Glitter Trotter: Zoe, after a couple of years wearing your jewelry and several photo shoots featuring it, it’s definitely very nice to meet you in person and talk about your journey as a designer and as a person. But first, tell me, how did you happen to find home in Kenya?
Zoe Sevak: Well, it’s all about love. We go, where love leads us, right? I am Greek, and for me family and love are really important. At the end of the day, that’s all we strive for.
GT: Were you a fashion designer in Greece as well?
ZS: Oh, no! I was very far from the creative world! I am a lawyer by profession; I also have an MBA in Organizational Development. This is what I was trained to do, and this is what I thought I would be doing in life. Yet, about 3 years ago I started my fashion business. You can plan all you want, but sometimes life offers you opportunities, and if you are courageous enough – you might find that your true calling is different from what you always thought it was.
GT: So, what happened three years ago that prompted you to start your fashion line?
ZS: Well, it was a bit random. I just wanted a necklace for myself, that would have elements of both cultures I identify with – Greek and Kenyan. I was thinking of a necklace inspired by the Greek knots, but made from Kenyan fabric – kitenge. The challenge was, I wanted a wearable, elegant piece of jewelry – yet, most kitenge fabric is rather bold and loud. So, I had to find the right fabric, and the right look – to not lose the authenticity of Kenyan culture but show it in a slightly different way, as an element of a very elegant and chic look.
That’s how my very first necklace – Zoe, named after me – came to life. I found a local artisan, described my idea to her, and we came up with this tube-design that holds the shape, but is flexible enough for me to make different types of knots that you can see in my jewelry. Kenyans are really creative – the lady, who worked on the very first necklace, created a piece that was much better than how I imagined it. And that’s how it all started – from that Zoe necklace.
GT: Tell me, why from all the richness of the Greek culture, you picked knots?
ZS: That’s a good question. Knots are very symbolic to me. Knots represent a bond, a strong connection to somebody or something, a memory or a place. It’s your connection to the world and other people. But it’s not just any connection – it’s a lasting and durable one. So, knots to me mean connection and duration – in life, in relationships, in love...
GT: Are there other elements of the Greek culture that you bring into your designs?
ZS: To be honest with you, it’s hard to separate some Greek elements from Kenyan elements. Greece is mostly known for its sun, sea, and beautiful beaches. But so is Kenya. But this is an interesting challenge. You know, I might just design something in white and blue – the symbolic colors of Greece. Thank you for the idea!
GT: Any time! But as far as I know, knot jewelry is not the only thing your brand is known for. You have a line of dresses as well. How did you make that leap – from necklaces to now full outfits completed with clutches and baskets?
ZS: You are right, expanding a product range is never an easy and straightforward process. But I was somewhat “forced” to do it, when I received an invitation in 2018 to be part of the biggest fashion event in Kenya – the Fashion High Tea, at Zen Garden, in March 2018.
GT: So, this is only about 4-5 months after you introduced your Zoe necklace.
ZS: Exactly! I had only 4 months to create a whole line of jewelry and clothing to showcase at the Fashion High Tea. It was quite stressful, believe me. As a designer, you have to be on top of everything – suppliers, quality of fabric, quality of patterns, stitching, models, final look, everything. I think, quality control is a critical point in every industry, but fashion in particular. I am in the business of making people look and feel good. It is my name on the label, and I have to be proud of what I am showcasing to the world.
GT: So true!
ZS: But there is another aspect to my business that is also important. My goal is to provide employment to Kenyan women, local tailors and artisans. They might not have the right equipment to make everything look perfect, and occasionally they have to stitch by hand. So, no – not everything looks perfect. But the important part is, we are learning together with the group of our tailors how to make things look better – all while they are earning good living. It is incredibly important to me to be able to say that Zoe Sevak is a sustainable business that contributes to the local community by creating jobs.
But I am deviating! Let me answer your question on how I went from making necklaces to making dresses. The idea was really very simple – I wanted the models to be wearing Zoe Sevak head-to-toe, when they were walking the runway at the Fashion High Tea show. And head-to-toe looks meant not just jewelry and dresses but also bags – my clutches, tote bags and kikapus (baskets).
ZS: No, not yet! We will probably get there one day, but gradually – one step at a time. I learned in my MBA course, that when you introduce several new products to your line simultaneously – you are more likely to fail, because you have to train several groups of people on very different skills, supervise and mentor, offer feedback and quality control and penetrate the market. And in terms of management of Zoe Sevak, I am still a “one-man” band. However, differentiation of the products is a competitive advantage and we are trying to maintain this strategy.
One important thing about my business – it started as a hobby, and it grew to being a proper business that creates employment, which I am very proud of. I love my company and enjoy working on it and growing it. But I do not want it to completely take over my life to the point where I would say, “I am tired and I do not want it anymore because I no longer have time for my family and friends.”
GT: Definitely, when it becomes a 100-hours-a-week type of a job, that stress sucks out the fun of having a creative business.
ZS: Exactly! So far, I am doing well in terms of balancing my work and my personal life. But this means being very clear about what we can do and when. Hence, the looks I created for the Fashion High Tea in 2018 included jewelry, dresses and bags. I actually did like the outcome – my signature necklaces, clutches and shirt-dresses. I wanted people to recognize them. Many designers in Kenya and in Africa make kitenge dresses, but my signature dress stands out because of the classic fit and the choice of fabric – this is an easy-style shirt dress with a belt, the fabric is also very elegant and subtle.
GT: Do you choose the fabric for your dresses yourself?
ZS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I do not have to go to the market myself – I work with local suppliers and explain to them exactly what I want. Then they find the right patterns and colors I can include in my collection. And my dresses are very simplistic in terms of the cut and fit.
GT: I would say they are simple, but not simplistic. They are very elegant.
ZS: Ok, you can say that. But what I actually meant was, sometimes designers use a print that is just too intricate or busy and loud or a fit that’s just too detailed – and the garment loses its charm, it no longer looks elegant. Simplicity is often synonymous with elegance.
So, my idea was very simple – I do not even have buttons on my dresses. And I have two types of collar – Indian or a classic polo. You can dress this dress up or down, you can create your own chic looks. It’s a dress that looks good with flats and heels. It’s very versatile.
GT: I am glad to hear your dresses do not have buttons. Aside from simplicity, I heard buttons are one of the worst pollutants created by the fashion industry.
ZS: That’s true. That’s why we are trying to eliminate plastic from the production. My products are not just authentic to Kenya and Africa, they are also ethically produced.
But back to dresses – I have another dress that has become my signature style. It’s a one-shoulder ruffle dress. It is also a very classic look, but a bit more feminine, glamorous, and flirty. Once I saw how popular the dress has become, I also started making one-shoulder flirty tops. Finally, I do have sets – pants and crop-tops – as part of the line that goes back to the Tribal Chic Fashion show in December 2018, another important fashion event in Kenya. Without doubt, it was another great experience. This time I did know what to expect, and I was more prepared. So, it was fun, although still very stressful – especially the backstage! So chaotic! You have to be very fast and very creative behind the scenes, making sure each look stands out without disrupting the coherence of the collection.
GT: Would you do it again?
ZS: Yes, I would. I’ve learned a lot in those two shows. The main thing was, they showed me that once you believe in your product and you are proud of it, everything else will come naturally. I believe in my products, I love them, I wear them every day. This is how it all starts – as a designer, you are the first one to present your products to the public and make them feel confident that your product is worth their time, their attention, and their money.
Once you believe in your product, you are halfway there. The preparations for the fashion show are surely grueling – choosing models, choosing products, creating the looks, and so on. But the show is the reward – you have to just take it all in and enjoy the ride. It goes by very quickly – each collection is over in a matter of minutes. But the preparation for each is several months.
GT: Did you create a new collection for the Tribal Chic show?
ZS: Yes, of course! As a fun fact, everything I make is limited edition. But as a designer, I can tell you that fashion shows are important to create visibility for your brand, yet in most cases the designs that keep your business running, your best sellers, are not the same that you showcase on the runway. Our best sellers are everyday styles, wearable and mixable pieces – shirt dresses, tops you can mix and match, unique and elegant jewelry, and kikapus of course. So, my advice to designers, who are just starting their journey, would be to think of both – memorable collections for fashion shows but also everyday lines that create cash-flow for the business.
GT: You mentioned that there might be more fashion shows for Zoe Sevak in the future and possibly in Europe. But what else are you dreaming about? I know that you said you want to keep it low-stress, enjoyable...
ZS: Yes, I want the business to remain a happy, fun part of my life. But don’t get me wrong – this does not necessarily mean, I want to keep it small. You see, I look at the future of my business as my own choice. I like it now just the way it is. But if there is an opportunity coming my way – I will explore it and embrace it, why not?! I know that my products can be very successful in Europe and the USA, and I do visualize them at high-end boutiques – they will fit really well with a touch of ethnic chic and a whole lot of classic elegance. My brand is also sustainable, and it contributes to the livelihood of the communities that I work with. All of these factors are important for success. Zoe Sevak brand is just 3 years old. Perhaps,when the right time comes, I will explore London fashion week or any other show on a global scale. It’s all about finding the right channels, and the right opportunities.
The opportunities are definitely many, but I want to make sure I continue exposing Zoe Sevak as a brand, where you can get a whole outfit – just like with my fashion shows. Each opportunity is a consideration, right? You need to think about investing more time, more capital, finding/selecting more people to work with. Hence, I am taking it slow, just observing where it goes naturally. So, my main motto, when it comes to planning for the future is, “One step at a time”. You can do anything in Kenya and abroad – if you have the right talent working with you. But you cannot do everything without having to sacrifice something in your life – time for yourself, time with your loved ones, time to stop and enjoy the beauty of life. Life is beautiful, and we live to appreciate this beauty, not to rush it.
GT: Thank you very much for your time and for sharing the tips and your philosophy on life.
ZS: You are most welcome. And never forget – life is beautiful!