Misanet.com / IPS, 12 June - Every year, the glamorous fashion pack don their dark glasses and jet into the world's most chic capitals to scout out the season's latest styles. London, Paris, Milan. Nairobi?
If Kenyan designer Sue Muraya's initiative takes off, her capital city will one day be added to that coveted list. On 28 June, she's launching Kenya's first ever Fashion Week. Each day there will be several fashion shows, showcasing Kenya's creative talents, as well as the largest fashion exhibition and trade fair the country has ever seen. Some 30 designers are expected to take part.
- We have to get designers out of their workshops and on to the catwalks, says Muraya. She hopes that by raising the profile of Kenyan designers, the country's fashion industry will start to flourish. Muraya believes that many people would buy local designer outfits, but just don't know about the home-grown talent.
Kenyan designers are pleased to be having their own Fashion Week. "For the progression of fashion in Kenya I think it's a good idea. I'm going to support it," says Ann McCreath of Kiko Romeo, probably Kenya's top fashion house.
- I hope they are going to bring international buyers because Kenyan fashion has to be taken abroad, says Patricia Mbela, who has been working as a designer since she returned from London's prestigious Central Saint Martin's College in 1996.
Mbela believes it is crucial for young designers, like herself, to get more exposure. "The problem is many designers in Kenya don't have the money to open stores. So a lot of the garments are in people's houses. I work from home so not many people get to see them," she says.
Mbela relies on word of mouth and charity fashion shows to get her name known. She spends much of her time designing uniforms for companies like Kenya Airways and Kodak. "I have to do that. I've got to eat. I can't just live on catwalk-style pieces," she says.
One universally acknowledged problem with Kenyan fashion is its lack of a distinct style. "The only thing that I can say is truly Kenyan is the leso or kanga (a piece of cloth - usually colourful - wrapped around the body). Everybody has one from the richest to the poorest," says Mbela.
- Kenya's made up of very many tribes, she explains. "To incorporate all these cultures and traditions into a garment that everybody is comfortable wearing is going to take some time and some understanding. The most well-known tribe in Kenya is the Maasai. But if you're Kikuyu or Taita or Luo, you have a bit of a problem with that."
Many Kenyan designers argue that people lack pride in their own Kenyan identity. "I think the colonialists did a really good job on us. We would rather be in jeans than put on say a leso," says Mbela.
- I find a lot of people in their thirties or forties a bit confused about where they stand culturally, says McCreath. "Wealthy Kenyans automatically think of buying foreign clothes abroad. There's the influence of the west, the colonial influence. And more recently we have mitumba (cheap second-hand imports)."
- But they also come from rural areas, their parents still live in traditional rural conditions with traditional values, she says. "The church is also a big influence in what people feel is acceptable to wear and not wear."
- I think we have to develop our own trends by looking at the past, seeing how designs were, looking at our roots, she argues. Although she was born in Scotland, McCreath has lived in Kenya for decades. "I feel Kenyan," she says.
Kiko Romeo has developed a distinctive style through its innovative textile designs, some of which are drawn by local artists. "It sometimes takes foreigners to wake us up to our own potential. Tartan was put on the catwalk by the French, not the Scottish. Maybe it needed somebody from outside, with exposure to foreign fashion, to actually say 'Wait a minute, rather than doing second-rate European style, why don't we actually look at what's indigenous here and develop something?" she says.
John Kaveke is one young designer who is doing just that. Kaveke describes his style as "contemporary but a little bit on the edge, a little bit sexy". He uses a lot of hand-made beadwork - which is produced by Maasai who traditionally use it as jewellery - in his garments. "I'm trying to marry the two, jewellery and clothing," Kaveke says.
Kaveke created a haute couture dress for the Kenyan representative in the recent M-Net Face of Africa competition in South Africa. He believes it will bring his designs to a wider audience. "It is a good forum. It has got a global market as much as it's an African event. People from other continents are keen to know what is happening. If anyone was looking for designers in Kenya they would say I saw John Kaveke on M-Net and they'll communicate to us," he says.
Kaveke says the biggest hurdle he faces is with Kenyan textile firms. "If you have a creative idea about a textile pattern, you can't go to a firm and ask them, 'I've got this pattern, can you make this number of metres for me?' All they do is cotton. If you want to venture into silks, synthetics, no one actually works with that kind of fabric," he explains.
McCreath agrees: "We are working in a vacuum. We don't have a good quantity of indigenous textiles produced regularly with good design." She has solved the problem by commissioning her own designs, for example, by working directly with silk producers. McCreath believes that Kenya will gradually develop its own style. "It's too young a scene to have a common identity. But I don't think you expect that in the beginning."
She draws a comparison with West Africa. "If you look at West Africa now you can see a kind of common identity which in the 1970s they didn't have. Chris Seydou from Mali, who was based in Paris, was the first person to put mud-cloth on the catwalk in a Channel type suit, to marry West African textiles with contemporary fashion. He was an inspiration to a lot of West African designers," she says.
McCreath says many Kenyans - both designers and customers - are still feeling which way to go as concerns a fashion identity. "I think modern designers in Kenya are pulled between looking at their African roots and looking at contemporary European wear," she argues. "I can't see any point in trying to imitate the West when living here because you are directly competing with mitumba. It's impossible," says McCreath.
- I think you have to mark a difference by coming out with new stuff. Even if it's more expensive, if the style's original and it's nice, people will buy it, she says. "The ones I find more interested in what I'm doing are Kenyans who've studied abroad especially in the States. There they've taken more pride in their Kenyan culture and they start to think, 'I want to show that in the way I dress'," she says.