Glitter Trotter: Jamie, congratulations on all your successes! You have created a recognizable and very distinct brand, yet you are at the very beginning of your career as a fashion designer. Please, tell us your story. How and when did Sevaria start? And by the way, what does Sevaria stand for?
Jamie Kimani: Sevaria is a combination of seven, which is my lucky number, and Macharia, which is my surname.
And how it started... I feel like I have always loved fashion, beauty, and style, ever since I was a kid. But while I was in school, I never thought of it as a career because I had never met a creative, who was doing fashion design as a profession.
GT: When did this change?
JK: Well, when I got to form 3, I had to think about my career choices. I was always sketching, drawing women in different clothes; and I had to explore what jobs are available to people like me. I started reading newspapers and looking through glossy magazines. This is how I learned about Anyango Mpinga, Kiko Romeo, and a few older Kenyan designers. And I suddenly realized – wow! This is a career, a career for me! I design clothes, I am a designer! So, right there and then my mind was set on becoming a fashion designer.
GT: I seriously envy you. Not everyone is so lucky to know what they want to be at the age of 15 or 16.
JK: I know, I feel lucky. So, now I was on my way. In high school, I started customizing my uniform, and also tailoring the uniforms of my classmates.
GT: Oh, I remember those uniforms! Buggy and shapeless. My mother tailored my jackets for me.
JK: And I was that guy at my high school, the guy to whom you would bring your trousers to make them skinny and stylish. I loved doing that. I wasn’t big on sports, and I used the game time to do my stitching and design. I got really good at it, so after high school I convinced my parents to allow me do a 1-year fashion course.
GT: How cool! Where was the school?
JK: Here in Nairobi, it's called Mcensal.
GT: Were you born in Nairobi?
JK: No, I was born in Kajiado, Kiserian area. My parents were moving a lot because they started working for the government when I was around 12. When I was finishing high school, they were living in Kerugoya, Central Kenya. I ended up living with my grandmother in Kiserian, so I can commute to school.
GT: And then you started the fashion school...
JK: And my parents treated it as a starter course.
GT: What do you mean?
JK: You know how before you take an in-person training at a university, before the KCSE results are out. My parents thought of my fashion school just like a preparatory course; they thought I would do fashion for one year and then move on with my “real career” course. But in my head, I knew this was it – this was what I was going to do in life. So, I graduated from the fashion school and started interning.
GT: Where did you intern?
JK: Boutique Mahali.
GT: I don’t think I’ve heard of them.
JK: I am not sure if they are still around. But they sure taught me a lot! This was my very first internship and the very first step in my professional career. I learned so much from them -- where to source fabric, how to work with the tailors, how to do production, I learnt everything. But my goal is still to go to a fashion school abroad, so I can expand my skills and challenge my creativity.
GT: Where do you want to go?
JK: Central Saint Martins, London—this is one of the best; but it is very very expensive and really hard to get in. I applied to London College of Fashion and did not get in. Then I was to apply for CSM, but COVID-19 started, and everything got put on hold.
GT: Sorry to hear that. Yes, 2020 was a difficult year for everybody.
JK: Yes, but I tried. I did not really know how to start a brand, in 2017 I decided to look for other options to earn a living while still learning about the fashion world. I ventured into the make-up scene as a make- up retail artist at MAC to be able to pay bills. And I became one of the best sales persons there. They started moving me around – I went from the Village Market to Sarit to The Hub to Garden City. Most money I was earning, I was investing in designing clothes. But then, as I said, COVID-19 happened. Things became very uncertain, my colleagues saw their salaries slashed, nobody was even coming to the store anymore. I had to quit MAC.
GT: This must have been tough!
JK: Well, it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. At first, I was scared of the uncertainty. But then I thought, why don’t I just focus on my brand – Sevaria – because if not now, then when?! And then I got really lucky – I got into Creative DNA, the program run by the British Council, where I could win a grant to work on my brand.
GT: How did you manage to do that?
JK: I applied to be part of the cohort. I was discovered by Martin and Billy, the couple that runs Fashion Scout. They are like my fashion “parents”. Do you know them?
GT: I’ve heard of them, but I do not know them personally. So, did you get the grant?
JK: I did! But money was not the main thing they gave me. They validated me as a fashion designer, which was much more important for me. A lot of people among my peers did not get my vision and my designs. They did not understand my work; they were always like, “Why are your clothes so expensive? Who would even wear this?” For a while I felt like I did not know my market. But from what I learned with the Fashion Scout – those guys were just not my market. Martin and Billy reassured me that what I was doing was good, they encouraged me to keep going.
GT: It sounds like you got your big break with the Fashion Scout. Congratulations. So, what did you do with the grant?
JK: I set up a workshop. Do you know how hard it is to find a good tailor and keep them interested in you! As a young designer, you are never a priority. With the grant money, I was able to hire a tailor to work for me exclusively. And once things started looking up, I hired the second tailor. So, now I have my own workshop with the tailors, who only work for Sevaria.
GT: That’s a fast rise! And now you have had your first pop-up.
JK: Yes, I have!
GT: Tell me, what is Sevaria about? What is your brand’s philosophy?
JK: Sevaria is a fashion brand that's inspired by African heritage and promotes self-expression and individuality. This brand is me, it’s very authentic but at the same time it’s very wearable. I always tell people, “If I cannot wear it, I am not going to sell it.” And I do stand by my brand – quality and authenticity. Am my own strictest critic. People always give me compliments, no matter what I wear. But none of what I wear comes from a regular store – since my teenage years, I could never find clothes that I wanted in a regular store. That’s why I am making my clothes now, and also this is why I want every piece of clothes to reflect me and my ideas – fun, edgy and gender-neutral. As a guy, I was never able to shop in a women’s section – as it was considered taboo before. But I like mixing up styles to achieve this gender neutrality.
GT: Why is gender-neutrality important to you?
JK: It is important because I believe that fashion is an expression of self, it’s our identity – and it’s much deeper than clothes. And as a creative, I want to explore my identity, not be stuck in one box labeled “man”. We should all have the freedom to be who we want to be, and to express ourselves through whichever clothes we choose for that. So, if I want to wear cotton today and silk tomorrow, I should be able to do that. You know, when we first put silk shirts on men, we experienced resistance because silk is not what African men would naturally choose – but then, they love it! I believe there should not be any rules in fashion – rules are meant to be broken, and people should wear what they feel like.
GT: Aside from gender-neutrality, what else makes your brand special?
JK: Well, I already mentioned that I would like my brand to reflect the heritage of our country and continent. In every outfit, I add a detail reflecting Kenya’s history. For example, I use cowrie shells as a decoration in my lounge-wear line. Cowry shells were used as a form of money in ancient Africa, they are a piece of our heritage. Long time ago, cowrie shells were used as a form of currency by Africans when trading.
Another traditional element that I incorporate in my clothes is Maasai beadwork. I grew up in Kiserian, and Masaai culture had a huge influence on my work as a designer. On many of my clothes, especially the jackets, you can see chain tassels that mimic the tassels Masaai make for adornment – except theirs are made of beads.
I feel taking pride in your heritage means using your heritage, embracing and amplifying it. Sometimes, we modify our heritage to fit our own identity, but we are still continuing the same story of our ancestors.
GT: So, what’s next for you? A fashion show? A boutique?
JK: I want to stick with online sales and learn a bit more before I venture into having a boutique. But I am optimistic about the future of my brand. There are several big brands that I like and follow – Kenneth Ize, IamIsigo,Thebe Magugu, Alexander Mcqueen many of them – I hope to interact with one of those brands one day on a big and exciting project while still building and mainstreaming Sevaria style among Kenyans and Africans. I am inspired by my continent, I love learning about its history and heritage. So, I want to tell the world the story about it, the story of our craftsmanship through my brand.
GT: And we are sure with your drive, enthusiasm and hard work, this will be happening very soon!
JK: Thank you!