African fashion designers: ethically changing lives

A new generation of socially conscious style movers is putting African fashion on the map

"We are not selling because this is African, it is because of good design, desirable, and worth wearing," says Belfast-born Penny Winter, a former costume designer with the Royal Opera House now based in Nairobi making covetable jewellery from indigenous materials such as horn, recycled brass and crystal. With a workforce of 12 full-time skilled artisans and more than 100 outsourced, she is selling to local upmarket hotels, exporting to more than 50 US stores and donates a percentage of profits to the British charity Tusk. Her clients have included Oprah Winfrey, Ali Hewson and Edun.

"We are creating volume consistently and to a high standard," she points out when we meet at her garden studio in Karen, an upmarket suburb of the city.  One of her craftworkers, Milka Adhiambo, explains that her job enables her to educate her six children. "I don't know what I would do without it," she smiles, beading a leather belt.

African design is gaining momentum these days. Fashion designers and other creatives with modern ideas and a growing commitment to ethical production methods are part of the buoyant Kenyan economy. Because of its booming tech industry, Nairobi's multicultural capital has been dubbed Silicon Savannah – the M-pesa mobile phone money transfer system is widespread – and to a first-time visitor, burgeoning wealth and prosperity are obvious everywhere, not least in the city's gridlocked traffic and overwhelming construction projects.

“Creatives bring the same revenue as mining, so the government is listening and asking more questions, so that is exciting,” says Sunny Dolat, founder of Nest, a collective of fashion designers, photographers, filmmakers and artists which supports about 30 businesses, the majority fashion, with revenue from filmmaking. “The government’s tax of 35 per cent on betting will go to sport and the arts. Because sport is bigger, it will get the most, but even 5 per cent will make a big impact,” he reckons.


Clothes for curvy women

The country's leading superstar, a designer committed to slow fashion, is the award-winning Anyango Mpinga whose collections, shown at international fairs like Coterie in New York, support the livelihood of her team. "I make clothes that curvy women can wear and feel sexy," she says at her apartment in Nairobi, explaining her big breakthrough when she won a Berlin Vogue competition, beating off entrants from the biggest fashion schools in the world. Her collections – just one a year – are notable for asymmetric cutting, Victorian references and prints drawn from her country's history, from scarification rituals to ancient architectural details. She is also a social activist and campaigner against human trafficking.

In Nairobi her clothes are sold in the Design African Collective run by Diana Opoti, one of Kenya's most powerful social influencers with an Instagram following of 72,000 and who was listed on the Business of Fashion as one of the 500 shaping the global fashion industry. The store in a mall in a wealthy area of the city sells about 34 local brands, all ethically produced "and nothing stays on the shelves", says Opoti proudly.

Furaha Bishota, a stylish chartered accountant turned fashion entrepreneur, opened her shop in the same mall in February with her brand Cocolili made in Panah, a socially driven manufacturing unit based in a leafy agricultural park near the city. Bishota, a single mother of three, quit a lucrative job with African Development Bank to start a clothing line.

"I needed to do something that would have a significant impact promoting African fashion, supporting work with ethical production companies to create employment. I wanted to have my own prints, so I could tell a story that was modern, high street and could be worn in London, Paris or New York, but still have a touch of Africa, " she says. Self-funded with all her savings, her spear print blouses, sleek jackets and colourful dresses "are all about simple classic and not fast fashion", she says. Panah was completing deliveries for her new shop when we visited the factory.

Owners, husband and wife team Morteza Saifi and Evgeniya Khromina, explained that they have 22 full-time employees and make for ethical brands such as Edun, Lemlem and Elsa & Me (based in New York).

"We wanted to have a socially driven company – brands who want to produce ethically have no outlets – so there were a lot of opportunities to grow here," says Morteza, a former creative director of US footwear brand Vince Camuto, founder of Nine West. The company develops its own patterns, operates paid internships and the workers' monthly salaries support themselves and their families.

Modern jewellery

Equally socially conscious, lively Kenyan-born sisters Sisi and Elle Malindikin grew up in the UK with a joint interest in design and founded their brand Dual making luxury modern jewellery from recycled brass and Perspex. A certified ethical production company, their brand won a Best New Product Award in London last year. "A lot of fashion is coming out of Africa and it is seen as a more nuanced way to tell a story about a continent and we wanted to create our own image. Things are snowballing at the moment; there is such a momentum here and a core group of supportive female entrepreneurs," says Sisi.

Their production centre is based on the outskirts of Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. There, Paul Otieno Asungo Aman runs a brass-making workshop training locals. "We work like a family here and poverty is everywhere, so if you are given something small, you share it with others. I offer food and accommodation and we currently have 16 workers. Most of our work is exported to the US, UK and local jewellers. Our dream is to accommodate more people and give them opportunities," he says, pointing out the various stages of brass-making – the casting, soldering and polishing zones.

‘Relevant’ clothing

For Katungulu Mwendwa, who trained in the UK and makes sharply cut dresses, structured jackets and innovative prints that sell in her Karen shop, her clothes must “be relevant and applicable to my culture. I want to create a new image of Kenyan fashion, to grow and experiment and be transparent in my supply chain”.

She works with Tosheka Textiles, a silk farm run by women spinning and weaving silk from silkworms in a farm to fibre to fashion operation. Emma Mulatya, one of the weavers and mother of four children, told us how the work enables her to pay school fees and supply her family's basic needs. "We are a business," says founder Lucy Lau Bigham, "but also a social enterprise and people buy from us because of the quality."

These female-led enterprises are just a few of an increasing flow of socially conscious fashion brands that source artisans from marginalised communities in Kenya. We saw the African Shirt Company whose bold designs sell internationally and who are making for the Irish ethical fashion company Grown Clothing, but most impressive was Soko Kenya located in Voi, a large town on the highway between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa.

This is one of the highest unemployment areas in the whole country with big HIV and prostitution issues because the road is the main link between Mombasa and landlocked African countries. Soko, an ethical manufacturing unit based in a Wildlife Works eco building, began in a small way with four people in a shed making a small collection for Asos. Founded by Londoner Joanna Maiden, a young woman passionate about sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry, it now employs 60 people, but she is aiming for a bigger factory with a workforce of 250 by 2022.

"We moved here to create jobs and we set up a Stitching Academy where women could train and start their own businesses. So far we have trained 90 people and 20 per cent of them have their own businesses now, including one making reusable sanitary towels from left over fabrics," she says.

Fairtrade companies

Colourful spring dresses and dungarees destined for Asos Made in Kenya were in production during our visit while in an adjoining unit of Wildlife Works, machinists were finishing clothing items for a number of US-based Fairtrade companies. Lucy, a machinist, married with three children, explains that her income not only sustains her family but also enabled her to pipe tap water into her garden. Now, instead of queuing up as so many do in this drought-ridden area to buy water, 20 local families benefit from her source.

Such are the advantages that socially driven fashion companies can bring to poverty stricken communities. As awareness grows in the west, particularly among younger people, of the price of fast fashion, sustainable alternatives making desirable clothes and accessories are creating viable businesses. The African Development Bank certainly believes so.

Its Fashionomics initiative launched two years ago to help small businesses reckons that the sector could generate 400,000 jobs in sub Saharan Africa by 2025. With the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 on April 24th, Soko Kenya and Panah demonstrate how fair wages and pleasant work conditions can empower lives. “What makes my job special,” says Stacey, an assistant pattern cutter in Panah, “is the ability to grow as an individual, to learn something new and to support my family.”

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund, with the assistance of Vikki Brennan of PMIA (Proudly Made in Africa), Goodie Odhiambo in Nairobi, Chris, Christine and Lindi Campbell Clause in Voi. Anyuaga Mpingi’s clothes will be stocked by Atrium in the Powerscourt Centre later this year.