New York to Nairobi: Recap of #CFKNY2018

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I didn’t know an email and a small goal to cover fashion in Africa would lead to curating a workshop and press trip in Nairobi Kenya. As vague as that reads, here we are, three months later, flying to Kenya on Kenya Airways first direct flight from New York to Nairobi. I was tapped to host The Core Fashion Kenya’s inaugural cross-continental collaboration with a handful of creatives in the fashion industry. What materialized was a network of passionate people supporting each other’s craft, dozens of mentorship opportunities for Nairobi’s fashion students, and a fabulous travel diary for everyone on the internet to view at #CFKNY2018. It was more than a dream to experience what fashion culture is really like on the continent of Africa alongside my favorite professionals.



Palm trees and lush plant life provide the ultimate getaway for the paved and dirt roads that make up the vibrant city of Nairobi. As I stepped out of the plane on to a red-carpeted runway, I breathed in the summer air of the motherland. I was greeted by dozens of smiling Kenyans and airline officials, eager to welcome me and my colleagues to their country. Little did they know, we were so much MORE excited to be there with them.

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Like I said, I was in Kenya to celebrate Kenya Airways inaugural direct routes from Nairobi to New York. I want to say that again because it’s PIONEER TALK.  I knew this day would be filled with colorful banners, picture taking with dignitaries and lots of food and wine after getting a taste of the airline's party skills at a gala hosted a few weeks prior to this day in late October / on the eve of November.  Because of this, I made sure to handpick a list of New York’s top creative forces in the fashion and media industry who were not only enthusiastic about their job but also sharing what they know with young Nairobi creatives. Including editors and media influencers Tanya Christian, Claudia Rondon Torres, and De’von Johnson, photographer Bellamy Brewster, fashion producer Mariana Cantu, branding executives, Natasha Roberts, Suzie Wakobi and Diana Opoti, as well as fashion designers and Stylists Anyango Mpimga, Mi Mi Plange, Brian Babu and Iris Barbee Bonner.   Confession: I went in thinking we were going to be giving history lessons about fashion and quick tips on using proper SEO words. You know, workshopping. The experience turned out to be truly unforgettable. It was an exchange in culture, a connection to our roots, and reawakening of our own mission to what we want to go in life. We were much more than the "Americans" in Kenya. We were a vessel of inspiration, confidence, and proof that if you are passionate enough about your goals and have a plan, you can accomplish anything. This is what the students at the workshops valued the most. The overall mission was Collaboration Not Competition.

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At first glance, the city of Nairobi is eaten up by tons of traffic. There are cars, buses, and matatus going with the flow of traffic but it can be consuming. Especially after a 14-hour long flight. There's the city's metropolitan vibe and then around the corner,  the dirt roads and fruit markets make it feel like the Caribbean. Which may explain why there's an economic campaign to built up the city of Nairobi by 2030 so the entire city is literally under construction. It’s #8 in the continent’s ranking for most developed countries. Fashion presents an opportunity for entrepreneurship and this city has countless ways to get involved. Is it just me or was I the only one who naively viewed developing countries as a no man's land for business? This is definitely not the case in Nairobi. In retrospect from my week long experience, I can vividly see the potential.

Day One  - Nairobi

Linda Murithi was our group leader, a Kenyan who has established her fashion roots in Nairobi and is the founder of Core Fashion Kenya. Hours after our flight landed and not quite over jetlag, our adventure with a local began at Capital FM Nairobi radio station.  Capital FM is located in the business district of the city and occupies the penthouse space with a dope view of Nairobi's cityscape. We gathered in the conference room to have coffee and tea before chatting with the host of the Morning Show live radio.


The radio is still a powerful means of communication and in America, podcasting and playback TV totally devalues this medium. Going on air was like talking to all of Nairobi, saying a million "Jambo" to the people. I don't know about the rest of the group, but I felt like a celebrity. LOL.

It was exciting to speak about my background in content and why I chose to collaborate with CFK to produce a three-day workshop. Of course, I didn't expect anything less than amazing from onlookers, but bringing an idea into fruition would also be thrilling.  And it is was.

I didn’t know how exhausting it would be to answer questions and speak comfortably about fashion and editorial to people who are genuinely curious about what I do and how it can be beneficial to Kenya’s fashion scene. Gratefully, though, this is why we are all here. Which made the trip as it progressed even more meaningful. After a day, we were comfortable with navigating the foreign, yet familiar, landscape thanks to Uber. Besides the workshops, the itinerary included attending some sponsored dinners but for the most part, we had a lot of free time.  In the evenings, we went to dinner at places like The Village Market’s Local Grill and went for a nightcap and chill bar scene at a popular spot called Mercury Lounge.

Day 3 to 5: Workshops


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Day three to five included a mix of workshops, travel and fashion collaborations. On the days leading up to the workshops,  I got to know designer Mimi Plange on her profession as a designer in the corporate space and also an owner of her own atelier in New York. We were going to be on a panel together so this unscripted 1-1 time made our forthcoming conversation natural. Plus, I got the tea on what it was like working for some of the hottest brands of the 2000s.  She spoke candidly about her time working for Rocawear and Beyonce’s iconic denim line House of Dereon, as well as what it was like to have a 6-figure salary at 24 when all your friends are still broke. My motive wasn’t to expose the dramatic parts of her career but find ways to educate others on her journey that ultimately provide career intel for people who are also trying to make it.

One thing Mimi shared is that salary negotiation is a HUGE factor with women asking for more. For her roles in executive positions,  she hired an attorney to liaise on her behalf for her salary, contract guidelines and intellectual property. Another career insight she expressed is to never burn bridges because the fashion industry is small. By the time we got to talk on our panel in front of an audience, we were like best work wives. I was able to reference our side-line conversations about negotiating your worth as a designer, the lifecycle of a garment and the struggles of a small business owner. My panel was followed by a native Kenyan and young business owner Diana Opoti, who gained popularity when she announced on social media that she was going to wear only African designers for an entire year.  That publicity stunt landed her on the Business of Fashion’s Top 100 People in Fashion list and drive to open her own store selling products from various designers in Africa.

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Day 2 of the workshops included lessons on photography, branding and carving your niche with Natasha Roberts, Suzie Wakobi and Bellamy Brewster, and others. While these two young dynamos gave the audience lessons on advertising and branding, the majority of the group went on a Safari and to visit elephants and giraffes in their natural habitat. Everyone met in the hotel lobby at 6 AM dressed in devastatingly chic as fuck safari outfits. How could this fashion group disappoint?!  Regrettably, I didn’t put much thought in my own Safari outfit. It was too early for me to think about what to wear from the two suitcases I schlepped across the world. But my go-to black wax leather pants, white tank top, olive green trench coat, and Chelsea boots were perfect! I was grateful to have traditional safari bucket hat from KQ's merch and basically, the whole group wore the same hat that day too. So I was in trend after all. Although our wildlife excursion started with a heavy downpour of rain, I was convinced it was a prelude to the perfect "This is Africa" experience. By the time our huge bus rolled through Jurassic Park, the roads were hella muddy and well you probably can guess the rest.  

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One minute we were gawking at water buffalo, the next I'm praying I don't have to use the emergency top secret number in my phone. Our little fashion adventure got kicked up a notch when our driver took a turn for the worst! He’d been doing a great job until he tried to bust a u-turn on a narrow and muddy pathway in one of the back parts of the national safari park.




The bus literally got stuck mid-u-turn that ended up blocking any other vehicle that had our same plans of venturing off the course in search of animals.  Thirty minutes later and totally freaked out, some dude in a more appropriate jeep pulled up beside our van with a meager 10-foot wire string and a metal shovel. Everyone on the bus thought this wire was a joke and kept saying, "what's that going to do?! Absolutely nothing at all. But A for effort! After several attempts to use this weak wire to pull a full van of us out of the mud, the gentleman kindly left. He muttered something in Swahili to our driver which I presumably interpreted as, "you'll have to dig yourself out." Hence, the shovel. Everyone, including me, laughed at these attempts to get us out of the mud just to keep from panicking as Americans do so naturally. About an hour or so later, another proper Safari jeep came speeding down the muddy road to pick us up and continue our safari experience. Excited to be getting out of the van, We naively stepped onto the dangerous, wet, muddy terrain, ignoring the road sign just meters ahead that read “ Do Not Get Out Of Car.”  For obvious reason, that a lion can sneak attack you! duh! Needless to say, my Zara boots I wore for two seasons in a row were laid to rest after spending less than five minutes walking to our “new” car.



Apres Safari:

I didn’t know I could work up such an appetite observing giraffes, and herds of zebras and water buffalos in the wild. Since the national park is located in Karen, we ate at The Talisman, African and Morrocan inspired restaurant that occupies its own little ranch. The outdoor/indoor restaurant includes seating for at least 150 people and features little private alcoves to host large groups like ours. I couldn’t help but notice the other people also eating at this restaurant.


There were several groups of maybe humanitarians discussing strategy, little Australian families enjoying lunch, as well as a few locals huddled at the bar with sipping on a dark color drink. Although the food and service were to the utmost, admittedly, I got sick (probably from the cheese) and was out cold for the rest of the day. I missed hanging at the private giraffe manor,  dinner at a cool local spot and clubbing at Kizu! ugh! Wizkid was partying in the private VIP space that night too.



On the last day of the workshops, the entire group of mentors made sure to be back on site at The Movenpick Hotel. It was another opportunity students and local fashion enthusiasts could ask questions and request last minute critiques of their current projects.  In general, I was over the moon that over 100+ students attended all three workshops days. They had notebooks full of tips, tricks, and lessons, and most of all they were not afraid to wait their turn to have their own private little sessions with us!



To summarize the magic that took place, I’ll end this blog post with a quote from one of the young Kenyan bloggers who writes about her city from the perspective of a plus-size blogger. In her own recap blog post she wrote, “the creative atmosphere was so relaxed and unpretentious, the mentors were so open to mingling and networking with us, the attendees, that it was an embarrassment of riches the amount of advice and information availed to us! I could tell they were equally as excited and impressed by our offerings. From our fashion expressions to the styles and even caliber of offerings, I knew that it was a truly collaborative space of which I am certain will bear fruits of collaborations, inspirations, friendships and who knows what else! For a peek into their adventures, check out their respective pages for their perspectives!”  As I answered her email hours after I landed back in New York City, I knew that #CFKNY2018 was truly awakening for black culture and necessary for cross-continental relationship building.


























Miron Crosby

This 160 - year - old Dallas, Texas footwear brand is here to school us on all things proper western style and we are here to take notes. Each Miron Crosby boot features eye-catching designs that incorporate intricate stitching , an array of exotic leathers and unexpected embellishments. Catch a vibe with the boots on the mood board. www.mironcrosby.com

 

 Photo Credit: Miron Crosby  ($895-$2195)

Photo Credit: Miron Crosby ($895-$2195)

Rant #1 of 2018:

Fashion is becoming less fun.

Fashion is fun and simple. Stop trying to make fashion sound so intellectual, because the greater majority of people only choose to wear clothing because we would be absolutely breaking the law if we weren't in clothes. Recently, I skimmed through an interview featuring a trendy streetwear designer and this person said something about "the dialogue between the clothes and the customer." And I thought to myself, "What conversation did I ever have window shopping with a designer at Barney's?" I surely do not consider myself in relation to the designer and the products that are hanging on hangers. Then it dawned on me: fashion is so private and personal, and in this day and age, we spend so much on things! Gucci is selling tee shirts for $800 and creating this vicious cycle of "trendy" poverty that I'd rather just spend my money with a small, cool designer who needs it to pay their bills. That's what makes retail for me fun- supporting business owners who still have a touch to their products. I can care less about the ideology behind a luxury product that only less than 1 percent of the world will get to wear and "cherish." If it's moderately priced, I will consider it. It bothers me that some blogs and magazines talk about fashion in ways the general public can't really relate to and it's taking the fun out of fashion.  Fashion is being wrung out to dry, picked apart thread by thread until it's no longer for the public, an elitist idea that only people who go to "fashion week" think they have power over to control and dictate. Well, how about get a life. lol. 

Tosheka Designs

Tosheka Designs is owned and operated by Lucy Bingham. With a thriving production process in Kenya and wholesale business in Philadelphia ( with clients like Anthropologie), the future of Kenyan fashion is sustainable. 

 Photo Credit: Travel Nairobi 

Photo Credit: Travel Nairobi 

 

What season or period are your products produced?

We work with a farming community, and therefore our spinning, weaving, and bag making production activities by producer groups are planned around their agricultural activities. We have two rain and farming seasons. The first and major farming season is during our short rain seasons which start around late October to early / mid-November. Our producers are therefore not available to produce from about the third week of October to the first week of November when they cultivate the land and plant their crops. After this we only have a month before we start our holiday season around December 12, Kenya’s Independence Day holiday to Christmas and New Years Day. The long rains start Mid March to early April, again during this time our producers take time off to cultivate and plant. Therefore we plan our production especially for the producer groups around May /June and July/August/ September. Coincidentally the other months October, November, December, January and stretching all the way through April are a good time for our local sales, for the holiday season, and back to school sales when our school calendar year starts in January.

For the Eri Silk production, we depend on the availability of the castor plant leaves. Between February and April and then September thru October (before the rainy season begins), the leaves shed off. At this time we will reduce Eri Silk Production because of the leaves but our egg production unit where we can irrigate our castor plants we will maintain the Eri worm production.

Explain the Eri Silk Worm patent? How is the silk extracted without killing the worm?

Tosheka Textiles currently has the only and first permit to commercialize the Eri silk worm production in Kenya. Although a patent for the Eri Silk Worm already exists in other parts of the world, we may consider licensing the processes that are unique to our Kenyan product development.

We are currently in the course of developing our standard production and operating procedures from our experiences since we started early 2016.

Unlike the mulberry silk, which requires the boiling of the whole cocoon, intact with the pupae to extract the silk and as a result the pupae are killed through this process, the Eri silk worm has an open mouth on the cocoon that allows the butterfly to emerge from the pupae inside the silk cocoon. This process is why the Eri is considered a peace silk. Very little water is used to produce the Eri silk, and it has zero waste. Because is food source needs very little water to cultivate, and the plants can survive drought, it can be practiced and sustained in dry lands. The end product of the Eri Silk fabric has excellent thermal properties. It keeps you cool in the hot season and keeps you warm in cold weather.

Does Eri Silk Cotton feel different from regular cotton harvested in the cotton community? 

Eri Silk feel is very similar to our cotton but it soft and fluffy.

How long does this process take? Are there any specific tools for this process?

Our cotton producers who harvest cotton annually can now produce Eri Silk after 19 to 26 days depending on the weather temperatures. It takes another ten to 14 days to create the Eri silk Eggs/seed worm that is distributed to farmers to provide the cocoons. To initiate the process of rearing the eri silk worms: farmers require a shed that is designed to ensure the worm is safe from its predators. This is not as sophisticated as it sounds. The farmer may use an existing structure within their homestead. For farmers who have minimal structures in their homes, we have designed a rearing unit for their homes. This is one of the issues we are addressing to minimize the start up costs of the farmers. The on going rearing process requires very little and minimal costs. Tosheka has established a ‘grainage ‘ facility to produced the disease free layings’ of eggs/worms that are sold to farmers to produce silk cocoons. The grainage is designed with equipment to facilitate the process of creating the disease free layings.

How do you work with the Kenyan Community?

We collaborate with the Akamba community in Makueni County located in the Eastern part of Kenya. This community exists under the umbrella of Wote Community Development Organization (WCDO) registered under the ministry of Youth, Gender and Social Services as a community-based organization. The Akamba people are known for their traditional basket weaving and wood carving skills. Tosheka has utilized these skills to produce contemporary basket and bag products using clean recycled plastic bags and cotton. Tosheka has now introduced Eri Silk as a new fiber for the production of handspun yarn and hand weaved fabrics and rugs. The introduction of this new fiber is also an alternative to the rain fed cotton that has not been very beneficial to our targeted communities. Eri Silk has the potential of addressing the poverty levels in the community we are working with. Tosheka is targeting 3,000 households who will increase their income by 30 times. Cotton provides a merger of annual income to the farmers. Whereas Eri Silk will provide monthly revenue that is more sustainable. Our mission is to empower disadvantaged communities through trade. In partnership with Marafiki Arts, a US- based organization we have had exchange programs where artisans can build their trade and sell.

How much does Eri Silk cost?  

It cost can range for $ 25 - $ 40.

How much does regular cotton cost as per the fibre directorate?

The minimum price was 42 Ksh per KG and we were guaranteed at planting the framers 100 Ksh per KG to stimulate the participation. 

How does the political climate in Kenyan affect your work as a social entrepreneurial focused on sustainability?

Kenya National and local governments like many globally are not at the forefront of supporting local business and social enterprises. There are a few stakeholders that participate and support the work we are doing. We currently enjoy the support of the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organization, who are providing the research aspect of the Eri Worm considering it is new in this country. We also have the support of the Kenya Plant and Health Inspectorate Service who keep an audit of our Eri Silk production and ensure that the process is not detrimental to the agricultural and environmental attributes.

Are there any specific regulations related to the textile industry and trading that you have helped establish in Kenya?

Tosheka has been instrumental in the cotton growing and now the introduction of Eri Silk production in Kenya. Previously cotton farmers depended on the world prices to determine what they would fetch for the cotton grown. That means they would grow the cotton without knowing how much they would fetch for their products. Through Tosheka’s initiative, the government passed legislature for the Cotton Authority (now the fibre directorate) to set a minimum price for cotton so that farmers were aware of what they would reap from the cotton growing. The introduction of Eri Silk provides the farmers with an alternative to cotton growing that will generate more income and is more environmentally beneficial. Cotton is referred to as a dirty crop because it requires a lot of pesticides, whereas Eri’s food source requires no pesticides.

Have there been challenges? If so how did you overcome these problems as a business owner in the fashion industry?

Our biggest problem is nature of the business that we have purposely decided to do. That is taking on the role of Government and their ministries to establish viable textile industry by supporting the production of natural fibers ( organic cotton & Eri Silk ) in sufficient quality and quantity to revive the National textile industry. Our business would be very profitable if we could focus on our core ability’s which are textile design and printing verses starting from producing fiber. A company that empowers the disadvantaged through trade, a green textile business bearing in mind the effects of textile production to the environment. Price is very much a key factor for most people who may purchase any product, and textile products are very competitive. We are challenged with producing handmade textile products that are aesthetically attractive, high quality, and competitively priced, as well as provide a sustainable income to our producers. The fact that this business is female owned it has been challenging to get substantial credit without matching collateral. However, through the very competitive Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, Tosheka was able to secure significant funds to initiate the Eri silk production.

What's on the horizon for your garment and accessory production?

Because of the lack of availability of quality cotton other natural fibers and textiles in Kenya we began producing bags from recycled plastic, local cloth, and leather in Mali to supplement our income. My husband Herman has become our accessory and bag designer and has well established this line in the high-end market.

Our plans are to concentrate on the accessory, home furnishings ( rugs, place mats, etc) and printed and knitted textile production. Our mission is to increase Eri silk production; I believe this has the potential of impacting the income levels of the communities we target to work with and can be replicated to other parts of the country and the region.

Jane Lu

The lazy CEO of Showpo Jane Lu talks about being broke, in debt, and faking it till she made it. 

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How long did it take you to conceptualize Showpo?

After my first business failed, I was introduced to another girl that also wanted to start an online store. We hit it off straight away! We had only met a few times at this stage, but one night, over too many glasses of red wine, we came up with the name and concept behind Show Pony (which is what it was called back then). And that was in September 2010.

Describe the ideal Showpo girl style? Who wears Showpo?

Showpo really does have styles to suit so many women. Our goal is ‘to be her go-to place to shop.’ There are the party dresses for fun, younger girls; trendy pieces for our stylish customers who love to mix high-end.

What’s it like being a young CEO?

I love being the master of my own destiny, it’s a bit surreal (and a bit of pressure) now that the team is so big, but mainly it’s a lot of fun. And I love showing other women that it can be done, because I too have doubts. I just have to prove those doubts wrong!

What’s your “boss” mission statement?

Work hard, play hard :p

What do you like to wear to work?

Anything goes at Showpo HQ. My styles depend on my mood, some days I might wear skinny jeans and a vintage print tee, others days I might be feeling a playsuit and thigh-high boots. I’ve been known to rock some pretty outrageous looks at work, but the way I see it is that fashion is fun so I should play around with it!

What’re your favorite products on the site right now?

The graphic/vintage tee range. They’re so cool and comfy - I’m so proud to work with such a talented team. https://www.showpo.com/collection/graphics.html

How do you maintain your work - life balance?

The 80/20 rule. During the week I knuckle down and do crazy hours, getting minimal sleep and working at all hours (I come up with my best ideas at weird times, much to my team’s annoyance!). On the weekends I party, sleep, and catch-up on all my fave reality TV shows. If I didn’t have downtime, I’d go crazy.

Any last minute social media tips you can give my readers?

Post consistently (i.e. not once every few weeks), post at key times, post good quality content and think about your caption game!