Ugandan entrepreneur Enid Lanez and Ethiopian designer Hebret Lakew met at their children’s school in Nairobi after relocating to Kenya about a decade ago. The two moms struck a friendship and turned their passion for fashion into one of Kenya’s leading luxury fashion brands.
They run Kooroo Designs, a designer label targeted at high-income women. Kooroo has grown from a “hobby” of two housewives, to an established business selling in Kenya and also internationally via online stores in South Africa, the UK and the US.
When they started in 2006, Lanez says the duo only wanted something to keep themselves busy during the day after their husbands left for work and their kids for school. They started selling outfits made out of khanga – a colourful garment popular in Africa – to friends and at exhibitions at their children’s school.
As the popularity of their products increased they decided to take the business more seriously. They moved Kooroo out of their homes, opened a workshop and hired staff. Their products are targeted at mature stylish women.
“The Kooroo woman is not old but she is mature. She knows her style, is well-travelled, she is appreciative of cultures and open-minded in terms of fashion. She is not dictated by trends. We are very relevant for the moment, but if you buy our dress, it won’t be out of season next year. You can still wear it five years from now,” says Lakew.
Stressful, but fun
The Ethiopian designer studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the US and worked with leading luxury brands in New York for 15 years. Lakew says this background and the experience that came with it influences the firm’s efforts to offer high-standard quality products. Although running the business “is still enjoyable” its growth from a hobby has come with some challenges.
Sourcing quality fabrics, for instance, is difficult due to constant shortages and lack of variety. Because they are a well-known brand, customers expect nothing short of the best, hence there is pressure to maintain quality.
“It’s not easy to run a business,” says Lanez. “We did not put in millions to start, but as we became more serious we began investing. If you don’t have a good flow of customers, you can easily run out of cash. Running the business can be stressful, but it is fun too.”
Lakew says they take every challenge in their stride and do not let anything out of their control discourage them. “We just handle things as they come. There has to be some degree of joy in what you are doing otherwise it is not worth it. Everyday there are obstacles, but there are also good times such as watching a customer’s excitement when they like what we have produced.”
Lakew adds there is growing appreciation for the fashion industry in Kenya, with more young people joining the trade, and an emergence of luxury retail outlets in shopping malls and more fashion shows and magazines.
“But is not just about creating beautiful things. It is also a business and anyone getting into it, especially creative designers, need to appreciate that business element. Sometimes what you think won’t be exciting becomes your best seller, and the thing that you thought was innovative and fantastic doesn’t sell. You have to learn to take one day at a time and not get overly worked up.”
Entrepreneurs should also learn to work within their environment and deal with the cultural differences that may exist. An eye for quality, consistency and good customer service is an absolute must.
“Also focus on one thing and not try to do everything. If you are a designer you can’t start with men’s, women’s and children’s clothes. Choose one thing, get your name and brand established and only then think about expanding,” Lakew advises.