The Kenyan fashion industry is worth an estimated US$330m a year, according to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). But, with a market divided between imports from the Middle East and Asia; international brands in high-end shopping malls, and small-scale retailers selling second-hand clothes, there isn’t much room left for local designers.
A report commissioned by Hivos East Africa on the textile and fashion sector found that the domestic fashion industry struggles to communicate the value of Kenyan design to consumers, and that Kenyan designers rarely enter the formal design trade.
Wanjiku Nyoike-Mugo is trying to change that. She started The Designers Studio (TDS) to promote local fashion brands, and make it easy for customers to buy them.
Understanding the world of Kenyan fashion and design
TDS began when Nyoike-Mugo returned from studying overseas, and was frustrated at how difficult it was to find clothing from Kenyan designers. So, in 2013, she decided to start a local fashion blog in the hopes that it would expose her to different industry players as well as position her as an authoritative voice in the industry.
Nyoike-Mugo points out that, while her original plan was to start an online and then physical store, she had no background in fashion and design and wanted to take the time to understand the industry, as well as to gain trust among potential customers. “Trying to convince people of the quality and what the products were worth were two of the hardest things,” she explains.
“Kenyans believed in imported products and foreign brands, despite the presence of Kenyan products that were equally as good, and in many cases better. I found myself playing defender to the brands, and so I had to gain as much information as I could to ensure that I put up a good case,” she says.
Moving into retail
When Nyoike-Mugo had gained what she felt like was enough of a following and understanding, TDS launched its online store, stocking various brands, handling the delivery, and earning commission from the designers. She explains that once the store was up and running, the biggest difficulty was getting people to trust in buying the products online and delivering purchases to those living overseas, where shipping costs would sometimes equal those of the product.
Nyoike-Mugo explains another challenge was that some online shoppers wanted to physically see the products before committing buying them. She had to spend time assuring customers that the products were as good as they looked on the online images.
Even these customers will soon be satisfied, however, because TDS is opening a retail store at Two Rivers, one of the new upmarket malls in Nairobi. Opening the retail store required a huge capital outlay, which Nyoike-Mugo secured from angel investors and her own savings. She explains that the investment was attractive because, “The mix of tenants around our store includes some of the leading global retail fashion brands like Swarovski and Woolworths. This will lead to more fashion shoppers on our floor and association with these brands will also boost our brand visibility in the mall.”
TDS is looking to stock more Kenyan design brands as well as open retail stores in other African countries. The company currently stocks 18 brands, including Canvas and Kangas, and Eleleck, both bag brands; ZikoAfrica, a jewellery company; and Ikojn, a clothing designer.
TDS has partnered with Msafiri, the Kenya Airways inflight magazine, to write a monthly fashion and lifestyle column. The partnership has been hugely valuable: Nyoike-Mugo estimates that 60% of TDS’s customers have been as a result of this exposure.
Plans are also underway to partner with the Brand Kenya Board; a parastatal set up to market Kenya to the global market. One of the ways Brand Kenya hopes to achieve this is by getting brands accredited with a “Touch of Kenya” symbol, demonstrating that they are locally made, and making sure that consumers know that they’re Kenyan. TDS also hopes to tap into a similar initiative by the Kenyan Government called ‘Buy Kenya, Build Kenya’.