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How Nairobi’s fashion designers are adapting to the new normal


The Covid-19 pandemic has completely changed the DNA of the fashion industry.

The freedom to walk from one retail shop to the next for a personal luxury experience has been curtailed by the need to maintain social and physical distancing, so as to help stop the spread of the virus.

In addition to the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic, impulse shopping of clothes is now a thing of the past.

Fashion brands that had built their business model on retail shops now have to go back to the drawing board to come up with fresh ideas to survive the pandemic.

Nation.africa talked to award-winning designers in Nairobi, Anyango Mpinga and Deepa Dosaja.

The two shared their experiences on the current fashion climate and what they are doing to make their brands sustainable.

ANYANGO MPINGA

The fashion industry in Kenya has been very unpredictable. However, with the current pandemic there is more uncertainty about the future of fashion. What would you say are the negative effects of the pandemic on Kenya’s fashion industry and the positives, if any?

I’ll start with the positives because I think we all need something to look forward to. It’s so important to take time and re-evaluate our purpose and what we can give to the world through our creativity. Throughout this period, I have been thinking a lot about whether trying to sell an expensive dress at this time would be considered an “essential item” – and the answer is no.

A certain demographic that is wealthy may not mind spending money on one or two items, but for the majority of the population who are battling with job security and simply trying to survive, the products we create for them should be functional and meet the needs of the current pace of life, which is certainly slower and should also make them feel good about their purchase.

Essentially, there is an opportunity for designers to reinvent their brands so that even when things eventually go back to normal, they will have something new that complements their other products. The opportunity is in looking at the resources we have and how best to make use of them. You don’t have to spend money on new materials to create products, you can create something from dead-stock materials from factories and old clothes and give them new life, for instance.

The negative impact is being felt by designers all over the world and Kenya is no exception. Most designers don’t have external financing to keep their businesses running and depend on sales to make ends meet. So, right now, it’s a lot harder for designers to pay their staff and in cases where they can keep their staff, it’s a constant battle on how to keep them safe and access some of the supplies they may need.

Most designers who were sourcing raw materials and services from the most affected countries overseas are certainly in a bind. In Western countries, a lot of designers have support from councils and even the government, which is providing money to self-employed creatives, whereas in Kenya such facilities simply don’t exist, so a lot of designers are currently in a conundrum on how to make it all work in the next few months.

Things won’t change until we change how we do things and this is a realisation that I have had to come to terms with because it is a tough industry to work in and the world is changing, consumers are changing so we need to figure out how to adapt to those changes.

Nairobi fashion designer Anyango Mpinga. FILE PHOTO
Nairobi fashion designer Anyango Mpinga. FILE PHOTO

What do designers and fashion brands need to do to be able to stay visible during this time, now that there is no more walking and having a fashion experience at a shop?

I believe brick-and-mortar stores in Kenya were already struggling even before the global pandemic. A lot of designers, including myself, have had to evaluate whether running a physical store is feasible in the current financial climate. On one hand, companies that have multiple stores across cities have kept their revenues steady, but the smaller brands that target a niche market have had to provide the consumer alternative platforms through which they can access their products.

I think the whole idea of “trying to stay visible” is something that can be looked at on an individual level. Everyone has different capacities right now and various challenges. However, I think going back to the drawing board and evaluating what value you can give to the consumer moving forward is one way to re-emerge and reinvent your brand. What I have found helpful is partnering up with a few stores that are aligned with my brand values and having them sell my products online through their platforms. It’s really not a time to be trying to do everything on your own, harness the resources of complementary brands and businesses and find opportunities where all parties can thrive while giving the consumers what they need.

Is it only now that designers are getting government recognition as an industry, as was seen the other day with the production of face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE)?

It’s interesting because all around the world, everyone has suddenly started understanding how important artists are and the fact that we have something valuable to offer so we should be taken seriously. In the case of the call for designers to produce PPE equipment, we can only hope that the industry will not be neglected when things go back to normal, and can be included in more conversations with the government on how to make the industry work better because we provide an essential service to the society.

Most designers will attest to the fact that it is tough getting financing from the government and even financial institutions for their businesses in the fashion industry, which has for long been considered part of the informal sector.

Right now, our services are essential and we can only hope that fashion entrepreneurs will start getting access to better facilities to grow their businesses. Even when bidding for business to supply to facilities that need uniforms, designers have encountered statements like, “Why should I pay X amount for something from a designer in Kenya, when I can just import it cheaply from China? Well, I guess it’s time to re-evaluate our priorities and support the creative industry. We need to attach more value to the designers, the tailors, the cotton farmers, the weavers and the entire supply chain.

Nairobi fashion designer Anyango Mpinga. FILE PHOTO
Nairobi fashion designer Anyango Mpinga. FILE PHOTO

How has Covid-19 changed work and shopping, especially for fashion businesses that had not prioritised on digital?

Well, everyone that didn’t have a digital platform before this will most likely be looking for ways to integrate the right infrastructure into their business moving forward.

We can’t evolve if we’re stuck on the old way of doing things. People are spending more time on their phones now, so perhaps this opens an opportunity to make sure that your “smart” phone becomes a part of your business model if you don’t already have a digital platform.

I’ve also noticed that people are only buying what they need, which is ultimately better for the environment. Perhaps African countries don’t necessarily suffer from overconsumption as much as the western countries do because we are used to making do with what we have. However, right now people are making smart choices and there are certain products that are considered a necessity even while staying at home, so we can certainly learn a lot from this situation and adapt.

Do you think online shopping will become the new normal for fashion?

It certainly will. However, the consumer experience will determine how well a brand does with sales. There are many opportunities to sell online if you don’t have your own retail platform. In fact, the businesses that have thrived the most during this period have been those that can deliver essential goods to people’s homes so there are a lot of opportunities to look into right now that can help boost sales.

DEEPA DOSAJA

The fashion industry in Kenya has been very unpredictable. However, with the current pandemic, there is more uncertainty about the future of fashion. What would you say are the negative effects of the pandemic on the Kenya fashion industry and the positives, if any?

The Kenya fashion industry has indeed had many highs and lows. I am blessed that my brand has always been socially and environmentally conscious and that my clients have consistently supported it even in times of difficulty. I am hopeful that this pandemic is going to have a positive effect on Kenyan fashion as well as international fashion, as the negative effects of fast fashion are coming to the forefront. People are now being made aware of the way in which workers in fashion and the environment have been treated.

Obviously, there will also be a negative impact, in that traditional shopping habits will have to be altered to make way for social distancing and so on. For instance, we closed for two months in order to come to grips with this new reality. Buying clothes for less-than-reasonable will also come to an end.

We reopened a month ago and are very fortunate that our studio is large enough for social distancing for our staff and clientele. We are seeing clients by appointment only, keeping strict World Health Organization (WHO) standards and sterilising the premises in between clients.

What else…

Pre-Covid, my shop was a lovely gathering place where several of my clients would commune, but the current reality does not allow that. The positive side to all this is that, I feel now more than ever consumers will demand transparency, quality and classic design. We have always prioritised hand-made clothing. This will become increasingly important for us as an industry to value hand-made over machine-made garments. Throughout the pandemic period we worked tirelessly to keep the business alive by coming up with innovative designs so that our staff could continue working from home and then eventually through social distancing at the studio.

Another focus was to re-evaluate my company to create a more robust and sustainable business that can stand the test of time. Kenya fashion can use this pandemic as a portal into an industry that can create fair employment as well as increased economic opportunities.

What do designers and fashion brands need to do to be able to stay visible during this time, now that there is no more walking and having a fashion experience at a shop?

As a brand we are very grateful that we have a very loyal client base who have been very supportive during this time. I think designers and fashion brands need to keep customer satisfaction and needs at the forefront of their businesses. I have always resisted having an online-only presence as face-to-face interactions with my clients have given me the most joy in my business. Through my business, I have made my best friends. I hope that up-and-coming designers and brands will have the wonderful experience of getting to know their clients and know what they really want.

Deepa Dosaja during a past interview at her boutique in Loresho, Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Deepa Dosaja during a past interview at her boutique in Loresho, Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

Brands across the world are closing their brick-and-mortar shops and turning to online sales. We as a brand have decided to try to make both work. Obviously now, with WHO and government recommendations on social distancing and wearing masks, the experience will not be the same, but I still feel that there is something special in being able to touch and try on the garments while having interactions with our brand ambassadors. In order to stay relevant, brands are going to have to reach out to their consumers in a more authentic and innovative manner.

Is it only now that designers are getting government recognition as an industry, as was seen the other day with the production of face masks and personal protective equipment (PPEs)?

Even before the pandemic, the government was beginning to understand the importance of the creative economy. Now with the production of the face masks and PPEs, we can see that we have the labour force and infrastructure in Kenya to produce items that would otherwise have to be imported from other countries. We, as a company, are producing face masks and have donated more than 1,500 masks to date and continue to do so.

How has Covid-19 changed work and shopping, especially for fashion businesses that had not prioritised on digital?

Covid-19 has definitely changed the way we work, in that now we realise just how important it is to have a robust online presence. To provide a similar personal shopping and bonding experience, we have launched a series of Zoom meetings. For example, the other day we had a Zoom meeting with two clients in Nairobi, a client in Rome and another one in Paris! My brand is all about “my table”, where women get the chance to talk and share experiences; we managed to have a similar experience! We have also taken this time to reconnect with many of our international clients during this time of restructuring and rethinking the future of the company.

Do you think online shopping will become the new normal for fashion?

I do think that online shopping will become a big part of the income plan for fashion brands, but the in-store experience is beyond comparison. I hope in time we will be able to experience both in equal measure and not have to give up the special bond created between ourselves and our clients. We create clothes that have low impact on the environment and high impact on the people who make and wear them. Our company has been built on the twin pillars of beauty and ethics and we continue to strive to get better and better. I hope this pandemic has made consumers prioritise knowing who made your clothes.