Ann McCreath on building KikoRomeo and placing Kenya on the global fashion map
Kenya has always had a diverse fashion background. With the existence of more than 40 tribes, each with its own aesthetic culture and taste, we have been blessed with one of the most fashion forward industries in Kenya. For close to 20 years now, the brilliant and creative Ann McCreath has not only been able to build her fashion brand ‘Kikoromeo’ but has also put Kenya both on the African and global map as the go to destination for all things fashion.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Ann and what do you do?
I am a fashion designer and activist. I use fashion to empower people by making them feel good. I also use it as a communication tool – drawing attention to issues and sometimes putting messaging on clothes. I think I am probably also one of Kenya’s fountains of knowledge of how to create & manage a fashion brand in Africa – yes times have changed, but there are a lot of things which are still the same.
How did KikoRomeo start? What does the name ‘Kikoromeo’ mean?
KikoRomeo started in my garage in 1996. It started with menswear only. KikoRomeo means Adam’s apple in Kiswahili. I then had to do womenswear as at the time men weren’t very interested in fashion. That has now changed and both men and women shop from me.
Why fashion? Did you always picture getting into this line of work? Or what did you want to pursue as you grew up?
I always loved designing for my dolls & started making clothes for myself, using a domestic machine aged 7. I really wanted to be a farmer (as well as a doctor, pilot, skydiver…), maybe I still will be.
So far, have you seen the vision that you had set out for Kikoromeo take off?
To a large degree, yes, but I also wanted to franchise it globally so that the world would know a sophisticated side of Kenya and Africa. I still plan to do that.
What makes your designs stand out from others?
When I do a totally new collection for the runway, I work a theme through my clothes. I research the theme and interpret it in garment design, cut and details. That theme is mine; it’s my interpretation of something interesting, based on my life experiences and skills, which are unique to me as an individual. In the shop, I stock a mix of every day, easily wearable styles, which are altered to fit if required. More elaborate styles from my themed collections are usually on show and are usually made to order so that they can be custom made to enhance the body and style of that particular client.
How many clients and orders do you get in a day/week/month? What are some of the biggest clients and orders you’ve made?
We have a corporate uniform division, which is where the big manufacturing numbers are. There we can make 1,000’s per order, which we do through partner factories. In fashion we usually do 5 maximum of the same design same print – they are truly Limited Editions. On regular Kenyan fabrics, we will do more pieces as everyone uses them from tailor to designer. Copies in Kenyan fabrics are often on the market, though our cut and finishing are very superior and so we still have a regular clientele on these items.
Where do you source your material from? Is it easy/hard to acquire? If hard, what do you think we can do as a Kenyan market to make sure some of these materials are more accessible?
It is very difficult to get good fabrics in Kenya. Locally manufactured are suitable for staff uniforms as they are hard-wearing, but not at all suitable for fashion. Fashion requires different fibres and textile finishing e.g. of cotton. A mistake, in my opinion, is 50% duty on incoming African print fabric from West Africa, if called “kitenge”. Their quality is so much better to ours, there is no comparison. Yet if you bring fabrics in from India and China you will pay 25% duty. Surely inter-African trade should be promoted?
The other problem for designers in Kenya is that unless doing global exports the manufacturing numbers are so small, we are forced to buy fabric from retail outlets, which give little if any reduction on price from any member of the public who walks in and buys. This forces designers to charge more than they would like or go out of business.
Do you get people to help you out in sourcing and executing the ideas for your projects?
To a certain degree because I am the Head designer. My daughter assists with some projects and designs her own line Kikoti. She is still at university so she has limited time. I also work closely with fine artist El Tayeb, who hand paints on my textiles or garments. I do work closely with him on new collections. For the recent Tinga Tinga musical costumes, I worked closely with Beth & Naeem of Studio Propolis, as well as the Director & Producer. On tie & dye and knits again we work closely with the craftspeople – something which looks like a mistake can often become a fantastic new creation.
What motivates you?
I am not sure – art, music, spoken word…I have a very high energy level.
Describe to us your typical day of work
I wake up, check Instagram, get ready for work, cook wimbi & make fresh fruit juice. Then I check Twitter, do some patterns or design (I usually do this at night as it is quieter) then I check emails (I try to avoid them first thing as they tend to divert your planned day). Later I go to the workshop/shop /meeting – I prefer this middle of the day as I am highly productive first thing so I want to use that energy on essential things. Late afternoon I check emails & drag myself to look at Facebook – why do I find it so boring? Then I cook dinner. Then I draw or go online or write… If I’m going out I like to go for dinner or dance.
You have been living in Kenya for quite some time. What do you love most about working in Kenya? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
I like the diversity of Kenya and particularly Nairobi. It is a global city like London or New York. It is its own unique global space, something that is often overlooked when marketing Kenya as a destination.
What are some of the biggest and most memorable moments of your life so far?
I’ll write a book, and then I will answer that question. There are so many.
What are some of the ups and downs you’ve faced in your business?
The usual but the main thing might be access to international markets…if you are going to make it strongly in another market, you must be consistently in their face, whether wholesale or retail environments. That is not easy to accomplish on your own business finances & I haven’t succeeded yet.
Do you have any other side businesses or personal ventures apart from Kikoromeo?
I do fashion business and HR consultancies. I am the Chair of FAFA (Festival of African Fashion & Arts), which takes up a lot of time. I sit on the board of Kilimani Project Foundation and Lewa Children’s Home Trust.
As a designer how is the fashion market in Kenya? What do you think fashion designers and creators should do to promote the fashion industry in not just Kenya but in East Africa and Africa as well?
The fashion market is growing all the time, but the bulk is at lower price points as Kenyans are increasingly travelling for work or leisure and shopping on their trips. Fashion entrepreneurs, who copy from the net, are turning around a lot of money as they spend very little on new creations and focus their energy instead on production and sales. Designers who want to do truly unique creations are having a harder time as there is a very limited local market who are willing to pay the real cost of design development. They need to aim for a world market.
As regards properly developing the fashion export potential I think a lot of work still has to be done. The Cape Town Fashion Council will pay for designers to travel and show in key markets as they understand that fashion brands drive lifestyle, and bring jobs to many people along the value chain from a cotton farmer or fibre maker to textile then garment manufacturing then retail. To be taken seriously in any new market, you usually have to do the same trade fair 3 times. This means the buyers have seen you’re consistent and are willing to try you. Too often Kenyan marketing programs will take you to an event once then you are on your own. Fashion brands can’t afford the participation fees by themselves. Also, the events are not usually appropriate for real designer brands as opposed to fashion entrepreneurs. This is something Kenya needs to work on seriously as it will open doors to exporting other products also.
Where do you see yourself as a company in the next ten years?
We are in the middle of rebranding. We are celebrating 20 years in business and rediscovering a lot of our fabulous earlier collections. Our digital revamp coupled with a back to our roots innovation, will catapult us forward I have no doubt. In 10 years we will have franchised to key cities globally.
Who do you dress in Kenya (or outside the country) and who would you love to dress in the near future?
I have dressed and continue to dress many of Kenya’s leaders both in government and outside. I have also dressed Lupita and her mum; the Kenya XV’s rugby team & Kenya rugby women’s team off the pitch. My clothes have often been worn by Diana Opoti in her #100daysofafricanfashion. For me everyone is important, I can get as much joy seeing a village mama transformed through my clothes as a high profile individual. I just want to see them looking a million dollars and feeling so happy they show a whole other side of themselves.
Creating a brand, one that has been well received so far, must have been hard work. What can you tell to young designers who aspire to get into the business of making fashion?
Spend time making sure your costs are correct – if you under cost you will go out of business quickly. Know your business – if you love fashion & have a good eye, you can be in the fast turnaround lower price point business as long as you have access to affordable capital. The more you sell the more stock you need… or work to customer orders with at least a 50% deposit & minimum 125% mark up (so that the 50% is slightly more than what you need to cover your costs).
If you are a real designer – get well trained in drawing and cutting. You can learn on YouTube what you aren’t being taught in school. Your business will have at least 100-125% mark up to wholesale and then shops will mark up another 100-125% minimum to retail. In developed markets they will mark up 2.7 – 3.5 or more on a finished product, so make it really worth it – high quality in all aspects. Don’t mistake thinking that your clients are your dear friends who have little money – if you are going to make it you have to charge properly, the customer is not a charity project – if you get swayed to discount continuously, stay away as you will sink your business.
If you would like to interact with Ann find her on twitter at @AnnMcCreath. To find out more about KikoRomeo check out the website. Follow KikoRomeo on Twitter and Instagram to find out what they are up to.