Article by Ogova Ondego
Sue Muraya, co-founder (with Moira Tremaine) of Kenya Fashion Week, tells a Saturday Nation pullout, Saturday Magazine (May 27-June 2, 2006), that she has put the fashion event on hold as she concentrates on her Tianshi multi-level marketing business that deals in Chinese herbal health products.
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“There will be no fashion week for a while,” writer Susan Njoki quotes Muraya as saying. “I like working with professionals but when you are surrounded by people whose only aim is to undermine your work, then that dream loses meaning. I have decided to move on with my other projects while I decide which direction to take with the Kenya Fashion Week.”
Sounding rather regretful, Muraya says she had “hoped that Kenyan designers would succeed in pushing this country onto the international fashion circuit” and that “My vision had been to re-generate an interest in our cotton industry by revitalising our textiles, and setting up a factory that would stitch the designers’ garments to supply international markets.”
Pat Kamau, the principal of Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art who also sits on the Visual Arts Committee of the Department of Culture, contends the winding up of Kenya Fashion Week may not really leave any dent in the fashion sector in Kenya as Redds Fashion Award is still on.
Indeed a new fashion event, African Cultural Fashionists, will bring together designers at its maiden national fashion show at City Hall, Nairobi, October 25-30, 2006. The brainchild of Oturi, African Cultural Fashionists was registered by the Department of Culture in June 2006. However the name of this new outfit appears too limiting as it gives the impression that it may serve only designers dealing in ethnic, traditional or cultural garb.
Oturi, one of the six designers behind the yet-to-be-embraced ‘Kenya National Dress’ project, says unlike Kenya Fashion Week, African Cultural Fashionists is a collective effort, something that guarantees its sustainability. To ensure many designers showcase their creativity, Oturi says, participation fee at the maiden African Cultural Fashionists is Sh5000 (about US$70) per stall. Touching on the often contentious ‘Kenya National Dress’ issue, Oturi insists that what designers in Kenya proposed in 2004 were ‘national dress concepts’ and not a ‘national outfit’.
“What we came up with were concepts for the national dress and not the national dress itself; we proposed a shirt with three slits for men and a simple, straight dress with overlapping skirt, overlapping bodice and overlapping sleeves for women,” she says. “The additional items to these were an apron and a cloak for women and a cloak, sash and cap for men.”
Saying the design committee suggested that kikoy be the fabric used, she adds, “But just the three slits, irrespective of the material used, would still indicate that one were wearing the national dress.”
But why have Kenyans turned against their design?
“Only time will tell if the concept has been accepted or not,” Oturi says. “A week hardly ever passes without someone travelling outside Kenya asking me to make for him or her an outfit based on the Kenya national dress concept.” Kamau, though non-practising, says most Kenyans cannot afford the national dress; that it costs about Sh5000 (about US$70).
Cast against a gloomy economic setting, coupled with the absence of a national organisation bringing fashion designers together, it is doubtful how Kenyans will participate in the WFW-WFA Welcoming Gala to be held at the Kodak Theatre on December 7, 2006.
This gala, according to Damian Lopez Cattini, WFW-WFA Vice President in charge of Operations, will serve as the official introduction of the inaugural WFW-WFA to be held in the USA in 2007.
This black-tie event expected to bring together royalty, government, business magnates, top fashion designers and models, performing artists, international press and media and other celebrities, will take place in the same theatre used by the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, long recognised as the media capital of the world.
A WFW-WFA Press Release quotes Los Angeles mayor Antonio R Villaraigosa as expressing appreciation for this event as “an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of ideas, perspectives and achievements in fashion.”
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According to WFW-WFA the fashion designers, models, make-up-artists, and hair designers to represent their respective countries are expected to be selected from national fashion associations or councils, bodies that Kenya does not have. Fashion, that generates commerce, creates trends and modifies behaviour, is estimated to have more than US$500 billion turn over annually.
Besides Kenya, 37 other nations participating in the WFW-WFA are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom and hosts USA. According to Esseri, the invitation to Kenyan designers to participate in WFW-WFA was channelled to them through Nyambura Kamau, Kenya’s Consul General in California who in turn contacted the Ministry of Gender, Sports and Culture in Nairobi.
“Kenya Fashion Week having been put on hold, WFA-WFW is a welcome development for Kenyan designers to step into the international market,” Esseri says, adding that Kenyan designers have also been invited to Rome, Italy, to promote Kenya’s national costume concept in an event dubbed African Colours, in November 2006. Like Oturi and Esseri, Kamau says WFW-WFA is a good opportunity as it enables Kenyans to put their house in order.
Admitting that fashion design is an urban phenomenon, Kamau says, “After the launch of the WFW-WFA in USA, we will reach out to designers in the various districts of Kenya, show clips of the event and then ask each district to design items that they will then send to the national fashion event from which we will select what to showcase at the WFW-WFA in 2007.”
Lydia Saringi Musyoki of the Visual Arts division in the Department of Culture under whose umbrella fashion matters fall, says her section has decided to promote fashion design in the same manner they have done fine art, sculptures and crafts over the years. “Our mission is to market the national dress and promote it as the hoi polloi do not know about it. We are training 400 tailors and dressmakers all over the country to make the national dress that we will showcase at provincial level and then at the Kenya National Arts Exhibition at Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, in January 2007,” Musyoki says the government is dealing with dressmakers and tailors “because there are no fashion designers outside Nairobi.”
Saying that designers may have lost the battle but not the war in Kenya, Esseri opines the revival of the Miss World beauty pageant in Kenya in 1999 helped designers greatly as they were called upon to dress up models on the catwalk.
It was also from this development that she founded the Fashion Advisory, Art & Beauty Informative Foundation and Club to assist designers in networking through exchange of information in 2002.
“This is a fashion association that is open to any one involved in fashion art and beauty. We get together for exhibitions, seminars and tours,” Esseri says. It was also from the revived Miss Kenya beauty pageant, Esseri says, that the desire to create a national costume was born.