to create employment when you can.
GT: Now, you mentioned something interesting earlier – you said you are building a sustainable business. Can you tell me more?
CO: For me, sustainability means ensuring that every little shred of fabric is used somewhere and somehow instead of going to the landfill. And this is especially true for fabrics that are not natural. Surely, it’s better to phase out non- natural materials, but that’s going to take a while. For now, if someone uses fabric and has leftover, my contribution is to ensure those leftovers are also used and not thrown away. I love our mother earth and our environment, and if I have the power to make sure that we are not burning fabrics or covering our land with waste, I will continue doing so.
GT: I really like your dedication!
CO: Thank you!
GT: So now, tell me a little bit about your designs. You mentioned to me in passing a floral collection you are working on. What’s the inspiration behind it?
CO: Oh! You will love this story! I went out for a walk – to clear my head and to find some inspiration in nature; and I already told you that I love nature. On that walk, I came across Euphorbia Milii, which is also known as the desert rose. It’s a bright pink flower surrounded by thorns and green leaves.
GT: I know that plant.
CO: I took a picture of it, but then forgot about it for a while. Last year during the pandemic, I was looking through my photos and I found that picture of Euphorbia Milii. And I thought that flower is just a great symbol of resilience. So, this flower became my inspiration for the Desert Flower collection.
GT: And how did the inspiration translate into a clothing collection?
CO: Well, I started with a mood board. At the center of it was the Euphorbia Milii. And I was adding ideas to it, sort of a brain dump – I was adding more photos of thorny plants, drawings, different ideas; the whole process was about figuring out where this one idea can lead me to -- desert, cactus, more flowers... As a result, I realized that I wanted to create something delicate and distinct, sort of like a delicate blossom on top of a cactus – something soft and gentle. I also wanted to incorporate kikoy fabric into the collection to add texture and patterns. Finally, if you look at different type of cacti, some of them resemble a cabbage – they are layered and multifaceted. Hence, the kimonos in my Desert Flower collection also have this layered look.
Every piece in this collection is 100% organic – even my buttons are made of wood and are fully degradable; in the spirit of sustainability, I wanted my collection to be 100% natural in addition to being 100% unique and colorful.
GT: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the world of African fashion overall. You mentioned Mitreeki was a pan-African program. Did you have a chance to meet other African designers? What do you think about them and the current fashion trends in Africa?
CO: I did meet other African designers, and you know – I liked what I saw, I liked this new age of African fashion. It used to be all about Ankara and traditions. Nowadays, you see lots of bright colors and experiments. It’s a very interesting scene to be in right now – I love the way people’s minds are transforming, I am loving the courage of being different, I am loving all the new designs! I am looking forward to seeing what the future brings us. It’s a very exciting time to be a fashion designer n Africa.
GT: Who are your favorites among modern African fashion designers.
CO: Gosh, they are many!
GT: Let’s start with Kenya.
CO: I think that would be Kiko Romeo. I love all their designs, I love how they always bringing up something new and artistic. I think that's the one thing I love about their clothes -- they always have this artistic feel to it. Another one would be Akoko; her brand is very new, but I think she is going places.
If we talk non-Kenyan brands, I really like Suraya from Senegal. Her pieces are truly unique; every time I see her collections I go, “Wow! How did she even come up with that concept!”
GT: Do you follow any global fashion brands – for ideas and inspiration?
CO: Well, I know about the “big” brands – Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci, Prada. But I would not say I am following them. I am more focused on the African brands – I think right now Africa is where the most exciting fashion discoveries are happening. This is where the future is.
GT: And talking about the future, what’s in stock for your brand?
CO: I want my brand to travel globally. I’ve been selling my pieces to people from different parts of the world, and I want to see more global citizens wearing them. It’s very rewarding to see people from different walks of life wearing pieces that I designed.
GT: What about global collaborations? Have you thought of those?
CO: Oh, yes! There is one brand I would really love to collaborate with – Afropian. They are all about being a proud African and wearing clothes designed by African creatives with pride. And in fact, I think this is the transformation we should aspire to create as African designers – not just Africans but people all over the world proudly wearing clothes designed and produced in Africa. Fashion created in Africa should be proudly presented on every single runway – Milan, Pars, New York. We should also have our own big fashion events – like Nairobi Fashion week.
GT: I agree, and this future might be closer than we think.
CO: I believe so.