Photo courtesy Kawira Mirero
Glitter Trotter: It is really nice to finally meet you amidst our busy lives! I am keen on hearing your story. You rose to the top of the Kenyan fashion world really quickly, but I am sure the invisible-to-the-public journey was not at all easy.
Kawira Mirero: I don’t know about easy, but it was definitely not a speedy one. I grew up in Mombasa, a city with a strong tailoring culture. My mom has been tailoring clothes her entire life. Since I was 4, we’d be going fabric-shopping together, such good memories! And I would often see her coming home frustrated, undo a dress she just bought, and put it back together by hand because it just did not fit right. By the time I was 14-15, I was doing the same. I enjoyed the creativity of making my own clothes. And then I’ve always loved art.
GT: You paint, correct?
KM: Yes! And growing up, I took part in art competitions and won many. So, I was always looking for a way to combine my two passions. But my parents were not too keen on creative professions, and maybe for a good reason. I finished primary school, and went to Alliance Girls High School, one of the top national schools in Kenya. And if you go to Alliance, you become a lawyer, or a banker, or a doctor. If you are really bad, you become a teacher. That’s what my parents called “a profession.”
GT: Same here! My parents wanted to see me as a University professor.
KM: So, you know then! But see, I wanted to design. I remember, when I was in form 2, we had to choose two subjects we wanted to major at the Uni, because everyone at Alliance goes to the University. I chose Art and Design; and my parents were not amused.
GT: You know they mean well, and they worry about us.
KM: Of course! My father was concerned that art is done by people with no education, and hence, it does not pay the bills. But at the end of the day, he just said, “Do what you want.” That brought me one step closer to fashion design. And then at the end of that year, we went to the University of Nairobi to see what we called a “pin-up” – a final collection of the students’ design works for that year. So, I was like, “This IS what I am coming to do at the University! I am coming to study design!” And so, I went to the University of Nairobi and studied design. It was everything I ever dreamed of – exciting, awesome, inspiring! I was among creative people for the entire day; and on the side, I was now working on my own fashion projects – reworking the clothes I would get from the second-hand market. Life was great. That was until I graduated (with a first-class degree in design), got a job, and realized that my parents were right – the job did not pay the bills.
GT: Oh, sorry!
KM: Well, thank you! Yes, I needed money to live, and I needed good money if I wanted to live in Nairobi. I went back to school to get my MBA in Marketing.
Photos courtesy Kawira Mirero
GT: Impressive, but what a change!
KM: Indeed! I shifted from working as a fashion and graphic designer to marketing and corporate communication. I never really forgot about my passion in fashion and design, but for a while it was more of a side interest. I would still go shopping on the weekends and try to redesign and reshape my clothes; I was working with a tailor in town. But there was just never enough time for this – I would find myself abandoning a lot of projects half-way.
GT: I know what you mean – if something is not your priority, you feel like there will be time for it later – in the future. But then you end up never having time for it.
KM: Exactly! Something would always get in the way of my creative projects. And as the time went by, I started getting tired of it – tired of having to abandon my art and design, tired of the rigid structures of the corporate world. I just felt run down, you know. I met my husband in 2008, and by then I was done with the corporate work. He was moving to West Africa, and I said, “I am quitting my job and going with you!”
GT: Wow, this is brave!
KM: My husband was very supportive, though. He said, “You always wanted to paint more. So, you can paint. Or you can do something else, anything else. Do whatever you want.”
GT: Good man!
KM: Right! So, we moved to Accra, and stayed there for 4 years. Moving across the continent felt like moving to a completely different world. West Africans love their fashion; West Africans dress up; West Africans can spend forever in a salon doing nails, doing hair, changing clothes, trying on fabrics... Every party is a chance to dress up. During our first year in Accra, I changed my entire wardrobe; I acquired a lot of outfits I only wore once. And I spent an immense amount of time with tailors and designers learning their tips and tricks. And I also painted whenever I felt like it.
But by the end of the year, I was bored and I got a job as a consultant in marketing and communications. This led to me meeting more people, socializing more, going to more events. Live was awesome. Then children came; we moved to Nigeria; I was still working in marketing and communications. I still laugh thinking about that time.
KM: Well, I was supervising a team of people, so my job was mostly to review and approve completed projects. So, I would work ether early in the morning or late in the evening. But during the day, I would go to the local market and shop for prints. Seriously, by the time we were moving home I had a container full of prints. My husband would ask me, “Are you not tired of prints?” I was like, “Imagine, every time I go to the market I would find a print I love!” Also, don’t forget – the prices for the prints we buy here are times and times higher than what these fabrics cost in Nigeria. So, the prints just piled up. And I brought them back with me when we returned to Kenya.
GT: When did you come back?
KM: In 2014, my daughters were 4 and 2 years old then. We came back, and my husband said, “You’ve always talked about starting a design business. Whatever you want to do – graphic design, marketing, fashion – the time is now. If you don’t do it now, you never will.”
GT: He was right. Big moves in life – relocation, starting a family, pausing to have children – open opportunities for us to rethink what we want to do.
KM: Yes, definitely. But in the back of my mind, I just kept replaying my parents’ voices, “Show me one successful artist! They are one in a million! What makes you think you will be one of them?! You are going to starve!” So, it was not easy, but my husband was very supportive. And once we got back, I started my business in our guest house. I had one tailor, a container full of prints, and my network.
GT: Your West African network?
KM: No, I had a small circle of clientele here, in Nairobi. When we were living in West Africa, I would occasionally get an order for clothes from a friend in Nairobi. I would go to a tailor in Nigeria, design a piece with them, and then bring it back to Kenya. I would also bring a few extra pieces to sell in Kenya. By the time we came back, I already had a few regular clients. And actually, these clients were what convinced me to start a fashion business.
GT: How so?
KM: I hate being financially dependent on somebody. I have a great husband, but I also want to be in control of my life, which means my business has to be financially viable. When I was weighing in different business options, I thought, “Let’s say I start a graphic design firm. It will take me some time to build a client base; and I also have to deal with the corporate dynamic, briefs and such. It can get hectic, before it gets profitable, if at all.” But fashion felt as a natural choice, because I already had clients; I was also passionate about the industry; I had good understanding of colors, garment construction, and most importantly – I knew the gaps in the Kenyan market.
GT: Can you give me some examples?
KM: Well, sure! For example, I do not lie to my clients. I don’t tell them that a dress would be ready tomorrow, when I very well know this would not be possible. I know a lot of tailors lie – they give you false hope, which is really frustrating. I honestly tell my clients what is and is not possible timewise.
GT: How do your clients feel about it?
KM: Sometimes I have to deal with people, who get offended. For example, December is a very busy month for us, and we stop taking orders by week two. Past that time, we tell clients their orders would have to be delivered in January. Some people get really angry, they think you are overselling yourself. But it’s not about being special – it’s about delivering on your promises as a business.
GT: Now taking you back to the beginning. How was it, starting the actual fashion business?
KM: It was not easy. And combined with the relocation, it was definitely an undertaking. You know at some point, we completely ran out of money – we rented out the House and moved into an apartment. I turned our guestroom into my fashion studio, and continued working.
GT: That must have been a proud moment for you.
KM: They were, but at the same time it was also a very difficult moment in our lives. You see, we were all living in that apartment: my children, my husband, and I. And my children hated my business, because there were always strangers, my clients, in the house – going in and out. Yes, my children hated it. But I had to keep going. My persistence paid off because in the very first year the business almost doubled in size. And all the growth was organic. Then HEVA Fund responded to our application and gave me KES350,000; and this money enabled the business to move into a separate space very close to the State House. It was not a huge space – enough for a receptionist (I played that role then), a designer (also me), and two tailors.
GT: For just one year in business – this is a great progress.
KM: Yes, yes! And then we’ve got this current space – a two-story, two-bedroom condo. So, we’ve been here for a while. I love it, I love that we’ve grown almost entirely organically.
GT: What else do you love about your business?
KM: I like people, I like interacting with people, get to know them. And I love that our bespoke services allow me to interact with clients, occasionally on a personal level. I do a lot of ready-to-wear, and possibly will transition out of bespoke at some point. But for now, I really enjoy working with clients and designing bespoke, one-of-a-kind pieces or services. You know, I was among the first designers in 2014-2015, who started using West African prints in combination with plain fabric. I realized that my clients in Kenya were shying away from the bright Nigerian prints; they kept asking, “Where would I wear this dress?” So, I started designing with a specific client in mind – thinking about what clothes they would wear to the office, to a wedding, to a casual dinner, and so on. Sometimes, when I am consulting a client I would ask them the same questions, “Where would you wear this?” And if they are making a piece for a wedding, I would still be like, “And after the wedding?” In some cases, I would suggest not just a dress, but a two-piece suit – to wear as a set to a wedding, and then wear a skirt, for example, to the office with a plain top. As you can see, many interesting ideas come directly from my clients; they are my main inspiration. The fashion business just came together for me – this is a perfect creative outlet, I get to interact with people, still have a lot of control over my life and time, and I am also giving back to the community by creating employment.
GT: How many people are you employing now?
KM: I have 7 full-time employees, including myself. We also have two temporary workers and a network of ladies to whom I outsource embroidery and beadwork. Outsourcing is a way also to support a broader fashion eco-system. This is actually what keeps me going. There are days, when getting out of bed is a challenge. But there is so much energy here! I step into the shop and feel immediately recharged!
GT: I bet it is also very uplifting to see how far you’ve gone as a business owner!
KM: Yes some of the highlights have been
- Getting funding twice from HEVA Fund!!!
- Putting out three formal collections to date.
- Stocking at reputable retail outlets like ‘Zanta Adeyde Store’ at Village Marke and Republike (They have since shut down)
- Our organic growth - building a loyal client base for both ready-to-wear and bespoke. We have many repeat clients
- Designing Stage Costumes for Afro Pop Star Yemi Alade on 18 different occasions.
There are a lot of exciting things happening. For example, last year we opened a new branch, MamboPambo Express (MP Express), which was going to be a pick-up point for the ready-to-wear orders. Unfortunately, we had to pause it due to COVID-19. But the work continues. Like most other businesses, we had to find new ways of making fashion and attracting clients. You can actually notice a difference in my Instagram feed before and after the pandemic. Starting May 2020, we went into a totally different production mode – I would design 1 item, take photos of t, post t, sell it. Then I would design the next item, get my kids to do a video for IGTV, post the item, and sell it. The orders were trickling in even amidst COVID-19; but by the end of 2020, the business started picking up again.
GT: All the things you have to do to keep your business running!
KM: And the benefit of running your own business is that you can stay flexible, and you do not need to ask anyone for a permission to experiment. While people in the corporate world were losing jobs, we kept pivoting. And we pulled through!
GT: 2020 forced us to rethink and change many things, including how we shopped!
KM: Most definitely. You know, at the beginning of the year we did not even have a proper website or social media presence. But we sold, we sold mostly through Instagram. And that’s actually one of the great benefits of using social media that some small businesses do not see and do not capitalize on – you get immediate feedback from your audience on what they like and do not like. You read their comments and DMs, and you instantly know, which of the products would be a hit. Before COVID-19, I was camera-shy, I would avoid the camera at all costs! I'm now very comfortable taking photos and making videos – I know this is key for my business. In fact, my kids help me a lot – the first thing they ask on a shoot day is, “How many looks are we doing today?” Then we make a plan. Small business thrives on family support.
GT: Funny! My daughter also does my videos. In fact, she helps me a lot with the Instagram, she is very artistic... I have a question for you. You’ve experienced both West African and East African fashion worlds. What strikes you as the most notable difference between the two?
KM: Wow! Well, West Africans live their fashion, they consume it. They take any occasion they can to dress up. They dress up to go to a club, to a wedding, to a dinner, to a party, grocery shopping. They take their fashion very seriously! For example, if I want to have a birthday party, I would pick a print and tell all my friends that this is the “theme” print. They can come up with any variations they want – mix the print with lace, denim or other fabrics. But the main print will remain the same. A similar arrangement is made for weddings and other important events. West Africans use clothes to celebrate their culture, their memories, occasions, all the different milestones in life. I actually have many clothes from our time in West Africa that I would never wear again; I am giving away those pieces, but very slowly because all of them carry memories. Hence, tailors in West Africa are important – and there are tailors for all socio-economic groups. Fashion is among the most thriving sectors in the West African economy.
When it comes to East Africa, we are more relaxed – we wear jeans, t-shirts, leggings, plain tops... We resort to a very basic wardrobe. I would say our fashion is a bit lazy, maybe a bit traditional. In Kenya, we tailor clothes for occasions only, although I feel it’s starting to change. Even among my clients, many choose bespoke tailoring because they cannot find the right fit or size in the store. We do not yet have a strong tailoring culture in Kenya.
GT: Is there an element of immediacy – I want to have it now, so I buy it instead of waiting for a week for a tailor to make it?
KM: Yes and no. I think there is also an element of understanding and education – what do I get if I tailor clothes vs. buy them from a big brand? I see that my clients are starting to see the differences in terms of the fit, the cut. I spend a lot of time obsessing over the fit and look of my clothes, but not everyone can immediately see the difference.
Price is another issue. For a small business, the cost of production is relatively high because we want to buy good fabric and pay our people well. So, by the time we are done with a dress, it’s KES8,500. You can probably buy 2 dresses for this money at a chain store. So, some people say our prices are high – but I have regular clients, which means there is a market for my designs. And now we also have a lot of events that help raise awareness about our brand, and together with other designers we have recently opened a shop at the Village Market. So, the awareness of MamboPambo is growing, but I feel the fashion culture is also gradually changing.
GT: In your opinion, what are the key trends that influence this change in how people think about fashion and dressing up?
KM: Well, pop-culture and social media definitely play a role. I also see more appreciation for things made locally, for locally-owned businesses and brands. Finally, I think we are catching up on the appreciation for how clothes shape the image a person is projecting. Among our clients, we have a lot of C-level executives, who want to look a certain way when they go to a meeting at the Capital Club. They want others to say, “This is very unique! Where did you get this?” There are also a lot of managers, who are just aspiring to get to the C-level, but they are willing to invest in clothes that help them project their aspirations. The right clothes help you build your sense of identity.
GT: Speaking about pride in locally produced products, do you think the COVID-19 is the reason for that?
KM: Oh, no! This trend started before the pandemic. The “Buy Kenyan – build Kenya” campaign has definitely been working. People have been paying attention. But I think what also makes a difference is the quality of products produced in Kenya. People want quality goods, and when you see that high-quality goods can be made in Kenya, why would you look elsewhere?
GT: Now, let’s go back to MamboPambo and the clothes you design - What is the story there?
KM: We are just putting together a new collection and a new look book; and in our new collection we are celebrating the contemporary woman. Originally, we called it a Safari collection, but the name did not stand out as a unique one. So, we are still brainstorming on it. But the thinking behind the collection remains the same -- we are paying homage to our clients, the strong career women, business owners, trailblazers, who lead busy lives. They go to cocktails, they go to dinners, they go on safaris, they run errands, they do zoom calls, they take care of their families, etc. Our collection is about life as a journey in which there are many seasons: there is a season to be casual, there is a season to be formal, there is a season to work, there is a season to run errands, a season to have babies, and to have fun. So, we designed a wardrobe for every season – it’s fun, it's edgy, it's dynamic, it's modern. Our clothes are meant to make women feel good about themselves not matter what they do; we also want them to feel that they’ve got great value for their money. We want to show respect for the contemporary woman – the woman she is now, the woman she is becoming, the woman she wants to become.
GT: This is a beautiful description, and it is clear that you put a lot of thought into it.
KM: Not just into this collection – into every collection! For example, our previous collection was called the Power Collection. All the designs reflected a men’s tie; at the core of it were well-fitting garments – all with a tie-like element incorporated into the garment structure. I never start a new collection until I am convinced that I have a strong idea that will make this collection interesting and coherent.
GT: What happens to an old collection when you move on to a newer one? Do you completely abandon the designs?
KM: No, not at all. In every collection, we have a few bestsellers. They become a part of our signature collection, our classic designs. You will always find them in our stock. For example, in 2016 I did a Waterfall collection; since then, we’ve tweaked and improved our waterfall designs, but we still carry them, and they are still very popular among our clients. So, all the classics from different collections are here. But I also was to keep creating, and I push myself to test a new design every week.
GT: Every week? This seems very tight! How do you manage?
KM: As with every creative process, you have times when things just fly, but you also can go through serious creative dry spells. When things go well, I try to do more than just one design. This way, I have 4-5 good ideas sketched out and waiting for their time to come.
GT: And when the time comes?
KM: I make the garment and market-test it. If it’s a hit, we make more; if not – we keep it in the store and eventually it finds its client. Of course, there are occasional disasters, then we just unstitch the whole thing and use the fabric for something else. The important part is to always keep moving, keep thinking, keep learning, keep creating, and to not allow the fear of failure stop us.
GT: How do you keep fueling your inspiration with such an intense creative cycle?
KM: Trust me, if you are like me, there is no shortage of inspiration. I said earlier that my clients inspire and encourage me. In addition, my kids and I, we travel a lot and we go to art exhibitions, markets, shows etc. All of these is important. But sometimes, simple things can give you ideas. For example, you go to a dinner and you start thinking, that if only your dress were like this and not like that – it would be more comfortable or more elegant. Sometimes kids give me new ideas. And also – TV shows. Have you heard of Suits?
GT: Of course! I love Suits!
KM: I am always watching it! And I keep thinking, “How would I tweak this dress to suit a Kenyan businesswoman? How would I make it less dressy without losing its elegance?” Inspiration comes from everywhere, you just have to be tuned in and willing to accept it.
GT: So, what’s your inspiration telling you about the future of your business? What is your dream scenario?
KM: My dream scenario is very elaborate! I hope you are ready for it. So first, I want to continue building my ready-to-wear line; we will sell them online as well as at our Village Market store. But I also want to achieve more with our bespoke line and elevate it into a luxury fashion service. In essence, the success of my bespoke line would look like this: Ana comes to me and says, “I want to create a completely new wardrobe, and I am prepared to invest KE100,000 over the next 6 months into this fashion makeover project.” I already have a few clients, who’ve done something like this. I think such service would include not just creating a capsule collection for the client but also offering them styling tips, advice on accessories, etc. The way I think about clothes – once a woman reaches 30, dressing should now not be a headache; it should be fun and it should be easy. You go for a dinner, or for a trip – you know exactly which pieces to pull from your wardrobe. Through my bespoke service, I would understand my clients’ personalities, their lifestyle, and their calendar – and offer them the most value for their investment.
GT: And that’s how you will acquire clients for life!
KM: Exactly! I really want to help my clients avoid wardrobe emergencies; when I receive panic calls or WhatsApp messages at 10pm on a Wednesday. The client has been invited to a wedding, and then there is a lot of running around and calling friends, designers, tailors, trying to figure out what they will wear on Saturdays. No, we do not need this headache. If you have an organized wardrobe, you know that you have this gown or this dress tailored for you for a special occasion. We got you ready, we made dressing easy and fun for you.
GT: This is a fantastic idea. It’s sort of a mix of styling and production.
KM: It is. And we’ve already signed 2 clients this year.
GT: Congratulations! This is exciting! It’s how it used to be in the olden days, when you would go to the same tailor from the day you born to the day you die – they consult you on what to wear to a school event, to a parent-teacher meeting, to a wedding, to an anniversary dinner.
KM: Right, this is what I am hoping for – I lifelong relationships with my clients through a luxury bespoke service.
GT: I am sure there will be a great demand for such services! Best of luck!
KM: Thank you!