Kiki Kamanu left her job at Harvard University to pursue her passion for fashion design. Her Nigerian-based KIKIKAMANU brand has taken her down runways at the London Fashion Week and twice at the ARISE Magazine Fashion Week, as well as being featured in international media such as CNN and Russian Tatler.
This year Kamanu has been selected as one of five finalists for BiD Network’s Women in Business Challenge that focuses on women entrepreneurs in emerging markets. How we made it in Africa catches a moment with Kamanu to discuss fashion and business in Nigeria.
Tell us about the KIKIKAMANU fashion brand
KIKIKAMANU is comprised of four lines: EKZ (menswear), ArmKandy (accessories), Omakaa (women’s ready-to-wear) and Zbird (womenswear diffusion line). KIKIKAMANU represents the man and woman who expect to walk into a room and own it. The label was started in New York less than three years ago and has since then found a home in Lagos, Nigeria.
What made you decide to go into fashion design?
The idea of a business per se was secondary. It was the pursuit of my interest and passion that was the genesis of KIKIKAMANU. I view entrepreneurship as a vehicle for the realisation of one’s vision, dreams and passion. As a child I would dress my twin sister and myself. I recall being the belle of the ball or at least feeling like it at my sixth grade dance. I still remember the sky blue dress with the asymmetrical hem I wore. As I matured, I observed how women appeared empowered with a simple change of attire, and emerged with a sense of confidence. I found that I enjoyed being a part of that transformative process. Allowing one to express their individuality as a manifestation of freedom is as empowering as it is life changing. I have found that for some, this is the jumpstart that a woman needs to redirect the chapters of her life.
What motivates you and how do you generate new ideas?
I love what I do. It is as simple as that. It has been said that if you do what you love you will never have to “work” any day of your life. That rings true for me. I am surrounded by a brilliant team and we constantly push ourselves to do better. I am also motivated by my clients who continually challenge me and force me to outdo my last collection. I may see an asymmetrical hem on the dress of a passerby or a peculiar blend of prints and that can set the tone for an entire collection. My mind is continually racing with ideas. I keep a sketch book in almost every room. It can be insane some times, but I love it.
How do you deal with competition in the industry?
I am self-motivated to continuously challenge myself to outdo my last success, so it is not external but an intrinsic desire to create and to improve. My benchmarks are not the success of others but how far I can push myself creatively.
What is the greatest challenge your fashion brand faces?
In the fashion industry in Nigeria we often deal with the absence of basic infrastructure such as electricity, an ongoing “brain drain”, and frankly, changing styles and interests. To be successful, we actively network and leverage the counsel and advice of seasoned people. I moved my production from the US to Nigeria a few years ago and sadly I still continue to source most of my fabric from outside of Nigeria. For some time as well, I had to import the bulk of my labour.
These are just a few of the factors which affect our production costs and prevent us from providing our clients with lower prices. We also understand that passion will need to inspire many days of discipline and sacrifice, however, difficult challenges undoubtedly lie ahead. To overcome these challenges I believe it is essential to cultivate a much stronger partnership with financial institutions that understand and appreciate the value of investing in the garment industry.
Where do you see your business in 10 years?
In terms of growth, our vision is to become an internationally recognised fashion brand with a world-class production and manufacturing base in West Africa.
Do you ever find time to sleep?
Ah sleep, elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel. It seems I am continuously at work. In my opinion, in this business, creating and designing takes about 30% of the time while the other 70% is devoted to marketing, management and sales. Therefore my mind is always at work. It fills with ideas inspired by the world around me. However to be productive I aim for 5 to 6 hours [of sleep] a day and ensure that I spend time with loved ones.