Cris Njoki is a designer, owner of the IKOJN fashion brand and social media influencer. She is passionate about fashion and empowering the modern woman to own her strength and be confident in her abilities. IKOJN is a contemporary fashion brand known for its quality pieces and exquisite design.
I spoke to Cris about her journey in fashion, starting her own business and the challenges that she has experienced on the way. She tells us about the significance of social media to her business and gives tips on how to create a brand for yourself.
Tell us some something about yourself
My name is Christine Njoki. I run a fashion brand called IKOJN which is a brand that only caters for women. I am also involved with other brands which I collaborate a lot with especially on social media.
What would you say defines you as a designer?
I would say that the thing that defines me is the fact that I love creating fashion and style. I like being able to take something that most people wouldn’t look twice at and turn it into a beautiful outfit that makes women feel strong, confident and empowered.
When did you discover that you had an interest in fashion?
My earliest interest in fashion was back when I was about 14-15yrs old. I had found a suitcase of old clothes that belonged to my mum and I altered them into pieces of clothing that I would wear to church. Despite my early interest in fashion, I didn’t know that it was a career option until my father pointed it out and suggested that I should pursue it seriously in school. Otherwise, I saw fashion as just a hobby.
I would also say that I wasn’t as exposed then as I am now about the opportunities that are available for people who want to take on fashion as a career. I didn’t know that there were schools that offered the courses; but at the same time, the art industry in our country wasn’t as vibrant as it is today.
I had actually enrolled for business school right after high school but after one year I just had to let it go because I felt like it wasn’t a path I wanted to take. It was then that my father suggested that I drop out of business school and take a course in fashion.
Which school did you attend?
I went to Mcensal School of Fashion Design which is currently located on Ngong Road. I was there for three and a half years and that is where I got my training in fashion.
How important was it for you to go to an actual fashion school?
It is impossible to downplay the importance of me going to school because what I learnt from my time at Mcensal has played an active role in what I do today. I have friends who I am in the same industry with, they are creative and doing a good job, but you can tell that it is still tough for them.
Fashion came naturally for me from an early age, but I needed skill to improve myself and become better. As much as you have a passion for anything, I feel like going to school puts you in a better position for success. I would definitely say that passion combined with skill gave me a higher chance of survival in this industry.
Being a designer requires someone to be creative, would you define yourself as an artist?
Not really, I think I am more of a businesswoman than I am an artist. I first think of something from a business perspective before factoring in being creative and expressive. If I had to define myself, I would just say I am an entrepreneur.
From experience, do you feel like fashion is viewed as a viable career option in Kenya?
The idea of art being a career is still very new in our society mostly because we are expected to enrol to the more established and traditional courses. Also, as a worldwide phenomenon, artists are known to either be starving or struggling. Once you say you want to pursue anything artsy, your chances of succeeding are expected to be lower compared to others who have white-collar jobs.
Tell us about IKOJN, how did you come up with the name and how is it pronounced?
Many people pronounce as I-KO-JEN but the “J” is silent so its correct pronunciation is I-KO-N the way you would also pronounce the word “Icon”. IKOJN is actually my second name Njoki, spelt backwards.
What makes IKOJN unique from the other fashion brands in the country?
One of the things that puts us a notch higher from most brands is the quality of our pieces. Our consumers can attest to the fact that our products are made of really good fabric and quality stitching. Another thing that makes us unique is that anyone wearing IKOJN stands out from the crowd for all the right reasons. The customer is neither overdressed or undressed, our outfits are classy and place women who wear them at a higher standard.
Consistency has also been very important to us as a brand. Ever since the inception of IKOJN, I have made sure that every year we have a minimum of two collections. Each year we have grown in all ways that a business should grow, and we have always made sure that there is always something new for the customers. It is important for us that our consumers return for more products, so we listen to their feedback and make sure that our collection never gets boring or stays the same.
What is the vibe you want women to get from IKOJN?
To answer that, allow me to give you a description of the “Ikojn woman”. The Ikojn woman is driven, she has goals and she has a plan to achieve them. She is confident and decisive in every decision she makes in life. She is sure of herself and her abilities, she wants to be taken seriously but also has a playful side; she still wants to be able to let her hair down. She embraces her femininity but does so conservatively because she does not want to be overly sexy. She is the kind of woman that is proud of her curves but does not feel the need to show too much skin.
How would you describe the variety of items available on IKOJN?
We have a wide range of items that we create. Mostly we have apparels. By apparels I mean dresses, tops, coats, jackets; basically, everything that involves clothing. We do not do lingerie or accessories at the moment but that is definitely something we hope to add to our collection eventually.
Currently, what is the most popular item on the IKOJN line?
It is difficult to say because we keep changing our pieces and collection. If I had to pick, however, I would say that our trousers are quite popular, our customers specifically like the way they fit. The curvy frame of the African woman can sometimes pose a challenge when it comes to getting the right fit, especially in the crotch area. We have figured out how to find the right fit for curvy women, styling each customer according to their unique body shape. For this reason, people really like our trousers and they are always selling out.
Do you work with African fabrics like Kitenge?
When I started IKOJN, I was against the use of Ankara and other African fabrics because I felt like everyone was overusing the said fabrics. Designers were using them for everything and I felt like that was not what I envisioned from my brand. I was very particular on making IKOJN a contemporary line with modern fabric and sophisticated design rather than kitenge which like I said, I felt like it had been overused.
Even though I was strongly against it, some of our consumers were asking a lot about African print. Because I am business-oriented, I felt like it was a good move to listen to the feedback we were getting and try to accommodate African print into our collection without interfering with the identity of the brand.
We did a couple of African print pieces last year but this year we intend to create separation between the kind of contemporary pieces we are known for and African print items. We might have a sister company that will still be under IKOJN but will deal exclusively with African print and design.
What do you like most about being a designer?
I like the fact that I get to create items of clothing from scratch and people actually like my work. It gives me a lot of fulfilment when I see women wearing IKOJN and feeling confident about themselves. It is the best feeling as a designer; the fact that I can do something I am so passionate about and get money for it means everything.
Is there an IKOJN shop?
We make our pieces in a factory located in the industrial area, they are able to make the pieces in large quantities and different sizes. We have partnerships with different boutique owners where we come up with a business plan which includes us stocking their shops with pieces from IKOJN. With that kind of arrangement, we are able to reach our customers in various locations in the city. We also sell a lot of our products online, our major platforms include Instagram, Jumia and our own website. Currently, those are the two main avenues we use to get our products out there.
How significant is social media to your business?
On the scale on 1-10, I would say social media ranks at number 13 in terms of its significance to my business/brand. That is how important it is. For us, social media is one of the best, fastest and cheapest ways to introduce products to our customers. It is very convenient as a marketing tool because consumers can interact with the product wherever they are, which really helps our cause as a business because you want your product to get into the market as fast as possible.
From your experience, what are the do’s and don’ts of using social media to promote a brand?
First and foremost is to be authentic, do not post pictures of products that are not yours just for the sake of enticing people into following you. Be very clear in your messaging and let people have enough information about pricing, sizes and the variety of your products. You also need to be consistent in the way you put out information. The more consistent you are, the easier it is for the consumer to trust you because they can follow your work. Consistency also helps with visibility on social media. For instance, Instagram has an algorithm that improves the visibility of a profile based on how regularly you post.
If you commit to a reasonable number of relevant updates, it will be easier for your work to be seen by lots of people who might be potential customers. Another important thing about social media is to make sure that your content is of the best quality possible. Make use of all the resources available to you and package your brand as best as you can. Social media is very visual and therefore, your posts should be interesting and well put together.
What opportunities have you gotten from being a well-packaged brand?
As IKOJN, we have been able to remain consistent with our production and putting ourselves out there and it is through this that we have gotten the opportunity to showcase the brand in different countries. Being exposed to international markets has been an education, we get to learn a lot about how they do business and we compare to what we have back home. Because we have an active and vibrant social media, we have partnered with international brands to showcase and promote products which have helped us to improve our own visibility as well.
IKOJN aside, I also work a lot to package my own personal brand and I view it as a way to earn extra income. As much as I am a designer by profession, I feel like it is important to also develop other ways to earn income. From a personal level, I have been able to partner with local and international brands for promotional and marketing purposes. So far it has been really successful, the same rules apply for personal brands; be authentic, be consistent and put out content that is of good quality.
As a designer and business owner, what challenges do you experience?
When I started IKOJN, I wanted to go into retail and I assumed that the only place I could get my clothes made was in China. I used a lot of money and other resources to go to China and look for a factory that could make the clothes for me. When I finally got a factory to work with, the finished product wasn’t as we had agreed, it was way worse than I expected it to be.
I was so discouraged at that point and I felt like quitting the business and giving up altogether. With no money left and no real prospects, I was on the verge of giving up, at the same time I couldn’t give up because all I had was my brand. I had no plans of switching careers and getting another job, I felt like I owed it to myself to find a way to make it work. So I dusted myself up, went back to the drawing board and start again, this time taking baby steps and we have come this far.
Logistics is also another challenge, especially as an online business. Customers expect to get the products they have paid for, wherever they are. We currently don’t have a delivery system that we can confidently say is 100% effective. The systems available are quite pricey especially if you are running a big business. We are still trying to work around the issue and find a system that works best for us.
Getting the right staff is also another challenge that I have faced. When you start your own business, you are clear about the direction you want your company to take and finding staff that understand your vision can be quite challenging. As an employer, you try as much as you can to help your staff internalize the values of the business but sometimes you can only do so much.
Empowering women is an important part of my business, so the majority of my staff are women. I like to show them that we have the potential to positively impact the creative world. With women, however, it can be tough because most of them have other responsibilities like families and children which they will likely put before the business.
What advice would you give to people looking to join the fashion business?
The fashion business is big and glamourous but try as much as possible to start small despite all the grand ideas that you might have. There are invaluable lessons to be learnt through gradual growth so be patient with the process, do not rush to take loans or bring investors on board. Start in your own small way and you will see your business grown into something remarkable. Also discover what you are really good at. Fashion is broad and no one is gifted in all areas. You might be good at stitching but not struggle with styling. Other are good are picking out good fabric and designing but do not know how to run a business. Find your niche, pursue and perfect it.
Finally, what should we expect from IKOJN in 2020?
2020 is going to be a big year for IKOJN. We are going to have lots of awesome collections and designs, we will be going back to our roots where our pieces were very clean, modern and expensive looking. This year we are taking everything a notch higher in terms of design and pricing, it is going to be a good year and I am sure all IKOJN lovers are going to love what we have planned.