Glitter Trotter: Namunyak, it’s really nice to finally meet you in person! We’ve been planning this interview for a while, haven’t we!
Namunyak Wanjiru: Indeed! I am glad we are finally here.
GT: Me too, can’t wait to hear your story! But first, what does Dhana Vito stand for?
NW: It is really a made-up phrase. I took several words in Swahili and played with them until I got the phase I liked, “vitu za dhamani”, which means “fancy things” or “things with a lot of value”. And then I shortened it to “Dhana Vito”. The phrase still carries the essence of the brand, but now it’s more subtle and mysterious.
GT: You are right about the mysterious part. I would never have guessed it was Swahili. For a while I believed the name means something in Italian.
NW: And you are not alone, trust me. Many people asked me before what my brand name meant in Italian. I guess it’s because of the “vito” part.
GT: Well, now that we’ve clarified the origins of the name, tell me about the origins of your company.
NW: Dhana Vito is still a relatively young brand. I started it when I was still at the University, just a few years ago. And I guess like for many other designers, at first it was just a hobby. I was doing a number of pieces using beadwork.
GT: I see.
NW: After graduating from the University, I started looking for a job, but it just wasn’t going great for me. So, I kept on with my beadwork, and then gradually learned how to work with different metals – first copper, then brass. And brass really resonated with me because it’s the easiest metal to work with and at the same time it’s very durable. That’s about all in terms of my story.
GT: Oh, no! I am sure there is more to it! Let’s rewind a bit. Where did you go to college?
NW: I went to the University of Nairobi to study Product Design.
GT: Was jewelry-making your specialty?
NW: Part of it. I learned how to do jewelry, leather work, pottery, and sculpture.
GT: So, you did plan to work in art and design, when you enrolled?
NW: Oh, yes, most definitely! I knew for sure that my work would have something to do with design. I grew up surrounded by art. There were always Masaai artefacts, bracelets, drawings or sculptures -- a very artistic environment. Also, my parents had a friend, who was an artist. He was always drawing, doing photography and sculpture. He used to come over to our house a lot, and he taught me about sculpture. I also used to draw a lot as a child, and he would guide me. My dad was also very artistic, although he did not make a career out of it.
Growing up at that time, we were all expected to become lawyers or doctors. And seeing my grades were just average, I knew I was not cut out for that. But I knew I was going to be in the art business somehow. I just never thought I was going to start something -- a company -- of my own. I always thought I would be working for somebody, learning on the job... But the whole search for the job got me really stressed out. Every time I would open a laptop to apply for jobs, I would feel a lot of anxiety.
GT: Sorry! Sounds awful!
NW: It was. I am sure you are familiar with the process – you apply for a job, you wait, you go for an interview, you wait, they talk to you, you wait again, they never get back to you, repeat... The job application process always feels like a beg. As the person applying, you are at someone’s mercy, and that rejection process can be disheartening. And then the salaries?! They are even more discouraging. It did not feel right to me, so I just decided to do my own thing.
GT: And did you find opening and running a business less stressful?
NW: To be completely honest – no. But I knew that I was creating something of my own. The thought of creating my own legacy helped me persevere then, and continues helping me now. The thing is, rejection does not really go away when you start your own business. Sometimes, I reach out to other companies to introduce my brand, and they say, it’s not mature enough for them. Sometimes, potential customers say, my jewelry does not fit their style. Yes, the rejection is still there, but it’s different. When one customer rejects you, you know there is another one, who will like you. You have faith in your brand, it’s something to fall back to. When you are employed, and somebody rejects you, you have to find another place and start over. To me, that’s very painful.
GT: I gather you do not regret your choice to start a business?
NW: Never! I don’t need a job anymore. And in fact, I am the one now offering jobs to others.
GT: So, you went from a hobby to a solid, recognizable brand. That’s is a huge leap!
NW: True. But it did not happen overnight. It took me for a while to recognize the importance of branding. After I made a decision to do my own thing, I just focused on making orders for the clients – here and there, getting the word out. But I kept thinking of and wanting to introduce to the market something really unique, something never seen before.
Step by step, I started putting the ideas together. I kept asking myself, if I were to design something unique for myself that I cannot currently find in Kenya, what would it be? What would I wear it with? How would I want it to be presented to me? What should the packaging be? All these questions really helped me experiment with designs, packaging, presentation – I got very involved in defining my brand. Even the name of the brand changed several times
GT: What was it originally?
NW: At first, I thought of calling it Sidai, a Masaai name. But when I tried to register it as a brand, I learned that the name was taken.
GT: Yes, of course, there is a company Sidai Design, who are making Masaai-style bead jewelry.
NW: You are right. So, that’s how I ended up with Dhana Vito, fancy and valuable things. To me, this is the essence of the brand, really. If you look at my pieces, they are fancy and fun. But they are also very valuable because it takes me a lot of time to design and make them; and time is the only thing we own in life.
GT: This is really deep, thank you for sharing. Now, let’s talk more about the fun and fancy things you make. You mentioned before that brass is your metal of choice. Tell me why?
NW: It’s the easiest to work with, and it is possible to do a lot of fun shapes out of it. I used to work with copper, but in Kenya you can only find copper in a wire form, which is very limiting – there are only so many fun and elegant pieces you can make from a wire. Brass is easily available in Kenya; and it comes in a sheet, so you can cut it any way you want.
GT: I noticed you never use beads in your designs, they are always clean-cut brass. Yet, you mentioned that you started your journey doing beadwork.
NW: I got tired of beads. I feel like they are no longer unique, at least not in Kenya. I am sure people, who do not leave in Kenya or in Africa, still find our beadwork amazing.
GT: I do.
NW: I am sure. But I grew up surrounded by beads and Masaai culture. Beadwork just does not feel exciting to me right now. Maybe when I am older, I will reconsider beads. But for now, I will stick with brass.
GT: One challenge I see with that choice is that when a lot of people use the same material, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate among brands. As you rightfully noted, many jewelry designers in Kenya use brass. What helps you stay unique, recognizable?
NW: I think it is the design that sets me apart from other brands. I observe how other designers work, learn from them. I really like Adelle Dejak and Brian Kivuti; those are the guys, who live and breeze jewelry-making. I have never met them, but I like watching their videos on social media, when they talk about their inspiration, designs, the process of making jewelry. I also like Patrick Mavros designs; his pieces are very recognizable. So, these designers inspire me.
I also find inspiration online, in the nature, everywhere around me, really. I often research newest trends in jewelry design. But overall, it is what I make of all these trends and inspirations that make me unique – my own ideas. And people find them interesting and fresh. But this is not it for me, I want my jewelry feel fresh but also remain timeless. I want my clients to still love the jewelry they bought from me 3 years from now, and 5 years from now.
GT: I noticed that a lot of your designs are inspired by nature – flowers, insects...
NW: Yes, I gain my inspiration from nature – mostly plants. My first collection was inspired by hibiscus, the second one by gingko, the third one is about dandelion. I usually take a year to design a collection; and I peak plants that “speak” to me at the time I start planning a new collection. For example, last year I was walking around and there was a field of dandelions. There was a light breeze, and all the flowers were flowing gently, like a white sea.
NW: That’s what I thought! I was like, “This is really nice! I can make something of this!” And then, I went home and just sketched, and sketched, until I was happy with my designs.
GT: Is this how you come up with your designs – sketch a lot?
GT: Do you carry a Pad or something like this?
NW: No, I am a traditionalist – I have a notebook and a pen. I collect materials and sketch throughout the year. And then at the end of the year, I look through all of them, find pieces that can come together into a collection, find a name for it – and get working. So, dandelions are a thing for me this year. Next year, there will be something new, something fresh. But just like this year, it will be something that really speaks to my heart.
GT: I am curious, what was it really about dandelions that spoke to your heart? Of course, they are nice, but this is not it, is it?
NW: You are right. I like how delicate they are; and it’s not just how they look, but also how they move when the wind blows them away – very delicately and gracefully. I think there is nothing prettier than that in jewelry – a piece that’s very minimal, light, almost non-existent. It gives you that fleeting feeling of joy.
GT: You opened Dhana Vito before COVID-19, right? How did the pandemic affect your business, your clientele?
NW: I have to tell you, 2020 was an interesting year for me, and an important year for Dhana Vito. COVID-19, and especially the lockdowns and the overall turbulence, forced me to get serious about my business. I registered my brand right after graduating from the University. At that time, I was not really sure, how I wanted to live my life. When you are at the University, schoolwork takes a lot of time, and you feel like you are missing out on something important. And then you graduate, and here it is – the freedom to do whatever you want: party, have fun, mingle with friends...
But then COVID-19 happened, the lockdown, the curfew. I was like, I might as well just stay at home and focus on my business. And it worked! I got a lot of orders, people started recognizing and following my brand, my social media accounts were abuzz. Everyone was at home looking for entertainment and distraction – it was the best time for online retailers, even such newbies as myself.
I got a lot of orders, and it reassured me that I was on the right track. Before COVID-19, I was still not sure if I would be able to make it or if I would end up eventually looking for a job again. When my sales started climbing during the first lockdown, I realized – no, I would not need a job because I can do this -- my company and my jewelry.
GT: What a great validation!
NW: And guess what, I even got a nod of approval from my parents – that was when I started earning enough to afford my own place. Finally, they were like, yes, this might actually work!
NW: Thank you! Yeah, that was a year of validation for me. This was also the first year I presented my jewelry at the Xmas Box fair in Karen. Imagine, I’ve never heard about this fair before.
GT: How did you find it?
NW: Amazing! People were buying my jewelry, and they were truly appreciating me as an artist. It felt great, and it was new to me. In Kenya, I don’t think we appreciate art enough. We grow up surrounded by creative, handmade things; this familiarity sometimes makes us underappreciate the value of such things. But when people come from other places, and they see something new and unique, they tend to value it more. I saw a lot of people buying my jewelry – no bargaining or questioning, they just paid they the price and they were happy to own my pieces. This was very encouraging!
GT: Who are your main clients today – Kenyans, foreigners? Who are the Dhana Vito “tribe”?
NW: Everyone, who likes jewelry with a character. I do have a lot of clients in Kenya, but I also sell to clients in Belgium, Australia, the US. And I believe the reason is that my jewelry is made in Kenya but it looks unique everywhere you take it, it has this global vibe or a global appeal.
GT: Any plans for the future that you can share with me.
NW: Definitely! I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently. I want to grow my brand, make it big. I want to explore other creative ideas and introduce new things to my clients. I am not yet settled on what those would be, but I really like working with my hands and I am trained in sculpture – so, possibly that.
GT: This is exciting!
NW: I really want to make it exciting. I am also thinking of opening a store, a sort of a concept store, which will give my clients a different experience – a unique peak inside my brain. I am not yet sure if it is going to be physical or virtual or both. I do not think that physical retail is going away any time soon; people still want to walk around touch and try on things. But the “metaverse”, as they call it, is definitely coming, and it’s going to change how we do things. Still, I don’t think I want to let myself be limited by trends and by what other designers are doing. I want to remain flexible, unpredictable. All I know is, I am going to dream up my shop – and then I am going to create it in real life.
I also want to explore my country some more in the upcoming years. Kenya has a lot to offer to people like me, who are seeking inspiration. For example, I want to go to Turkana. I’ve seen the photos of some really interesting landscapes there, you would never believe it was Turkana. When people think of Turkana, the only image that comes to mind is that of a very dry place, a desert. But Turkana is unexpected and unique, I feel that I can find a lot of inspiration there. Overall, I am going to push myself to get out of Nairobi and my comfort zone.
GT: I wish you the best of luck; and whatever you end up creating in the future – I am sure it will be amazing!