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.


























From Harlem to Paris

 Like Harlem, I found the memorial in front of Louvre intriguing yet sad at the same time. A place that is supposed to be beautiful, wrought with despair. But everything that’s beautiful is not always good for you. From Harlem to Paris, is a series of articles written about my first time in Paris and my experiences and awakenings thereafter. 

Read the entire Series on  Huffington Post, here.

Read the entire Series on Huffington Post, here.

Person of Interest: Valeria in the City

From the romantic countryside of Italy to the gritty streets of New York City, Valeria in the City reminds Mel Writes why New York is so magical. 

Photo Credit: Instagram

Photo Credit: Instagram

 

             367 days away from You!!!!!

My “mind” journey to NYC starts every time I come back home, ‘cause I keep on being there!

Do you wanna feel like a real new yorker? Follows my tips on the city and remember that NYC is not only the Empire State Building, the charging bull at Wall street or the Times Square lights. So take the subway, feel the city, walk as if you were in a terrible hurry.

This past September was my 13th visit and I still never get used to it.

“How is it possible?” people ask me. And I respond, "It's because NYC is not just a city, it’s a variety of cities in one; it depends on the neighborhood you are in, that has its own soul."

Nobody could, for example, compare SoHo to UES, or LES to Chelsea. Completely different!!

And talking about Brooklyn, aren’t Dumbo and Williamsburg different from Carrols Garden or Red Hook?

Have you ever been to Red Hook? Oh, I think you should. No subway to get there. Just take the water taxi at Pier 11 at South Street Seaport.

As soon as you approach IKEA,  you feel you’re in another world (where is Manhattan?!), back to 50’s! No traffic no crowd but one of the best seafood you can eat enjoying a stunning sunset: the sun is just in front of you and so is Lady Liberty.

Keep this in mind: every place you go, it recalls you that you are in NYC ‘cause you can see the skyline or the Empire or the freedom tower from many points in the city.

If you want to admire the Manhattan skyline just go to Roosevelt Island by tramway; (it seems you can touch by hand the Queensboro bridge) or go to Williamsburg. 

I went there on a Saturday morning and I was so lucky to be there during the Smorgasburg, a flea food market.

Grab something to eat and look at the East river park just in front of you in its glory beauty. The east river seems to be there as to divide 2 worlds. You are there and I’m here!

And what about a walk at Mott street, going from Nolita to Chinatown. Everything is slower down here.

Take your time making shopping among the little vintage shops and sipping a coffee and tasting a cupcake at Little cupcakes, a bakery not famous among tourists and trust me it makes everything much better…

“How do you feel when you stay in the city?” difficult question to answer … I feel one and nobody, I feel like everyone else, I can act as a posh lady who lives in a beautiful penthouse in Park Ave., who goes to Bergdorf for shopping or to Sant Ambroeus for a brunch with her friends talkin’ about the next charity event; I could feel like a model who walks in SoHo in her biker shoes or a business woman who is having a cocktail after work, before taking her subway train to come back home…

NYC is this and much more and you know what???? The most important thing to me is that I feel I’M ONE OF THEM!!!!

xoxo

Valeria in the City

For more Valeria, visit Vale & The City on Facebook.

Person of Interest: Cameron Lee

Person of Interest is a column series about people who are currently of interest to Mel Writes. Person does not have to be "famous," just interesting.


Cameron Lee, the California-born musician and tee shirt company owner is currently hanging out in Tokyo, Japan. At first his music sounds like stuff heard at a cash-only dive bar and the graphics on his tee shirts are borderline offensive. Fifteen minutes into your internet creeping session, and devout stalkers will know that Cameron Lee "marches to the beat of his own drum," his slogan for life. During our highly suggestive interview, we learn that his hair is like 3 feet long, that it may be a political statement or perhaps an overexposed stage accessory, as well as the real meaning behind his most controversial tee shirt, Literally Hitler.  Keep scrolling to learn more about person of interest, Cameron Lee

Mel Writes: Your tees are cool! Are they really made in America?

Cameron Lee: Yes the tees are mostly made in the US. About 5% are still imports, but I'm trying to reach 100% US made. My company is based in California, but I'm living in Asia for a few years. Now I'm in Tokyo. It's soooo awesome!

Mel Writes: That's cool. Sorry to notice, but your hair is soooo long! How long have you been growing your hair?

Cameron Lee: I've been growing my hair for almost 10 years now! Wow time flies.

(About 15 hours passed in our conversation because of the time difference between New York and Tokyo.)

Mel Writes:  Hi Cameron, In continuation to last night's conversation...What made you want to make these types of printed shirts?

Cameron Lee: The whole world seems to have slipped into a fog and I want to help break us out of it. Many people are afraid to voice their thoughts, and discussing sensitive topics has become almost impossible in western civilization. My goal is to make shirts that start discussions, so we can try to start understanding each other again.

Mel Writes: Do you design them yourself?

Cameron Lee: I do most of the designs myself. For the Trump designs I used a lot of artwork that was already floating around the internet. There are a few incredible artists I've worked with in the past that I'll be commissioning soon.

"Literally Hitler"

"Literally Hitler"

Mel Writes: WTF is "Literally Hitler"?

Cameron Lee:  Haha this is my favorite design! It's based on an internet adage called Godwin's Law. Basically it says if an online discussion goes on long enough, someone will eventually call the other person Hitler.

Mel Writes: Interesting! 

Cameron Lee: With all the political conversations going on lately the amount of people calling each other "literally Hitler" has skyrocketed. I thought it would be funny to just wear a shirt that says "ok, I get it, you think I'm a Nazi. With that out of the way, can we have a normal conversation now?"

Mel Writes: Right! Because there are so many frickin' morons and bullies on the 'net who are literally hitlers. 

Cameron Lee: What cracks me up though is how many people think it's a pro-Hitler shirt. It's absolutely not! I get a lot of hate for this one, but I don't mind.

Mel Writes: Side note: I have a black friend named Adolf

Cameron Lee: I can't even imagine what that kid's childhood was like.

Mel Writes: How many tee shirts do you personally own?

Cameron Lee: I have a lot in a storage unit in Los Angeles. Probably hundreds. These days I either wear dress shirts or wifebeaters, so I don't really have any graphic tees in my closet. I should fix that.

Mel Writes: I think the appropriate word for that article of clothing is tank top in 2016.

Cameron Lee: Haha that’s fine. You can call it whatever you want.

Mel Writes: Ahem, So you say you're in Asia... What's that like? 

Cameron Lee: I'm living in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo is like Disneyland for adults with ADHD. Constant stimulation of all senses. It's heaven for me.

Mel Writes: Can you describe your living situation?

Cameron Lee: I live in a little apartment with my wifey. I'm pretty near the center of the city so I can get to all the fun parts of town quickly. I'm actually writing this from a small café in Harajuku. My life is pretty much paradise. I spend all day making designs, listening to music and browsing the internet. Then at night I have band practice.

Mel Writes: Lucky fucking you! How would you describe your music?

Cameron Lee: We’re blending Japanese and American rock styles. At the end of the day it’s all about freedom. It’s about ignoring the people who try to tell you how to live, how to talk, how to dress and how to think. That’s what I want to express in everything I create, and especially through music.

Mel Writes: Who’s In your band?

Cameron Lee: This is the crazy part. My band is made up of three other guys that don’t speak English. All straight up Japanese dudes. It’s really fun working on something so complex when all of us only have access to a few common words. It completely changes the artistic process.

Mel Writes: I’m actually low key obsessed with rock music.  Do you create your band tees?

Cameron Lee: Haha yep, band t-shirt designs are definitely my job. There’s a lot of great music coming out of all genres right now. We just have to open ourselves up and learn how to appreciate it.

Mel Writes: Do you speak the language?

Cameron Lee: A little bit, yeah. I know the basics and I get by in the city on my own. If I have a hard time with a word then Google Translate is a lifesaver. The first couple months were hard though! Every little thing was a challenge! Just going out to buy milk was a headache.

Mel Writes: So wait have you done any shows in Tokyo?

Cameron Lee: Yeah we’ve already played a few times in Tokyo. Now it’s just a matter of playing more and more! The live system out here is similar to the Sunset Strip in the 80’s and 90’s, but we’re making it work for us. I’m hoping to play in a few other Asian countries next year.

Mel Writes: Congrats! That sounds interesting! So what's for dinner tonight?

Piss Alley, Photo Courtesy of Cameron Lee 

Piss Alley, Photo Courtesy of Cameron Lee 

Cameron Lee:  Kushiyaki!!! Kushiyaki is basically skewered meat cooked over charcoal. My favorite place to go is Shonben Yokocho in Shinjuku. The name means Piss Alley in English. I swear it's a scene right out of the original Blade Runner.

Mel Writes: That sounds like an illegal website. Piss Alley?!  Low-key, do the Japanese like Americans?

Cameron Lee: Absolutely! Japan is notorious for being an extremely closed culture, and that is true to some extent even today. But as far as the people I meet on the streets, everyone has been super kind. We can talk for hours. They invite me into their homes to meet their families. I feel welcomed everywhere I go and I’m grateful for that.

Mel Writes: What's popular right now in that part of Asia?

Cameron Lee: I have no idea. It's been a year but it's all still a giant blur to me. But when something does get popular it gets huge. Trends here explode and die so fast it's insanity. I love it!

Mel Writes: Ummm, let's see...Do you know of any celebrity gossip or gossip in general?

Cameron Lee: Absolutely not. I'm too busy living my own life to concern myself with how other people are living.

Mel Writes: That's interesting! That sounds like a message in your music… Who created those videos btw?

Cameron Lee: So far it’s me making all the videos. I hope I can eventually get some help with the video work, but until then I’m having fun being a one-man creative team.

Mel Writes: How old are you if you don't mind me asking?

Cameron Lee: I don't mind at all! I'm 36 years old.

Mel Writes: Married/ Single/ Children?

Cameron Lee: I'm married to the sweetest woman on the planet. No kids (yet).

Mel Writes: Going back to your hair, do you know how long it is in inches?

Cameron Lee: Dude you made me go pull out a tape measure. It's 32 inches long. I just started braiding big chunks of it and that makes it way cooler in the hot Japanese summers.

Cameron Lee has been growing his hair out for the past 10 years. 

Cameron Lee has been growing his hair out for the past 10 years. 

Mel Writes: Does it get in the way of things?

Cameron Lee: Not at all. I mean, I'm sure it would get in the way of getting a corporate job, but that's about it. Some people claim that our hair is an extension of our nervous system and we become less sensitive and intuitive when we cut it. That sounds like a bunch of bull honkey to me, but I like to believe it anyway.

Mel Writes: Do you use your hair length as a political statement? It’s definitely a stage accessory with all your performance videos ...

Cameron Lee: Not on purpose, no. I’ve always liked long hair, and it fits my personality. If people want to take it as a statement, that’s cool. I would hope that statement is something like “be yourself and live your life however you want.”

Mel Writes: Where do you plan on moving to next?

Cameron Lee: I want to see a lot more of Asia before I go back to the west. I'd love to spend more time in Thailand and Korea. Russia is definitely on my list. But I think I'm going to have to head back to Los Angeles for at least a couple weeks soon. I seriously need a proper taco.

Mel Writes: I had the best carnita this morning with coffee!

Cameron Lee: So jealous. Just make sure you enjoy it. Savor every bite! You don’t know what you got til it’s gone!