Photo courtesy Priya Shah
Glitter Trotter: Thank you for meeting with me, Priya! I have been following your brand on Instagram for a while, and I am happy I can learn more about your business directly from you! It feels like your businesses has been part of the Kenyan fashion scene for quite a while, although I might be wrong. Tell me, when and how did you start your work in fashion? What about your business?
Priya Shah: Well, I am a textile artist by training, so art and fabrics have always been a big part of my life. I love drawing, I love designing, and I love textiles. I’ve been trying to find a niche, a business that would allow me to bring those together. I was looking for ways to showcase my artwork in textiles, and I thought, scarfs are the easiest way to get started. Scarfs are easy, but they are also very versatile. You can wrap them around the neck, you can put them over your shoulder, you can wrap them over your top or skirt. They are so much fun! So, I thought with scarves, I can put my artwork onto fabric; I can play with designs to find the best ways to highlight the artistic elements. And I said to myself, “Let’s try it and see what happens.” That’s how we started off with Mia Kora – and then expanded into all sorts of other things.
GT: When did you start?
PS: About 8 years now... It was 2013, and I was pregnant with my second child.
GT: I knew you were in business almost forever! But pregnant, and with a child on your hands? How old was your first child at the time?
PS: A year and a half. And you know, I had my doubts. I kept asking myself, “Is now really the right time to be doing this?” Starting something new is never easy; it takes time and effort. It might also require some travel, meeting new people, learning new things... I would lie If I said starting Mia Kora was not intimidating at the beginning. But then I thought of my life, just being at home – I couldn’t sit around anymore. I loved being a mom, but I also had to do something for myself – and I accepted that it was the right time to start. And that’s how Mia Kora was born.
GT: And why Kenya?
PS: I was born in Kenya, and all creative influences, my inspiration, my passions – all come from Kenya.
GT: Out of curiosity, what is your favorite place in Kenya?
PS: I love spending time in the wild. And when I say that, I am not talking about your typical “Kenyan safari” experience. I am talking about places off the beaten track, where you can still find nature and animals untamed and untainted by their interaction with us, humans. That’s where I am most comfortable, and also happiest.
GT: That made me more curious, not less. Can you tell me of some of the most exciting or most memorable places?
PS: To be honest, there are quite a few such places just because I like different types of experiences. Lentorre Lodge is probably my favorite spot. I try to avoid big hotels, and look for places that offer personalized experiences, the closer to the nature, the better. I want to see Kenya at its wildest.
GT: Talking of Mia Kora, I’ve seen that you have a line that features your own artworks, but also another line featuring works of other Kenyan artists.
PS: That's right. So, here is how it works. Every year, we pick a theme and then we pick local artists, whose works fit the selected theme. Sometimes, we approach the artists and invite them to collaborate; sometimes, the artists approach us. We select several works from each artist, and then organize a physical exhibition to showcase all the works selected under our theme of the year. After the exhibition, we put selected artworks on the scarfs. We call this project “Frame it or Wear it”, and our goal is to find new ways for people to experience art, to see and feel it in a different way.
GT: It’s a beautiful project! Do you select new artists every year?
PS: It all depends – on the artist, on the themes. Some artists stay with us for a while, others come and go.
GT: What was the theme last year?
PS: Last year, we did not do our project because of COVID-19. But we did pick a theme for this year – “A walk on the wild side”. Fingers crossed, we will be able to do the exhibition this year. We have already selected a group of artists and photographers, who work on this theme, which is all about being grounded, being tuned in to the nature in its purest form. For example, when you look around, you see leaves, flowers, animals, etc. We want to look beyond the surface and bring out the finer details in them. That’s what the theme is about – the finer details, which people often miss but which make up the things around us.
GT: This is a very interesting idea. And I think it fits well with the post-COVID-19 reality – as the world is slowing down, people are starting to pay attention to those finer details.
PS: You are right! So, one of the pieces for our theme is about the monstera plant, which I really love. I love the shape of that leaf because it is big and bold but also very simple. And then, you look at the veins of that leaf – they are like finger prints, unique and different. Those “natural fingerprints” inspired our last collection.
GT: How do you come up with the annual theme?
PS: Well, we are a collaboration of three women-led companies – Mia Kora, ShikhaZuri, and Ahnasa Luxury. We usually have a few themes, we are thinking about. Then we just get together and agree on which theme fits the best the events happening that year, the overall social and artistic landscapes. Part of the decision, of course, is about the causes we chose to support in a given year.
We actually do a lot together as a sort of an artistic alliance. Ahnasa provides us with the travel experience, while Shikha and I bring it to life through art – but in our own very different ways. And then all three of us challenge our clients to step out of their comfort zone, to see more, to experience more, to feel more. And that’s all we want to do – inspire people to get out of their comfort zone.
Photo courtesy Priya Shah
GT: You mentioned that your themes are related to the causes you are supporting through your work. Can you tell me more about that?
PS: Most definitely! From the onset of our collaboration, we agreed that if we want to find inspiration in nature, we need to support nature – to give back in any way we can. We believe that it is really important to look after our ecosystem.
Wildlife charities are on the top of our list. We have worked with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants – the money we raised from the first couple of exhibitions went to them. At some point, I would like to go back and see what is going on there now, to see the progress and our contribution to it. We also did fundraising for Ol Pejeta; their cause definitely struck a chord with us. Just imagine, they are striving to prevent the species from becoming extinct, and those species are endangered because of us, this is our fault. Right. So, wildlife charities are something all three of us are really passionate about. But we also believe that it is important to support communities that are linked to these charities and these areas because caring for the environment can only happen if we work together with the communities immediately connected to this environment.
GT: How do you support the communities?
PS: We visit them, try to understand their challenges, and look for ways to address these challenges. For example, in several communities women are trying to gain financial independence by doing tailoring jobs – for their communities and for external clients. We can help them by buying sewing machines, or sewing supplies. We are just starting of, and our resources are limited, but we can still make a difference. We are currently working on a project in Masaai Mara, which is not public yet. But I can tell you, it is very rewarding to see that our contribution goes a long way.
GT: If I understand you correctly, you find groups, that already exist in the communities, and help them do more, i.e., boost their reach and effectiveness.
PS: Yes, that’s it. We always visit these groups ourselves to have a first-hand experience with people and their challenges. We make sure the need is genuine; and then we donate – but not money, rather we give tools and materials. This way, we can ensure that 100% of our donated funds are used to address the cause we are passionate about.
GT: I really like this approach.
PS: Thank you!
GT: Is wildlife the only cause you are passionate about?
PS: No, I explore other ways of contributing to the community as well. For example, I recently worked with a charity group in Kakuma refugee camp, mostly with the refugee girls there. I organized an art workshop to get the girls drawing, to see what they can do. I wanted to show them how art can be brought to life and possibly, translated into a business opportunity. The girls drew for us; and we made a few scarfs based on their drawings.
I returned to the camp a few months after the workshop and brought the scarfs with me, and said, “Look, this is your work!” You should have seen the looks on their faces! We all burst into tears, because this project gave them hope that they were capable of achieving more, of being as good as the next person.
Photo courtesy Priya Shah
GT: Is this when you created that map of African fabrics?
PS: Yes, that’s right! And the girls were what inspired me. Those girls were all from different countries – Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda... What brought us together at that workshop was our love for art, textiles, and patterns. So, I wanted to explore some more different African fabrics, their origins, differences and commonalities. And as I was doing that, the pandemic happened, which resulted in me having more time to do my research.
Basically, I was hoping to launch an African collection next year. We work a couple of years in advance because each theme requires at least some research and preparations. So, I started my research on African prints, similar to the research of Indian prints I did earlier – looking at designs and patterns, not just the fabric and colors. And I saw a lot of similarities between African prints and Indian prints – there were a lot of cross- cultural reference that stood out for me. And it just got me wondering if I should dig more into various influences in African prints – for example, you can see Indonesian influence, Dutch influence, Indian influence, Arabic influence, and some others.
Originally, I created the map for myself – just to see how it would look like. But then I also decided to show it to the girls in Kakuma to help them see how we are all connected to each other. They were all from completely different places; and these differences caused loneliness and isolation. But the map was a very visual way of showing them that art goes beyond boundaries, politics, or even culture. Art unifies us, because we can see how all of us are contributing something and connect through our contributions.
GT: This is a beautiful story! Now going back to your business, can you tell me a little bit about your production cycle?
PS: We produce our scarfs in India. There is a particular manufacturer with whom I’ve been collaborating for almost 8 years. I understand their process; they understand what we are trying to do. It works well for everybody. Besides, the range of textiles you get in India is unbeatable! This manufacturer offers us everything we need from high quality materials to a wide range of fabrics. And over the years, we’ve developed really strong trusting relationships.
GT: Do you think you can move production to Kenya at some point? Get the same range of textiles and same level of quality?
PS: I want to say yes, but I know it’s going to be hard. We do produce some fabric in Kenya, mostly cotton. And nothing is stopping Kenya from expanding into this type of manufacturing, lets see what happens.
GT: I see. And what about your clientele? Are they mostly local, mostly international, Kenyans, expatriates?
PS: You know, you are not the first person, who asked me this question. In full honesty, it is hard to say, who are in our core audience, because we have such a mix of people! And they are all attracted by different things – some come for art, others want to support our wildlife causes, yet others just want a cool scarf. We do have both Kenyan and international clients, but neither group is a dominant one.
Photo courtesy Priya Shah
GT: And do you find local, Kenyan clients being different from the international buyers?
PS: Yes, definitely! They are very different in terms of their choice of colors and the themes they are attracted by. I feel that our local clients are more of “vibrant” -- they love the colors, they are not scared to explore new things. Our international clients are a little bit more traditional, and their choices are “safer”, when it comes to colors. And it makes sense to me because when I am abroad, I also tend to wear subdued colors. But when I am in Kenya, I tend to choose brighter, bolder outfits. I think the fashion environment, so to say, plays a role in our fashion choices.
GT: Now that you mentioned it, I think I do the same – I dress in brighter colors when I am in Africa compared to when I travel abroad.
GT: Where do you want to take your brand next? You already have a very interesting and rich portfolio with art, fashion, and even travel. Your brand is present on several continents. What is in the future for Mia Kora?
PS: I am afraid I only have a vague answer for you – I will go wherever the future takes me. So far, my journey has been quite surprising and in a very good way. I never planned to be where I am now. Eight years ago, I wanted to start a business just to put my own art onto scarfs. Sure, I hoped one day we might have a store, a proper retail outlet. But my business took me in the direction of travel, discovery, and wildlife conservation. And it turned out that people are more attracted to our product because they love our cause, they love what we are doing with their money. As a result, we do not just put art on scarfs, we create an inspiring product, which has a powerful meaning to it.
I think going forward, I would want to take the route of exploration and conservation. I believe we are doing well in terms of retail, but I think we can do more in terms of educating communities and our clients globally about wildlife and Kenya’s conservancy efforts. At the same time, I’ve been getting a lot of calls inviting me to teach about the importance of art in mental health, the art therapy of sorts. I did not really think about the issues of mental health when we started. But now, I want to explore it further, see where I can contribute. I believe our business has two sides to it – there is the “earning” part, our bread and butter. But at the same time, there is an opportunity to contribute to the society, to make a difference, to start a movement for change. I want to explore both sides, to see where the business will take me.
We are now living in a very different post-pandemic world. I do not think it is even possible to plan as we used to – for 3-5 years ahead. But my Mia Kora journey has not been what I expected it to be anyways; it is full of beautiful surprises. And I think if I just let things fall into place, let it happen, and just keep moving forward, this journey would continue to amaze me.
GT: And you will continue to amaze your clients and friends with new collections, new projects, and new mindful discoveries. I am excited to see what comes next!
PS: Me too!