Is there a fashion industry in Kenya?

Saturday December 30 2017

Design by Bobbin Case Showcased at the Kenya

Design by Bobbin Case Showcased at the Kenya Fashion Awards 2016. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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Another year gone. What has happened in fashion? This year fashion schools were a global conversation.

There is this general feeling students are not leaving in the best shape and prove to be unprepared for real life. Syllabuses have come under inspection.

Not even the best fashion schools in the world have been spared a once over. Proof of successful training – alumni. Who are the fashion greats, how do they run businesses and where did they learn their craft?

Businesses have talked about funding and investors. Capital, one would think, is the biggest challenge. It turns out, not so much. Entrepreneurs in this space are basically micro and small businesses. What they want more than funding is financial intelligence.

There has been talk of leveraging collections to get funding. It raises interesting and confusing questions about how to compartmentalise time, effort, creativity, originality, sourcing for fabric, market factors, industry trends – if that can be measured.

It opens up an unusual conversation about intellectual property before a price can be slapped on an entire collection. Think of fashion as a basic need. Stripped down, it is purely clothing. Investors coming on board based on a collection to get funding also influence how this business grows. All of these things require legal and financial papers.

The year has once again raised my pet topic: fashion and technology and working with Metta through Couture Africa magazine. Part of it was to create a challenge for participating fashion designers on the programme. No guesses what I picked.

Technology comes across as complicated but it is not as massively tapped as it could be. Take the example of curating fashion content. Google Arts & Culture launched in June, part of a worldwide project, app and site allowing access to high resolution images.

It is akin to a historian in the palm of your hand. Part of this launch included VR tours. Apt for our museums and an opportunity to design experiences around fashion, hair and beauty. Who wouldn’t want a reconstruction of their ancestral history recreated and enjoyed virtually from a retrospective to a narration or animation of a traditional dance in full regalia.

Mitumba is still solid. In 2014 Business Insider estimated some 65,000 mitumba dealers. I was in a forum recently where this number was pegged at 80,000. They outnumber fashion designers. In May this year the government backtracked on its mitumba ban when dealers loudly vocalised their opinions.

Numbers matter. It opens doors. Fashion is disregarded because the numbers are lost in the wind. No body represents it. As an industry, it sure is pretty to look at but has not made much of an impact because the government cannot see a bottom line. If an industry does not pay taxes and grow the economy, does it still exist?

Red carpets are still misunderstood. The very nature of it being high fashion and bespoke wear. A lot of buzz revolves around the events with the carpets but the crowd mostly keep disappointing. The reward that comes with walking a red carpet has not been realised locally.

That is lost in the countless fashion events that collided with each other the last month of the year. Coverage of red carpets is wanting and relationships with fashion designers, stylists, hair and makeup professionals still a missing link. But thank goodness for YouTube videos, beauty store makeovers and Instagram for the rising interest in makeup and excessively sculpted eyebrows.

Then there is solving X. Careers in fashion are predictable. What is missing, still, is high level C suite intellectual powerhouses that can elevate not just the knowledge database, they prove there is a great deal of strategic thinking and execution necessary. So far the numbers reflecting employment in the industry are minimum wage. This will simply not make a dent. All it does is keep things chugging along in a plateau.

The most exciting thing about fashion in the coming year is the formation of the Kenya Fashion Council. It should be able to build bridges, connect the dots and act as the dynamite needed to blow the industry apart in order to put it back together again into stronger, balanced, collaborative pieces.