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Our Creatives

Five minutes with Evelyne Wanjiku, Chema Chetu Bags

Evelyne Wanjiku is a founder and lead designer at Chema Chetu, A Kenyan leather goods brand known for outstandingly creative yet very practical bags, totes, and purses. Using her artistic vision, fine arts training, and a powerful drive to showcase Kenyan craftsmanship to the world, Evelyne created a women-led, and women-inspired company that strives to create opportunities for and change lives of their communities one book and one bag at a time.
Five minutes with Evelyne Wanjiku, Chema Chetu Bags

Glitter Trotter: Eva, I’ve been admiring the totes your company makes for a while now. Your Instagram account is very artistic, and it stands out quite a bit! I also love the little logo you have on all your posts – “Made in Kenya”.

Evelyne Wanjiku: The origin of our products is very important to us. When we started Chema Chetu in 2020, our vision was to establish a company, which would source materials and designs locally, so that every bag we produce

 is truly made in Kenya. But this was not it. We wanted to make products that local people will be proud of –unique, durable, with Kenyan aesthetics. So, our goal is to appeal to Kenyans but challenge their tastes by introducing something new and artistic.

GT: You said, you wanted to appeal to the established Kenyan aesthetics. What do you mean by that? Can you tell me some more about what your clients like?

EW: I think Kenyans today are looking for a mix of traditional and modern; they appreciate the traditions, but at the same time want to look fashionable and to own designer fashion. They want good quality, but not the typical brands you can find at the store.

GT: This is a very eclectic mix!

EW: Most definitely! But we like a good challenge because it encourages us to be creative. We integrate African motifs into our bags – so far, we used fabrics made in Kenya, Mali, Ghanian Kente; we also use beadwork in our production. This helps us keep the designs local, yet fresh and unusual.

GT: How do you know about the different fabrics in Africa?

EW: Well, I study, and I travel. I am passionate about studying fashion, learning about design and leather crafts. And I am an avid traveler. I find discovering new countries both educational and inspiring. For example, you go to Ghana and observe how locals produce and use Kente. It’s quite a learning experience. And it inspired me so much that I wanted to integrate Kente into our designs. And then came Malian fabric, and Kenyan beadwork. We are learning, inventing, and growing as we go.

GT: Kudos to you for setting up the company that keeps you excited! Why did you choose bags?

EW: The simple answer is, I was looking for a challenge.I am an artist by training. At first, I was paining. Then I got bored and moved on to making postcards, but after a while I got tired again. You see, I am always looking for ways to challenge myself and to learn something new. So, I moved to bags, and I think thus far, bags have been the most challenging of all the things I have done in terms of creativity. The most challenging part has been learning about the preferences and desires of my clients – some people want comfort, others are looking for a great design, yet others want a unique look. I might agree or disagree with their tastes -- but ultimately, my clients are the reason I am in business. You know the saying, “The beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”?

GT: Yes, of course!

EW: It’s very true about fashion. When I was painting, it was up to me what I would paint; I decided what was beautiful and how to express that beauty. In fashion, the customer is in the driving seat, so to say. As a designer, I really need to be engaging with my current and potential customer and asking them questions to better understand what they want. We need to follow the trends to remain relevant to our buyers.

GT: Any interesting trends in Kenya that you can share with us?

EW: Well, there is an emerging trend towards sustainability. For example, people want to know if the maker of the products is paid a fair wage or if our production process is environmentally friendly. Some of our clients talk about climate change, and others are wary of polyester and plastic. Such consciousness is not yet huge, but it is driven by young people, which means it will be shaping the Kenyan market in the near future.

But in Europe, sustainability is already a movement. My European clients want to understand the entire value chain behind our products; they want to know the “story” of the bag they are buying – from where the materials are sourced, to the names of the people that stitch the bag, to the places wherethe final products are sold.

GT: How easy or difficult is it for you to tell the “story” of your bags?

EW: It is very easy because I am involved in each and every stage of the sourcing and production. We source and produce everything in Kenya with the exception of some hardware, such as zippers. It is still quite hard to find good-quality local make hardware in Kenya, but everything else is local. For tanneries, for example, we work with partners in Nakuru and Sagana.

GT: Let’s talk some more about your production process. How many people are working at or with Chema Chetu?

EW: Well, there are three of us – me, my colleague Jane Njeri, and our most recent addition – Millicent Mueni. Plus we have several artisans, who help with the beadwork. And we also have technical consultants once in a while.  One of them Is local called Boniface --we have also worked with a German designer called Adamek – they have helped to guides our creative process. 

GT: None of the designers, who I interviewed before you, mentioned that they had a technical consultant on the team.

EW: Well, we are still learning. Sometimes, we invent a bag – but we do not know how to design a pattern for it. This is where our consultants come in – they can tell us if our “creation” can actually be made, and if yes – he teaches us how to make it. We made several interesting products under their supervision, for example, a theft-proof bag, which you can turn upside down to prevent pick-pockets from getting inside it.

GT: How cool!

EW:Yes, we liked it a lot! We have a few other pieces in progress. And we got the idea about a technical consultant from the Urban Change Lab. It’s a German company, who works with designers from Africa to make custom orders for various clients in Europe – mostly from Germany. So, we’ve been a part of their designer cohort.

GT: Do they only order bags?

EW: Oh, no! They order anything and everything! Basically, this is a training and production lab that fulfills orders from European clients by working with African designers, craftsman, and artists. The orders are not very big or overwhelming, but we have to document the production process.

GT: What do you mean?

EW: We videotape the entire production process and also provide a written description of what we do and how. The quality control is very strict, but besides that – European customers are usually very curious, and they love being involved in the production – even if just by watching videos and reading our notes. So they are effectively a part of the creative process.

GT: Very interesting!

EW: It is! And it is good for documenting the product “story” even for our Kenyan clients – we are using the same process whereby we are collecting and recording information about each step of a bag creation. This documentation allows us to say to our clients, “You will not only look good carrying this bag, you will also feel good knowing you bought a piece produced to the highest standards of craftsmanship.” Everyone deserves to own a bag with a story, right?

GT: Most definitely! Did you meet any other designers at the Change Lab?

EW: Yes, we did. And we keep in touch with some of them.

GT: Do you plan any collaborations in the near future?

EW: Yes, but not in the near future. Since we started so recently, it is important for us to define our own brand before we enter any partnerships, joint ventures, and/or collaborations.

GT: This is fair. Let’s go back to your creative process. How do you come up with ideas for your bags? What inspires you?

EW: Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes is comes out of nowhere right in the middle of the night; and sometimes you really have to work for it. For example, yesterday we were just sitting together and doodling for a few hours – trying to come up with something new and interesting. Good thing we all have a lot of patience; we work, and we look for good ideas. And then somebody says, “This is it – let’s make this one!” And we go for it, and we pray that we are happy with the result.

GT: This is the best way to come up with something new and creative – just be brave, and say, “Let’s go for it!”

EW: True! This is what happens with me – I wake up in the middle of the night, because I would dream up an idea. I would sketch it right then and there. And in the morning, I share it with my partner – and off we go creating a new bag.

GT: And how do you pick the material for your new idea?

EW: It’s more of a feeling. What feels right for this design? For example, for the bag we “doodled” yesterday, I picked this blue embossed leather that our Nakuru partner brought to us. I actually think that this is an experimental pattern because I have not seen it before. They might have made this particular print just for us – it happened before. So, this embossed leather feels right for the new design. I am really excited to make the bag actually – I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of it!

GT: Me too! By the way, I forgot to ask you what the name of your brand means – Chema Chetu.

EW: It means, “Our own is good.” I should have started with this story because then, you would get our vision right away!

GT: It’s not too late! What is the story?

EW: Well, I am a big fan of Marc Jacobs. He is my fashion icon and my role model as a designer. I dreamed of owning his bag, and I was setting aside money to buy it. And then it donned on me – I was going to spend $100 buying a Marc Jacobs bag made of plastic – a material that would not last, and there is high likelihood the bag would actually not be real – but rather a Chinese replica. That was my first revelation. And the second was – I was going to buy a bag from a designer I would never meet and get to know in real life. I would never be able to understand, who he really is, and what his values and philosophy are. I would pay for the name, I would interact with a brand, which would never know I exist and would not really care about me.

So, I thought, why don’t I create my own bags in Kenya – where my clients can actually walk into my workshop, meet me, talk to me, get to know me – the designer, who created the bag, which they love, and which is going to last for decades because we take quality very seriously.

GT: I am really touched by this story. Especially by the fact that one of the main reasons you did not want to buy a Marc Jacobs bag was that you would not be able to meet the designer in person and bond with him. Why was this so important to you?

EW: We are all humans; we want to have relationships with each other. Such positive relationships are very fulfilling. You buy something from a real person, who you meet ad who you talk to – and every time you carry their product, you remember that person. One of our clients sent us a video recently of their child playing with the Maasai beads on our bag – all the way across the globe in the US. Next time this client ordered a bag, we sent them a Maasai bangle for the child.

GT: This is very sweet!

EW: Thank you! I believe in bonding with the clients – it makes me feel that creating bags is not just a job, it’s a mission – it’s like I am connecting people and cultures.

GT: And what about the prints? Do you make them yourselves as well?

EW: Not yet, although we hope we will be producing custom prints one day. We buy our fabric in the local markets across Kenya. But we do plan to work with a local artist – when we are a bit more established – to make our own prints. Wouldn’t that be fun?

GT: I am sure! Or as a trained artist, you can be that artist, Eva! By the way, where did you study?

EW: I went to Kenyatta university, Jane and Millicent went to  Buru Buru Institute of Fine Arts for 4 years

GT: And what did you specialize in?

EW: Fashion and Design.

GT: Oh! So, you are exactly where you are supposed to be occupation-wise – in the fashion and design industry. Now, let’s talk about your partnership with Jane. How did you find each other?

EW: It’s a funny story, actually. She came to work at my art-supply shop next door. But then she saw my sewing machines and mentioned that she knew how to stitch. And boom – we are making bags together. It just happened naturally, and it’s been a productive partnership for both of us. We also have a couple of people, who do the beading work, and come here once in a while. But overall, we are still a small workshop that feels like home – and our team feels like family

GT: This sounds like a very peaceful workplace.

EW: It is. I really like the way we relate to each other – with support and respect.

GT: It is amazing to see how mostly the two of you – Eva and Jane—created a company that feels big, confident, established. Well done! Was it difficult for you to start Chema Chetu or did it come to you naturally?

EW: It was very difficult at the beginning. My main challenge was to find craftsmen. You see, I assumed that if I come up with good designs, any person, who can stick well, can actually make a bag based on my drawings. I was so wrong! After several quite painful mistakes, I realized that I needed another designer and a coach – that’s when Jane and the consultants came along. So, my big lesson was that to be able to achieve my vision, I needed designers, who would see and appreciate my vision. Jane helped me take Chema Chetu to the next level -- she is also trained in Fashion Design, and just like me, she is very keen on quality assurance.

GT: How does it feel to be a businesswoman and a business owner?

EW: I enjoy it a lot! And not to sound biased, by in my business I actually prefer to work with women – I feel that as women, we go out of our way to support each other. With men, you often feel they do not trust you just because of your gender, they do not trust your expertise. And such mistrust eventually starts negatively affecting your confidence in yourself, which is detrimental to your business.

In fact, I was thinking – maybe Chema Chetu should be a company that works exclusively with women. I really want to give other women an opportunity to make something they are proud of. And it does feel very fulfilling when you can change even one woman’s life for the better, doesn’t it?!

GT: Most definitely!

EW: That’s what I believe. Take Millicent, for example – she came as an apprentice. We will teach her how to stich, how to design bags… We hope, she will be part of our family, just like others.

GT: Ok, all over sudden, I am really curious. So, you said that you were looking for a challenge when you started a company producing bags, and it did turn out to be a challenge for your creativity.

EW: That’s right.

GT: Which of your bags was the most challenging and the most exciting of them all?

EW: Hmmm… That’s a good question. They are all challenging in their own ways. Perhaps, I am most proud of this yellow bag with leather weaving. This was my first experiment with leather weaving. When I came up with the design, I was not sure how the bag would turn out. But it was spectacular! Plus I learned some more nuances about leather – specifically, that leather weaving requires a special kind of leather, which would not crack when you keep bending it. I learned a lot about the quality of leather when I was making this bag!

GT: I learned something new as well today – I never imagine leather could crack. Somehow, I always thought about it as a very bendable material.

EW: As a designer, you need to know a lot about the quality of the materials you are using and the production process. Bad leather cracks because producers use wrong or cheap chemicals when they are working on the raw hide. For some people, it does not matter because they want mass produce cheap, low-quality bags. We want to bond with our clients, we want them to share our values and our commitment to quality, to making Kenya and Kenyans proud of our works.

We do not mass produce anything. We are all about beautiful things and skilled craftsmanship. This is one of the reasons we insist that all our apprentices learn the basics of cutting, stitching, and making patterns – before they start designing their own products. We believe that this is the only way they can maintain their skill and their expertise and still grow it. So, that even if they ever want to become independent -- they can leave and surviving on their own.

GT: Now tell me, what would you like to see happening to your brand in the future? What is your dream for Chema Chetu?

EW: I want our brand to be known globally as a genuinely Kenyan brand making good-quality bags using local Kenyan talent and materials. We started attracting new clients recently – not just from Germany, but other countries in Europe as well as the US. We want to reach out to them with our story and our products, we want to wow them and establish lasting relationships with them as our clients. The Urban Change Lab helps us with the promotion in Germany and in Europe; they’ve published our story in 3 or 4 magazines thus far.

GT: Congratulations! Sounds like you are well on your way!

EW: But this is not it. We also want to give back to our community. We’ve been blessed – we started small, we’ve grown, we are doing well. We want to make sure that young people in our community also get a chance to succeed. We’ve been setting aside some money from our sales to buy books, mostly educational books for children. When we accumulate a certain number, we will take them to rural schools, or maybe we will build a manage our own small library, where kids can come and borrow books for free. So, this is our big vision for the social impact of our work.

GT: This is very noble! I wholeheartedly hope that you succeed, because I believe that you would use your success to transform the lives of many people around you! Best of luck!

EW: Thank you!