Glitter Trotter: I have to say, I was really surprised to find a company that makes kikoy dress suits. I was also really surprised to see that it works – that you can make a proper suit of this fabric that we typically associate with loungewear, that the suit would hold the test of time and wear, and that it would look appropriate in various settings from boardroom-business to business-casual. I really like my suit. Thank you for making it!
Lyosi Mwedekeli: Thank you for trusting us to make one.
GT: Now tell, me – how did you come up with the idea of kikoy office wear, if I may?
LM: I come from a mixed background – part of my family are Kenyans and part are Nigerians; so those are already two different and very colorful cultures. In addition, I was raised and lived part of my life in London, the city, which is notorious of its own style, reserved but also very expressive in its own way. This mix proved an interesting challenge, when I started thinking of my own style, and learning about my fashion needs. You see, whenever we would have large family gatherings, I would feel a bit out of place– colorful patterns typical for Nigerian attire did not align well with my reserved British upbringing; at the same time, I was missing some of the colorful liveliness, when wearing a typical British attire. If only there were a neutral fabric, with just a touch of color to keep my style fresh yet respectable! I guess i was looking for the African touch.
GT: It’s a huge leap from recognizing that your fashion needs are not met to launching a fashion brand!
Glitter Trotter wearing Afropoa suit
LM: Yes, it’s been a journey for me. The first thing I realized very quickly was that I did not want to have a made-to-order type of a shop; those are already plenty and it’s difficult to sustain such companies. I was thinking of a small-scale production of my collections with the right manufacturing partner. Kenya has these magnificent mega establishments, which are the big players in the garment industry – those are kind of micro-cities with thousands of workers and millions of garments produced. But guess what, they are not able to cater to the demand of the local designers.
GT: Why not?
LM: It all comes down to quality, quantity and the price. You see, a lot of contracts for large-scale production come from the government and maybe security firms, so mostly standard uniforms, which do not require high quality weave. The fabric many of the big factories produce cannot compete with the fabric and garments made in France or the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Kenya, and Kenyan designers still need to invest in technology if we want to become a going concern in the global fashion market. As a designer, I cannot afford to lose any of my clients – I need them to come back, and to come back not to complain that the pants shrank or the color bled, but to buy more from me because they are happy with their purchases I was looking for the manufacturers, whose fabric would excite people like me and – in addition to my designs – would enable the longevity and sustainability of my brand. In my search, I went as far as Zanzibar – and that’s where I first found the fabric with the “excitement factor”! It was simple striped kikoy, but the mix of colors was amazing – it felt like summer time!
GT: What do you mean?
LM: The fabric had that wonderful beach vibe, the African vibe that I would want to wear if I were still living in Europe and was going on a beach vacation. I was stunned by the beauty of the fabric and the way it made me feel.
Afropoa runway show (image courtesy Lyosi Mwendekeli)
GT: So, how many tons was your first order?
LM: Ha! There is another story there. I did not buy any fabric then and there. Instead, I returned to Nairobi to see if it was even feasible to bring the fabric from Zanzibar to Nairobi and what it would take to be delivered by bus. Remember, it had to be a viable business! it worked! I ordered my fabric, I got it delivered, and I made my first samples.
GT: A happy ending?
LM: Not yet. I realized that my cotton, my kikoy, was grainy – it was not smooth. And it also did not keep the structure of the garment, e.g., the pants would get very baggy after only two washes. It was too soft – great for pajamas and beach wear, but not good for the clothing line I had in mind. I wanted dress pants and dress suits – professional attire that a young Kenyan like me can proudly wear to a business meeting or African party, in Kenya and anywhere else. I did not see the value in starting a brand to produce more pajama pants, I wanted the summertime vibe mixed with an office dress code that would signal, “This is made in Kenya!”
GT: That’s a tall order. What happened next?
LM: I continued looking for the right fabric until I came across a factory called Alphaknit, who were making kikoy fabric aligned to my standards. And even better, they were not just making cotton – they were making mercerised cotton, which had a different type of both the weave and the stain. There is a special chemical process in which the cotton is bound to the color. As a result, the color does not bleed, and you also can experiment with color, for example, get a two-tone finish so that the garment shimmers different colors in a different light and from different angles. Garments made of this cotton look very “rich.” On top of that, the life cycle, or the usability of the fabric is very good – your trousers or jackets will not shrink or reap. The quality of the Alphaknit fabric was wild! I went ahead and made countless pieces of clothes from it – all the designs I had in my computer. It was great! That’s how I ended December 2018 – making my first pieces of clothes from the fabric that kept me excited.
Afropoa runway show (image courtesy Lyosi Mwendekeli)
GT: Where did you present your first collection?
LM: That’s a whole new story. So, imagine – I had been working on my clothes for about a year. And then I realized that I had a pile of suitcases at home filled with the garments that I made that no one ever worn.
LM: Exactly! I said to myself, “It cannot continue like this. I need people to start wearing my clothes, so I can see how I am doing in terms of design.” And then out of the blue, one of my friends called me and said, “We need you to help us with a live-stream for a fashion show in Sankara Hotel.” You might not know that but aside from my fashion company, I also have a visual-arts & media company. My friend Binti Afrika knew that and she reached out. And then he said, “Too bad one of our designers pulled out, and we do not have time to fill in the space.”
GT: How fortunate for you!
LM: Yes! So, I was like, “Wow! My main business & passion is actually making clothes!” My friend asked me if I could dress 12 models, and I had no idea – I just knew that I had several suitcases full of clothes and I wanted those clothes to be worn by somebody. It was really scary, because most people have months to prepare for their runways, and I saw my models for the first time 1 day before the show – at the final rehearsal. But it worked – there were 6 men and 6 women, and by the end of the day every single one of them had two different outfits!
GT: Amazing! And how was the main event?
LM: It went really well. I did the live-stream and also a virtual-reality style 360-degree recording, which is available online on my website (afropoa.com/XR); this was my Autumn-Winter 2019 collection. You do need a virtual-reality headset to see it in 3D. But I am working on a cheap headset that will be accessible by a broader range of people because this is the way I want to run my business –I want my clients to be able to choose, how they experience shopping. For example, they can say, “Now, I want to watch the runway show.” They click, and the show starts; they turn their head sideways in the virtual-reality headset and see different views of the garment, or select different options on the menu. I want my clients to experience the richness of real life, when they shop with me online, not just the 2-dimensional photo. All in all, the Fashion Show experience was really significant for me as a designer. I knew that my clothes were wearable. I was using Kenyan fabric, while other designers used imported fabric. Unlike some other designers, I presented a collection that was very real, very practical. I felt I was on the right path. I just needed to find a way to scale up my business, so I could stop producing one-of-a-kind pieces and move to manufacturing my collections. One obvious challenge we have in African fashion – there are very few brands that scale up. We naturally lean towards custom-made production, including because we want our customers to feel they are wearing one-of-a-kind garments. Customer-made production requires a lot of energy; why can’t we direct that energy into producing multiple pieces of clothes, so that we also become financially independent as designers?
GT: What do you think are the main barriers to achieving that?
LM: I think our industry is not yet set up for that. Let me explain. First, since we in Kenya are mostly doing made-to-measure garments, it’s a bit of a challenge to find a sample-maker, who can produce a garment in a standard size – let’s say, UK 10 or US 4. I was very happy to learn about the Export Processing Zone (EPZ), because their people were trained to produce clothes in standard sizes – they worked with H&M, Calvin Klein, Levi’s and such. However, at EPZ, there is a minimum number of garments that you have to order because otherwise it is not financially interesting to them. The minimum number is fine, because if a store at The Village Market would want to stock my collection, they would also request a minimum number of garments. The challenge is – how do you fund the production of this minimum order? For example, a store requests 15 pairs of trousers. I have to buy the fabric from a supplier, produce a sample, and then manufacture 15 pairs in EPZ. A minimal cost of the production would be $25 – or a total of $375 – plus samples, etc. So, maybe $500 when all is said and done. This is just one product out of a line of 5 or 10, or 12. If there is no investor, who believes in you and is willing to back you up – how are you going to fund the production? Even if at each stage each of my suppliers gives me a discount – it’s still thousands of dollars.
GT: I think you nailed it. Based on my observations, funding – both to start and scale-up a business – is the biggest barrier for micro entrepreneurs.
LM: Agreed. So, I spent 2019- 2020 exploring various possibilities for manufacturing. I did not make many pieces, but I learned a lot, I also understood why so few brands in Africa tried mass production. I am happy knowing that it is possible to do in Kenya, and I do see a bright future for my brand. It’s now all about the funding and exposure. What is important here is that I do want my clothes to be affordable. I want people to come to the Africa Fashion Week London and walk out with an outfit. I remember all the times that I would go to international expo’s, simple trousers would be $150, which was way out of my price range. But if those trousers were $65, I would buy them. And if those trousers would be suitable for various occasions – from a casual get-together with friends to a formal meeting – I would buy more than one pair.
Afropoa runway show (image courtesy Lyosi Mwendekeli)
GT: Tell me, you always talk about trousers and suits. Are you thinking more male fashion for your brand in the future?
LM: Definitely not. I am interested in producing clothes for both men and women. But you know, men and women's suits are so different – even with such conservative fabric like kikoy. For example, on a man suit, I would put stripes on the cuffs – there is a whole history of naval attire that inspires those cuff stripes. Did i mention, my father was a ship navigator & captain? These stripes are very masculine and aggressive. On a female suit, I would put thin stripes straight down the arms for a sleek and slimming look. Colors are also very important: black suit with red stripes would be a tuxedo-style suite, while a navy suit with red stripes would be great for the office; other colors would be more casual chic. In fact, I cut men and women suits differently, as a result I can use leftover fabric from a man’s suit to make a woman’s suit or for shorts, masks, etc. So, producing both male and female attire is also very efficient because I barely have any fabric wasted.
GT: I am really impressed by your knowledge, and all the detailed explanations!
LM: Remember I told you how I could not find an outfit to wear to my family parties?
LM: I did not land on kikoy right away. I studied fabric and different aesthetics. I looked into Nigerian fashion, but it is mostly about patterns and lace. In Senegal, they have a very cool aesthetic, where the suits and shirts would have West-African cut, but the fabric would have no patterns and look more like French. There are also very conservative societies in Africa, who are not wearing very elaborate outfits. I had to study all of that for myself to understand what the fabric tells me, what would please me. All to design clothes that the factories are happy to make and people are happy to wear and then tell their families and friends outside Kenya about them. We are currently witnessing another wave of global migration– people from the UK are moving to Spain, people from New York are moving to Florida, people from the US and the UK are moving to Africa or Asia. I want to follow the movement and sell clothes that’s breathable and easy to wear in a tropical climate; but I also want my clothes to represent the diversity of Kenya and Kenyan lifestyle. I want to build a bridge between old and new, create familiarity, excitement, and the African spirit through my clothing line. I know that my current line is slightly outside Kenyan consumers’ comfort zone; my client base is still abroad. But we can revitalize the textile and fashion industries in Kenya if we are catering to the younger generation, who are interested in experimenting with their outfits.
GT: So, is this the future for your brand – the revival of the Kenyan industries as well as the introduction of the African spirit and the cool African vibe far beyond the borders of Kenya, or Africa for that matter?
LM: My big aspiration is to make an impact on the Kenyan economy and on the global fashion and style scene. Currently, our economy is not doing as well as it could have because we are importing a lot of things. But we have a lot to offer to the global markets, including in terms of fashion; there is a lot of talent in this country. I am dreaming of having a proper designer collective, where different designers can work together to produce something that’s authentically African but can be sold all over the world, and can help raise the profile of Kenya as a fashion destination. I think the key is in adopting a youth perspective, making clothes that appeal to young people because young people are innovative, mobile, open to new ideas and experiments. This youth-centric perspective would naturally lend itself to a different type of marketing and communication approach. We would have to rely on high-quality video, social media and social media influencers, and so on. Yet, I would still want to find new ways of doing that because I do not want expensive marketing campaigns to affect the price I charge for my clothes. So far, I have been able to avoid paying for marketing and promotion – all of it is organic word-of-mouth; and most just happened because somebody wanted to come and interview me or post on their Instagram about my clothes. Next year, I will have to be more strategic about communicating to potential clients about my brand. In terms of design, I am thinking about summer wear. I planned to do a summer wear collection in 2020, but COVID-19 forced me to slow down. By this time next year, I would like a lot of people wearing you know, a Kenyan-inspired summer wear. And next, I would like people to start wearing Kenya-inspired winter wear, e.g., sweatshirts and hoodies. I know, it is a dream for now, but it is not unrealistic. We buy popular brands like Moncler because we see celebrities wearing their clothes. The formula is not difficult and it can be applied to making a Kenyan brand recognized globally as well. Once I start selling my clothes outside Kenya at scale, I can also start communicating with factories outside of Kenya learning about best practices that can help me create that economic impact I told you about – and try to revive the textile and fashion industries in Kenya. It’s all connected.
GT: I can see that you put a lot of thought into this strategy, and it feels very achievable! I can’t wait to attend Afropoa fashion show at African Fashion Week London! I will be definitely sporting my Afropoa suit.