Within East Africa, Kenyans are renowned for being the worst dressed.
Practical and predictable would be the best description of Kenyans’ fashion sensibilities.
Jeans, T-shirts and suits — one size too big — make up many a wardrobe, with a colour palette of grey and brown.
But now more and more Kenyans are embracing local fashion labels.
Designers who have worked, showcased or studied abroad are injecting a badly needed new lease of life to the industry.
Their collections are bold, bright and, for Kenya, daring.
“I think we have all decided to come back to our roots, we are using a lot of local materials and promoting a lot from our own country,” said Rachel Maithya, who runs the fashion label, ki2.
“I’m using a lot of fabric and I’m trying to make it in a modern and very fashionable way, to have also the young people wanting to wear that and want to be seen around with that.”
But the industry faces two major obstacles — second-hand clothes markets and cheap Chinese imports.
Sunshine boutiques, as the markets are commonly known, are a shopaholic’s paradise. Despite offering employment opportunities and choice for the consumer, they pose a major hurdle to the growth of the fashion industry.
In the 1980s, the country’s textile industry was the leading manufacturing sector.
But the government has not helped much in trying to revive the industry.
During this year’s budget, import duties on second-hand clothes were lowered, making foreign-made clothes even cheaper.
In the markets, wooden shacks are draped with a wide array of clothes.
Whole outfits can be mixed and matched for less than US$10.
Cheap, cheerful and chic.
In comparison, a single dress by a designer can cost upwards of $100.
Critics of the industry argue that the prices of most outfits being made by the local designers are too expensive, exclusive and lack originality, borrowing heavily from the ‘Wests’ — Western countries or West Africa.
But Kevin Mbugua, the style editor of Adam Magazine, points out that it is impossible for local designers to compete against a sector where an item like a shirt could cost less than US$1.
Designer John Kaveke boasts 10 years’ experience in the industry with his label, Kaveke.
He and his fellow designers defend their high prices, placing the blame on the high cost of production, the lack of affordable local produced textiles and the fact that their creations are one-of-a-kind.
Though to him, these are secondary issues.
He says the key problem facing the fashion industry is the lack of exposure for Kenyan designers.
David Ohingo, a Nairobi resident and creative, agrees: “There isn’t enough marketing done to promote local designers. It’s too costly for them to employ teams to sell their work. It is expensive for them to get the word out.”
Most designers sell directly from their workshops. There are only a few who have opened shops but a group of designers have got together and opened a store under a collective label.
Names like Sura Zuri, Moo Cow, Kooroo, Rialto designs, Kiko Romeo, Monica Kanari and Spice may not yet make the fashion racks or the pages of international fashion magazines.
But they are slowly getting noticed.
Writer Judy Munyinyi notes: “The industry is growing, the people who helped start the industry have grown and have become more established and recognised. There is a lot more recognition for Kenyan designers.
“A lot more Kenyans are willing to patronise the industry even if not that often. People are willing to invest in Kenyan designs and now can be heard name-dropping at functions.”
The demise of Kenya Fashion Week four years ago dealt a heavy blow to what had been hailed as a promising industry.
But recent events like the Africa Fashion Fair and the Festival for African Fashion and Arts are showcasing Kenyan designers.
`It seems a heightened sense of national pride and the desire to outwardly display forms of patriotism are forcing the Kenyan fashion industry to finally step out of the shadows. — BBCOnline.