Two Industry Titans Talk All Things Fashion
Deepa: So isn’t it amazing that we haven’t caught up since Paris! And then Addis, when we were at the airport waiting for our flight! Tell me, Katush, how do you feel about the industry after Paris and Addis? What do you feel the way forward for your label is?
Katungulu: It’s been really encouraging, watching the progress so far over the last few years. There has been a lot of support from different institutions — the ITC, HEVA. But to some extent, what am I and other brands doing to capitalise on this exposure or support? And is it really geared towards what we’re trying to achieve specifically, or are we just trying to fit in to make sure that we get the support? I’m kind of nervous this year, more so than last year, but also excited because I’m like, “I’ll find a way.”
D: What do you think the future of your label is in Kenya? Are you thinking about globalizing or manufacturing abroad?
K: In the next few years, whether it’s local or global, I think I’m looking at a consumer more than a location. And I’m seeing a lot of interest in the direction that I want to go: Being more conscious, not fast fashion — definitely not fast fashion — so making classical, timeless pieces that have my twist and exploring evolving traditional cultures more, because I feel like it’s true to who I am.
D: Which is beautiful, because now you’re having the chance to really root your label and think about your label and focus on what the values behind your label are, and where you want to grow from.
K: Completely, it’s like going back to scratch. Actually, I think I’ve always wanted to ask you: what was it like for you to get here? You’ve done so many amazing things and you’ve managed to be consistent, and I’ve always wondered — what has it taken you to get here?
D: Well, I started many, many years ago, and I have to say, I’ve seen the Kenya fashion industry emerge so much in the past 10 years. When I first started, us Kenyans felt that it was more lucrative to go to Dubai, London, Paris, wherever it is to buy their clothes. And now I see a big difference. Kenyans want to wear “Made in Kenya” and support “Made in Kenya” and are proud of “Made in Kenya.” And this is a big change, which I think is going to really allow our fashion industry to grow.
K: Completely. We got to do Paris Fashion Week again together, which was kind of cool…
D: Absolutely, that was really cool — that was the best. We had a great time. What I saw in Paris with all the Kenyan designers and the Nigerian designers is that we’re collaborating now, we’re talking, we’re sharing ideas, which is the only way to make an industry grow and for us to all realise that the pie is big enough. And this is something I keep hoping and praying for — that everybody realises that the pie is big enough.
K: Completely. Like today, we’re dressing each other, which is kind of cool.
D: Absolutely, and I love the jacket — it’s super comfortable. And the trousers, light and lovely — I just love it. I feel so happy that both of us are wearing natural fabrics. As Kenyan designers, I feel all of us are taking the natural-fibre route.
K: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting that that’s happening, but I feel like at the same time, we’re the generation that can’t imagine sustainability as not being a standard — it’s encouraging.
D: This is something very interesting, because that is your generation. In my generation, the environment was not a major issue. And it’s just come out recently that fashion is the second biggest polluter in the world, next to petroleum and plastics — I never knew this.
K: Totally. But I think another angle to consider is that even though we’ve personally, as designers in Nairobi, worked with kitenge in many cases, which is 100% cotton, the local manufacturers here are manufacturing mostly polyester-based materials. And so it’s becoming very challenging even just to source locally, because their argument is that it’s cheaper for the final consumer to buy the polyester-based fabrics.
D: The sad thing is that not many people understand the implication of using synthetic fabrics. Not many people understand that the microfibers, the microplastics go into the water, go into the environment, into the soil. These are the kinds of things that I think we need to educate young fashion students about all over Kenya, Africa — all over the world, really.
K: The consumer as well, because I even didn’t know about the polyester getting into our water streams or into the soil until you first told me about it. And so even just informing our consumers about the effects that it has on ourselves and our environment and our peers — I think it’s very critical.
D: Okay, so let me ask you: coming into the industry, after studying fashion, how did you find it? Did you get a good reception? And who are your clients? Are they mostly local? Are they international?
K: That’s an interesting one. When I came into the sector, I wasn’t too sure who my client might be. I just luckily got this opportunity to show my work. And from there I was then able to gauge, “Oh, I got some responses from this type of consumer.” And then I was like, “Okay, let me see how I can make this work.”
D: It’s so much fun, Katush, that this year we’ve gotten to do Paris together, we’ve done Addis together. And I have to say, Tribal Chic was fantastic, right? I think Tribe put up such a great show for their 10th anniversary. It was one of the most exciting shows I’ve done this year actually. I did it once when I was about to give birth to my third child. The next day actually, he was born. And it was really beautiful for me to go back and do it for this 10th anniversary and see just how they’ve grown and blossomed.
K: You just mentioned being a mother and being about to give birth the day before a show. You have how many children? Three?
D: Three kids — and my middle son always says, “All you talk about his business. We go on family trips — it’s looking for fabric. We go anywhere — it’s looking at fashion.” But they’ve grown up in that, and I think they’ve grown up loving fashion and understanding fashion. And understanding the importance fashion has in every economy around the world — being an employer of 800 million people on this earth.
D: I just think that it’s so important that — for instance with the flowers you’re wearing — we empower women through the art of embroidery. Women come in, we teach them, we do a lot of embroidery. And I think through that art we can create employment for women who otherwise would not be employable and today are sought-after artisans — they’re sought after and they’ve found deep raison d’être and they’ve got a skill, a skill which I can’t do. I don’t know about you — can you sit and embroider patiently?
K: No. Is this hand-embroidered?
D: Absolutely. And I think that’s also about educating the consumer and saying you do pay a little bit more for one piece instead of buying 25 fast-fashion pieces. Give it to your child! Your grandchild! I’ll give it to my daughter-in-laws. I only have sons.
K: Speaking of, do you do menswear?
D: I do! I’ve actually introduced a menswear line, and in fact my new boutique is Kayaja by Deepa Dosaja.
K: What does Kayaja mean?
D: Kayaja means “Kavi, Yash, Jan” — my three boys. Do you do menswear?
K: I kind of do androgynous cuts. So the jacket you’re wearing works for both men and women.
D: I can actually imagine this on a cool man, and it’s just gorgeous.
K: I think for me androgyny as well, in terms of what it creates, is the blurred lines on what gender should be. And I think that’s a really exciting direction that I see our society going in — it’s like, why should I be told that I need to look like this because that’s what women look like?
D: Labels, get rid of the labels. What I love about this jacket is that it appeals to a community of people who identify as non-binary.
K: It’s true, and it’s really exciting.
D: So, Katush, going back to you: you starting your label, when was that?
K: Goodness me. I started unofficially when I was in high school doing prom dresses — it’s where I gained my experience, so it does count! So probably in 2014. But I’m hoping that with the growth of my brand, I’ll be able to introduce into the mainstream new cuts and aesthetics that might not typically be understood as “this” or “that.”
D: What did you think of Paris Fashion Week?
K: I think it was really exciting!
D: It was exhausting! We were both exhausted together, darling.
K: How many days of standing? Four!
D: Four. Four days, from morning to night, and then just rushing — but it was great, right? Meeting all the buyers, seeing the interest in African fashion, seeing the interest in Kenyan fashion was so wonderful.
K: Completely. And also having the support from guys just walking in and being like, “Oh my god, you guys are from Kenya!”
D: So what are you up to for the rest of the year?
K: Imagine — this year I think I’m going to spend it doing research and something slightly different with my brand. I don’t know, I’m… Guys, just follow me and watch the progress. It’ll be exciting — for both of us, for all of us. And yourself?
D: Well, I’ve opened my boutique, Kayaja, which I’ve explained to you is a diffusion line boutique. And then we’re going online too.
K: I’m excited to see this!
D: Darling, it was so worth the effort to come through the traffic to have this interview. Love you!
K: Love you too!