Glitter Trotter: Sahiba, you are one of the youngest creatives that I’ve ever talked to. It’s really wonderful to see a successful young entrepreneur! Have you always planned to be young own boss, i.e., to run your own business?
Sahiba Bamrah: Not really, the business kind of happened to me... Right after COVID-19 happened to all of us!
GT: Do tell!
SB: I am born and raised in Kenya; I am a third generation Kenyan. After I graduated from high school, I left for London to study psychology and music. After graduating college, I started working for music company in London. Things were going really well, I enjoyed my life and my work. I really thought that would be my life for a while.
GT: And then?
SB: And then I came home for a two-week break. And during those two weeks, the world had changed forever. So, I came to Kenya at the end of February 2020. By mid-March 2020, Kenya closed its border; the United Kingdom went into a lockdown; the whole world just stopped. And I was just stuck up the creek without a paddle thinking, “what am I going to do?” Everything I was building, my entire career suddenly got cut short.
GT: There is a big leap between “stuck up the creek without a paddle” and a thriving jewelry business in less than a year. How did you get to where you are? And how did you decide on a jewelry business?
SB: Well, I’ve always loved making jewelry. When I was young, I would pick broken pieces and fix them, or make something new. Once we found ourselves in a lockdown, I started doing the same – I had a lot of time on my hands, and was quite stressed about the future. Making things with my hands helped ease my mind and pass time.
One day, my friend and I were having a chat (and some drinks) on my rooftop, and she went, “Wow, this is a really pretty necklace! Where did you get it?” I told her I made it, and she said, “You should start a jewelry business.” I just laughed.
We met a few more times on that rooftop, talking about our future, trying to not stress about it. And then, I believe it was meeting number 3 or maybe four, when she said, “Sahiba! You should really start the business!” So, I asked hesitantly, “…Would you want to start it with me?”
GT: I am guessing, she said “yes”?
SB: She said “yes”, and that’s how the business really started. We did not really have a plan, but to be fair – nobody at the time had a plan. We were both in Nairobi, we both had time, we found ourselves in the midst of a global and existential crisis, which effectively destroyed all the plans I had for the foreseeable future. So, we decided to try this new idea and see it worked.
We found two silversmiths working from the coast and a young lady skilled in beading, and launched our first two collections. I made sample pieces, and we got started.
GT: You said you started with two collections. What were they?
SB: Our first collection was the Africa collection: a collection of beaded dainty necklaces and bracelets with a little Africa-shaped pendant. And in the second collection we used cowrie shells cast in silver for the pendants. Our startup capital comprised of our small savings, which bought us the initial batch of silver pendants. I took and edited the photos – I do most of our photography – and created an Instagram page through which we started making sales. We got our first sale the very first week after our launch, which was both exciting and crazy because I could not believe people were paying money for our little business idea.
GT: What a great story! And it took you what, 4 months to get to your first sale?
SB: Let me see... We started planning it in July; we bought the beads and pendants in August; and yes, we launched and started selling in September.
GT: Amazing! This is a really, really encouraging story for others, who are thinking of starting their own small businesses!
SB: And the best thing is, I believe that even if we planned it, it couldn’t have worked any better! It happened so organically because we had zero expectations and nothing to lose. We were very happy and very encouraged! And that’s what kept us going. Step by step, we continued making our jewelry and selling online – for the first 3 months, we only sold through Instagram. In December 2020, we took part in our first Bizarre Bazaar market at The Shamba in Loresho, and that event solidified our belief that there was a niche for us in the Kenyan market. There were people, who were looking for products like ours – sterling silver, a touch of culture, gentle jewelry pieces great for wearing alone and for layering – and who had found us through Instagram and came to see us in person from that.
GT: Interesting! I never thought of the Nairobi market as lacking jewelry.
SB: We are not just talking about any jewelry. I think one of our selling points is that our jewelry is made of sterling silver. There is a lot of brass jewelry in Kenya, which is beautiful and very affordable. There is also a lot of gold-plated jewelry. I love both – but I am also allergic to both and have very sensitive skin.
GT: So sorry!
SB: I got used to being selective, when buying jewelry. I would really want to wear the cool, chunky, statement pieces that Kenyan designers are famous for. But I had to go with sterling silver. And once you start talking precious metals like sterling silver and gold, you start talking higher prices. We figured that was our niche – affordable and classy sterling silver jewelry.
GT: You basically started your company to design and produce jewelry for yourself!
SB: Exactly! But isn’t that how many brands start – to address a particular need that one of the founders might have. That’s also how we work – I design things that I want to wear but cannot find locally, or even online. And our audience appear very receptive to our products and offers. I believe that when you are designing from a ‘place’ that is real, when you are wearing your own products, your audience associate your brand with authenticity and truthfulness -- they see that you are not doing something just for money, or just to keep yourself busy. People can really tell, when you stand by your brand, wear it, take pride in it. That’s when they believe in you and start investing in you.
GT: Very true! So, your company is making its first – and very successful – steps. What’s next? Any “unplanned” plans in the making?
SB: Well, we realized that there is a good market for our products, so, we want to explore this opportunity – solidify our team, expand our range of products, develop new retail relationships. For example, currently we order our pendants from the silversmiths, who are independent entrepreneurs; the lady, who does the beadwork is with us part-time. We would really love to have a small team of full-time employees, and to start creating financial stability for our team. But we are not just thinking about scaling, we want to do it responsibly, and consciously. I don’t like the term “sustainable” because there is no criterion for it. My view is that if I can’t directly control, the exact source of materials, for example the silver, my next goal is to make sure that our labour is fairtrade and everyone that works with us is compensated fairly for their work.
GT: How so?
SB: As a manufacturer, if you want to attempt to achieve true “sustainability”, you have to stop putting more things into the world. You have to stop creating and producing all together—but then how do you create income for yourself and employment for others? How do you start a business like ours or anything in the fashion-related world?
GT: That’s a big question. What’s the answer?
SB: I think the answer is in carefully picking your battles and making sure that you focus on what you can control. For example, earlier this year we launched a kimono line. I am wearing a kimono from our new line today.
GT: I like it a lot. It looks very comfortable.
SB: It really is. We worked on the design with a studio called Design Co-Lab here in Nairobi.
GT: I’ve heard about them.
SB: They are a wonderful group. I spent an intensive 4-day process designing the dress from top to bottom with one of the tailors – Erica – every curve, every button, the sleeve length, the way the dress draped to hug your figure. It is designed to be very comfortable and versatile – you can wear it in many ways: as a dress, as a kimono, as a cover-up – the possibilities are endless. But the fabric we are using is not a natural fabric like cotton or linen – and this was a conscious choice. If you want to wear this kimono a lot, take it on trips, wash it frequently – you would want the fabric to be durable and crease-resistant. It is often difficult for organic, natural fabrics to deliver this – they tear, crease, and bleed – which means that often you will wear them less and, maybe, buy more. With this particular kimono design, it had to be a very light, flowy fabric to do justice to the design and for that reason we chose a polyester-based fabric with different finishes: satin, silk and crepe.
Let’s say you own a pure silk shirt, think about the dry-cleaning process or the handwashing process that it requires to keep it in good shape – all these things add up when it comes to electricity and water usage, money spent at the drycleaners and the amount that you wear that piece because it is difficult to maintain. The amount of water to be used during production, and the carbon emission contribution related to transporting the fabrics and goods if you decide to import fabrics – “sustainability” is complicated and the word itself is not regulated in the fashion industry. Our solution is to focus on what we are able to control and to do it to the best of our abilities: (1) limiting waste by producing durable, versatile goods in small batches; and (2) creating stable income and employment.
GT: This is an interesting angle on sustainability. I feel I want to explore this topic some more in another interview with you and other Kenyan, or even African, designers.
SB: I am not really an expert, I am also just learning as I go. But I would be happy to learn together with others, especially since I do want to eventually transition to natural fabrics. For now, we are sticking with this kimono because you wear it as is, you wear it over your jeans, you wear it with a bikini, you throw it in your bag because it doesn't crease, you put it in a washing machine and it is not a pain to maintain. It’s hassle free and made for you to get the utmost wear out of it.
GT: I totally get the idea. I travel a lot, and I like traveling light so I do not have to deal with check-in luggage and all the problems associated with dragging a heavy bag around the globe. So, I am personally always looking for such versatile pieces that you can mix and match, that are easy to maintain, that are durable, but at the same time make me look good – on and off the road. At the same time, I am trying my best to reduce waste – or support other, who do it better than me. For example, two of my favorite companies in the US are producing clothes and shows from recycled plastic bottles. So here is the dilemma – you are technically still wearing plastic, right?
GT: But at the same time, it’s recycled plastic that’s removed from the global waste. Is it sustainable?
SB: I think that to ensure success of our joint efforts towards promoting a more sustainable future, we need to review and clarify what is and what is not considered sustainable – firstly, so we are all aligned on what types of products and activities we are pursuing. But secondly, so we can identify and address the so-called “green washing” – i.e., situations, where somebody is making a clearly unsustainable process look sustainable by using the right key words.
For me, creating durable, desirable and versatile pieces like our kimonos is a win in terms of the goal I had in mind and it fits the purpose it was created for, however I am always striving to improve my process and educate myself in the fashion industry because I am still very new to this space. Same for our jewelry – we want people to wear our pieces forever, so we are offering repairing, re-stringing, mending, etc. – all to extend the life of our jewelry.
GT: And let’s not forget creating employment as part of your contribution to sustainability. By the way, how do you find people that you would like to work with?
SB: In multiple ways. For example, I knew the silversmiths at the coast before we started the company because I bought pieces of jewelry for my personal collection. The lady, who does our beadwork, is an artisan we met at the Masaai Market. We are not looking for people with extremely rare skills, but we do want to work with people, who are honest, dedicated, and like what they do.
Before COVID-19, I used to go to the Masaai Market every week. People even started recognizing me. When COVID-19 happened, some were reaching out to me asking for work, for any type of assignments. So, when I started this company, in the back of my mind I was always thinking about those people –who we knew, who are good with their craft. People are a big part of our business – not only the clients, but those we can help improve their livelihoods.
GT: I love your philosophy. And I also love the name of your company, The Drunk Leopard. You already told me about the drunk part. Why leopard?
SB: It’s simple really – I just like leopard print. But also, we are in Kenya – the place where wildlife is as incredible as it is diverse. And as a company name, The Drunk Leopard is very accommodating – you can produce jewelry and clothes, with and without prints. You can do other things. It is also very memorable – at least that’s the feedback I've been receiving from our clients! My other goals for the future are find a way to use more natural fabrics, as I already mentioned; then maybe figure out how to make my own prints; and finally find local sources for all of our materials – while all our pieces are made in Kenya and the majority of our materials are sourced within Kenya, I am always looking for alternatives to outsourcing the smaller items that you can’t always find here.
GT: Are your current clients mostly Kenyans?
SB: Not really, we have a good mix of locals and foreigners; people of different ages. Our customers used to be predominantly women, but we are now getting requests from people to produce something more gender neutral. In fact, in response to these requests we recently launched a collection of jewelry made of waxed cords, which is less dainty and created to be worn by everyone. I honestly do not think we have a specific profile of a client, and if we have, it’s not very restrictive. I think Kenyans like our jewelry because it feels familiar by using Maasai beads but it is also unique because of the addition of dainty silver. Travelers wear our jewelry because it reminds them of their time here and it is a way for them to carry that memory in a tangible form. There is something for everybody. Even for me, I love our Africa map pieces – they remind me of how proud I am to be born and raised in Kenya.
GT: It must be hard parting with those pieces?
SB: It is! That’s why I always make one prototype of each piece for myself; this way, I do not have to ever give them away. Even with the kimonos – there is one of each print that’s mine.
GT: Talking about kimonos, any plans for creating new clothes lines?
SB: I am not sure we want to venture into the clothing industry just yet. We have our signature piece for now and I still have a lot to learn. But as I said, it would be really interesting to experiment with custom prints and natural fabrics.
GT: You have so many plans for the future. So, I gather that even with COVID-19 fading away, you will be still going strong with The Drunk Leopard.
SB: Of course! Listen, all of the plans I had for the future literally went out of the window in March 2020. I was left with a lot of uncertainty – losing your job and income was a really scary thing and I was freaking out and slipping into a despair as the world changed around us. And look at me now! I love what I am doing, and I feel more stable and content than I could have ever imagined during a time like this.
Is this my lifelong plan? Am I going to be the Leopard lady forever? I don’t know. Life has a funny way of guiding you in the right direction. For now, I am very grateful to be where I am; I am learning and earning, and I am very passionate about what we’ve managed to create. This business and these times have given me a new perspective on the old value -- on what it means to have a “good life” and a “stable career” in this new world. I am in a really good place right now.
GT: I am really and truly happy for you, and with you nothing but more passion as you are learning and earning!
SB: Thank you!