Itikadi Fashion House
Itikadi Fashion House is a Nairobi-based fashion brand with a contemporary style inspired by culture and art. It blurs the lines between femininity and strength, and is always focused on a women’s ability to embrace who they are without being apologetic. James Ong’weny is a Creative Director of Itikadi Fashion House. A marketing professional by education, James uses his research skills to understand the style, aspirations of his clientele to offer them a unique experience of feeling powerful and confident every day.
Glitter Trotter: Hi Allen! So, tell us, when did you start designing clothes?
James Ong’weny: I hope you are not disappointed. We are not really posh here.
GT: I am not looking for posh and polished, I am looking for authentic and honest. So, thank you for letting us see the behind-the-scenes of Itikadi Fashion House. Let me begin with the traditional question – when did you start your brand and what was the thinking behind it?
JO: I registered the brand in 2011, when I was still at the Uni (Strathmore University). My mother was designing sports clothes, so I grew up observing her work. When at Uni, I was designing polo shirts for myself. Then the university Clubs got interested and wanted me to do uniforms for them, so I got some practice. After graduation, I took sketching classes to learn how I can articulate my ideas better, and started my career as a designer – now full-time. At first, I went the traditional route trying to gain clientele by working in wedding couture – suits, wedding gowns, bridesmaids’ dresses, etc. But I soon realized that I am much happier when I design my own collections, when I am free to be creative. So, I switched to the ready-to-wear space; I think this is where I was always meant to be.
GT: Are you working with a similar cycle as the big fashion world, i.e., two collections a year – fall-winter and spring-summer?
JO: Not really. I prefer to work at my own pace, although I do try to create collections according to Kenya’s local seasonality. For example, I am working on two collections to come out this year – one, hopefully, in a few weeks for the cold season and another one by the end of the year for the hotter holiday season. Each of my collections tells a story that touches on the different aspects that make the Itikadi woman. When I have the story, the collection comes together naturally.
GT: So where do you get inspiration for your fashion stories? Do you follow haute couture trends? Global fashion weeks?
JO: I used to, but I no longer do that. I realized that when I was following big designers, I copied rather than created. So, I unfollowed all of them. I now follow accounts that focus on street style. I like seeing how people wear clothes, how different pieces fit into their everyday life. This is where I get my ideas. I also do a lot of research of my own. Funny enough, I’ve realized that when I have a collection out, it naturally aligns with some of the global trends. It just happens – I don’t need to force it. But this is it: I work at my own pace, I nurture my own creativity. I do not need to have the pressure of following the global trends or marketing my products based on what the Instagram “experts” recommend. I need to have space for my creativity to blossom. Once the story is there – the collection will follow, once the collection is in the production cycle – I will have time to market it.
GT: How do you decide, what pieces go into the collection? Do you have a cheat sheet of sorts, e.g., 2 dresses, 3 pants, 5 jackets?
JO: I try to make sure each collection is balanced but in a slightly different way. By now, I know which pieces have a broad appeal, i.e., which pieces are timeless. In our case, we always see that our palazzo pants and women’s shirtdresses sell well. Kenyan market is still a bit conservative, and also very functional. But we do not want to play it safe all the time, so I would always mix in several experimental pieces just to try out the market and offer some exciting, fresh pieces to women, who are looking to stand out.
GT: It sounds like you’ve segmented your market and studied each segment, like a true marketing professional would do.
JO: Unfortunately, I do not know my clients in as many details as I would like to. But over the past decade, I did learn a thing or two about the Itikadi women. For example, I know that some of our clients would like to have pieces that they can wear to work more than once a week without people noticing it and calling them out on it; they need pieces that are unique but not too loud. There are also women, who buy pieces for a specific occasion – a party, an event – and wear them differently for other events. There is also a growing group of people, who like experimenting with their style as much as we like experimenting with our garments; but with this group, it is hard to predict what they would or would not like and buy. For example, last year, we came out with a really interesting conceptual jacket, which had regular fabric mixed with PVC. We thought it was really cool, but it never moved. And I got so many questions from the clients, “How do I take care of it?” or “How do I match it with other clothes?” I think we
were a bit ahead of the trend.
GT: Is this a typical reaction to your experimental pieces?
JO: You know, here in Kenya, we are generally about 3 years behind the West in adopting new trends. And as I said, we are trending towards functionality vs. pure art when it comes to fashion. In the West, you can see the big designers showcase haute art in their runway collections, while their shops sell more functional versions of the same collection. In Kenya, we look at fashion through the practical lens first. And this is what I like about this market – it’s different; as Kenyans, we think about and consume fashion differently.
GT: Do you imagine yourself one day opening a shop in New York or doing a runway show at the Paris Fashion Week?
JO: No, I think the big markets are too crowded, too competitive, and too stifled by the fast- fashion brands. I like the fact that the Kenyan fashion market is still small – by now, I know all of the key players. And this is great, because I know there is a lot of potential to grow it and shape it into being a unique representation of our culture. I do not see myself being happy just running a shop in New York for the sake of running a shop in New York. I think I have a more important role to play in the Kenyan and African fashion market.
GT: Tell me more about that role. What is your vision for the future of your brand in Kenya?
JO: Well, I believe in fashion industry, you cannot think just about production. You have to think about the entire value chain. For example, take fabric. Currently, it’s cheaper and easier to buy a roll in China and bring it to Kenya. Even if you want to design and produce your own unique print – China is the most likely answer. But because our market is currently structured for import not export, we have limited control over the costs of fabric, the ethics of the process, etc. We are also missing out on the opportunities to create jobs. Don’t get me wrong – China is not the only answer; even now we can buy textiles from Mauritius or from West Africa. But the goal is to try and consolidate the value chain here, in Kenya.
GT: Do you think this is feasible?
JO: Ok, here is an example. My favorite material to work with is cotton. It just happened to be so – I like how it flows, how light and breathy it is. Kenya used to be famous for its cotton, but where is it now? We lost the entire cotton-production industry. In some places, you have rows and rows of empty manufacturing buildings – they used to be cotton-production factories, now they are empty. But I believe we can revive this industry; it will take a long time – 10, maybe 15 years. But it can be done, and we need to start now. Cotton is one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly materials; its production involves a lot of labor, i.e., jobs. I think this is the future – reviving the production of cotton in Kenya, and rebuilding the value chain from the cotton field to the runway. It will be very expensive at the beginning, but as more designers join, we will reach some economy of scale. I am doing my research right now, so stay tuned!
GT: This is very exciting! Thank you for sharing, James! Please, do keep us posted – also about your upcoming collections! We are looking forward to seeing them.
JO: Will do. Thank you!