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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.