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Jamhuri Wear: Star label

Friday October 30 2009

Jeffrey Kimathi

Jeffrey Kimathi. Photo/ MYRON CHRISTIAN PHOTOGRAPHY & RICHARD CORMAN  

By PHILIP MWANIKI

BUZZ: Welcome back!

Thank you man. Feels good to be home after 10 years away. I have come to be re-inspired and study the market and see how we can revitalise Jamhuri Wear.

What took you so long?

When I got to America, I started a journey of self discovery and trying to empower myself. I left as an economic refugee and by the time I was up on my feet, 10 years had lapsed.

What necessitated your relocating to America?

I just wanted to try and see what business was there for me. As a child, I travelled across the world with my mum and so I had been exposed to quite a lot and I thought America would be just the place to seek the challenge. My mum was into art and I wanted to follow that but when I got there, I got another inspiration.

How did you find America?

The first things you find out is that you are not home, it’s very different on all aspects, it’s colder, tougher but you also realise that if you play your cards well, you can be all you want to be there. There’s a lot of racism, counter-racism and a lot of perceptions and mis-education about people from Africa and that really gets to you.

You had problems blending in?

No. Due to my travels with my mom, I knew how to deal with people from different places plus it was not my first time in America, although I overstayed.

You became illegal?

Yeah man. I was to be there for a year but I overstayed. I managed to get myself cleared and got a work permit.

Did you do odd jobs like most Kenyans when they get to the US?

Definitely! I had to start at the bottom and I worked as a waiter at a sandwich store, in a Subway store, at a shoe store, call centre and also for Budget.

It’s not like your family was struggling, why did you have to go through all that?

I was trying to find myself and see what it is I was good at. Plus, I only did those jobs for a while and then my fortunes started to change for the better. I moved to Dallas after two years after a friend recommended it was one of the fastest growing States.

How did you get into clothing?

It all started with a need to for a Tusker T-shirt because I was home sick and I wanted something to remind me of home and give me an identity. So together with a friend, Osano, we started playing around with graphics to see what we could come up with.

That’s how Jamhuri Wear started?

Not exactly. We decided to form a company but it was just an idea which we shelved and continued the daily hustle until I moved to New York in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

That was a big move to the Big Apple.

I know. Guys didn’t’ understand why I was moving to New York when everybody was moving out but I wanted a bigger challenge and New York was it. Once in NY, I decided to start my company in 2003.

Just like that?

Yes, but I wanted to learn the business of branding and clothing and I sent my CV to Fubu, Ecko, Enyce and Roc-A-Wear looking for internship and after a month Ecko called and said they had internship positions. They were looking for people from universities and here I was with no college degree but I managed to convince the executive I really needed the opportunity and she agreed.

What happened to your job?

I was working for Budget then and I just quit to go and work for free because I really wanted the experience. But when I got to Ecko, the lady who gave me the internship was fired and I had to convince them again that I was desperate for a spot and they agreed. At Ecko, I helped launch the G-Unit Clothing which I saw come from a T-shirt to a major clothing line.

How did you meet Akon?

One day I watching 106Park and his first video “Locked Up” premiered and I just knew this guy was African. So I called a friend from Universal Records and it just happened he was managing him. I am in my office one day and I am told there’s a guy called Akon at the reception. He was still unknown then. We connected and he loved Jamhuri Wear and he started wearing it everywhere.

That’s amazing.

Then one day, Akon calls me and says he wore my hoody in one of his videos and I couldn’t believe it. When it premiered, Akon just blew up and so did my company’s name.

How about Jay-Z?

I was friends with guys from his management and one day, they told me they wanted something for him to wear for the Live8. I gave him the Mandela T-shirt. Then I am at home watching Live8 and Jay-Z appears wearing my T-shirt!

How was that?

It was unbelievable! My phone was ringing off the hook, my email inbox was filling by the minute and I thought I was dreaming. He was the biggest name in hip-hop and the biggest trendsetter wearing my T-Shirt. That was the turning point for Jamhuri Wear because before that, people never took a brand associated with Africa seriously.

Didn’t he also wear your hoody when he came to Tanzania?

Yes. Again, I met one of his handlers who just told me that Jay Z was looking for something for his African tour and I custom-made a Tanzanian Jamhuri Wear hoody and the fact that in his trip to Africa, he wore my brand was also unbelievable.

Right place at the right time!

I thank God for that because that has been the story of my life. Everything just comes together and works for the best. It is also having to hustle and not taking anything for granted.

Other achievements?

Jamhuri Wear has added names like rapper Ludacris on our roaster which is big for us. We have opened a co-op store in little Africa Harlem NY called Bebe Noir. I have lent my voice in telling the story to a book being published in the US titled IMMIGRANT INC about the journey of being an immigrant, the hardships and chasing the American dream.

What next now?

Me and my team are always striving to be the best we can be and trying to promote our culture. One think I learnt is that I can’t compete with an American to be America or a European to be European. The only way I can compete is as an African and we are taking African pride to the world.

Seen any potential in Kenya?

There’s a lot of potential. It’s unbelievable. I would love to grow Jamhuri Wear to be a brand that helps nurture talent and provide employment and I have seen it is possible.

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