12 August 2017

Kenya: Fashion - Any Future for Emerging Kenyan Designers?

Last weekend, I was on a panel judging the Next Gen Fashion Designers competition, Kenya Fashion Awards at the Michael Joseph Centre. The two day event had emerging designers bring on their funk and student designers across the country bring out the noise.

Watching the runway, it occurred to me how fecund, juicy and potent student's creativity was. With only three outfits a piece perhaps they stood a better chance of consolidating their inner fire.

The spirit of innovation was pure. In that state of rawness they felt as ease inviting mum and dad. Parents were simultaneously proud and befuddled, the latter with the awareness of finally coming face to face with the untapped imaginative recesses of their offspring' minds.

Emerging designers were a watered down version of the joy of creation students carted off to the runway. For the 277th time I wondered about the future of Kenyan fashion. The pyramid always starts heavy at the bottom. Teeming with bodies writhing in a dance of sheer potential.

In the middle, numbers are shaved off. They quit and got day jobs. It tapers into a needlepoint where veteran designers with over 15 years experience are barely a handful. Why? Jamil Walji, founder of Jamil Walji Couture and fellow judge says, "It's because they go commercial. They start to get a taste of money and stop creating and start making clothes for money."

Young designers say they have no mentors. Veterans say they do not trust up and coming designers who are half baked and keener on whisking away client database that have taken a lifetime to build. Schools say they are doing the best they can with what they have, admitting syllabi may not be cutting edge but institutions are trying. To put it mildly, it is a hot mess.

Designers like John Kaveke, who took a sabbatical once he realised he was exceptionally famous yet decidedly un-wealthy, and Ann McCreath who shrunk down her Yaya Centre retail outlet, leasing out the other half to Sandstorm Kenya, after realising her location was not strategic, have been quite open about their challenges.

Forums where the industry can speak out are minimal. Not because they cannot be arranged. But because there is more of a vested interest in looking good and cultivating the appearance of success than there is in collectively growing the industry.

For instance, presently there are emerging designers driven by passion versus formal training. Before fashion schools existed, talent was fashioned through apprenticeships. No one does this anymore.


Internships are three month encounters with no immersion. The first five years, global research has revealed, are the most critical for any business. A fashion SME is no exception. Emerging designers survive largely, if not sorely, on their wits. In what is a chicken and egg question, the local industry does not institute the practice of hiring young talent to design under its banner. Upcomers desire to build their own name brands.

Youth, by definition, comes with indifference. This is perfect for fashion, innovation and self expression. Were it not extracted in the process of climbing the pyramid. A former BIFA teacher says "I think when designers get clients they start to conform to the demands of the clients."

But, I ask her, don't clients go to specific designers because they are drawn to an aesthetic? Why change that?" Thing is, a designer's aesthetic is, in fact, changeable in their earlier years. Which is precisely what is supposed to happen. Those are apprenticeship years.

Opening a name brand straight from school forces you to grow up too fast, spread too thin, never enjoying the significance of playing around and experimenting with stuff; fabrics, free cutting, menswear, children's clothing, draping techniques - who knows. Instead, mistakes are made on your dime.

Far more money is spent trying to stay afloat and pay wages or salaries while frantically attempting to create an online presence. At a time when a brand needs protection and nurturing before a targeted direction can be foisted on the market.

It is too much responsibility too soon with too much expectation usually from family and friends who will have lent money based on the reception of said designs. Of course, few make it to the top in any field. Only the tough survive. Looking at this industry though, I cannot help think the system is set up to make talent fail.


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