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Young Kenyan fashion designer steps out in style

Liz Ogumbo strikes a pose during her modelling
Liz Ogumbo strikes a pose during her modelling days. /Courtesy liz ogumbo 

Asked when she launched the fashion house whose label made a mark at a recent continental fete, Liz Ogumbo of Imani House of Fashion usually tells a little white lie.

She is afraid people will not believe that the business is only three years old.

It typically takes years for a designer to hone their skills and build their brands. It took John Galliano, the creative director of Christian Dior, more than five years to finally show his designs at the Paris fashion week after graduating from fashion school in the late 1980s.

It’s no mean feat then, that the Imani fashion house has managed to build a label that participated successfully in the Arise Magazine African fashion week held in Johannesburg, South Africa last month.

The week was a festival of fashion which included eight days of catwalk shows by over 50 top designers from 20 African countries each presenting their unique take on the African aesthetic.

This was Ms Ogumbo’s first show as a fully-fledged fashion designer and an excellent opportunity to debut her new collection.

“It was a really good platform to gain visibility and showcase my work,” she said in an interview with the Business Daily.

“I have been getting a lot of interest because of the show.”

Although a qualified computer scientist, Ogumbo chose to trot the globe as a model, gracing catwalks from Paris to New York, instead of pursuing a career in IT.

She still models occasionally, even appearing in her own shows, such as the Arise one.

When she came back home in 2005, she started a modelling agency but it did not take off as she had hoped it would. She decided to diversify into another realm of the fashion industry and thus Imani House of Fashion was born.

She invested in fabric and a number of sewing machines, then set about scouting for a tailor to interpret her designs.

The first dress she designed was for herself but she promptly ploughed back the Sh5,000 estimated value of the outfit into her fledgling business. “I later sold the dress to friend and used the money to buy more fabric,” she recalls.

While getting investors to plough capital into her business would have given her a headstart, the fact that such funding was not forthcoming did not slow her down. “My philosophy has always been to use the one available shilling to make two shillings.”

Ogumbo is at once talented and energetic. On top of being a fashion designer and model, she is also a singer. She performed a song on the recently released album by Just A Band, a local band.

For now, however, she wants to concentrate on her two upcoming collections as well as on releasing a plus-size line by the end of this year.

Ogumbo describes her designs as trendy and cutting edge, but quite unlike the “fast fashion” of the west, where clothes are discarded after a season.
This self-taught designer targets a wide market segment and has her sights set on designing for women between the ages of 15 and 60.

To do so, she aims to come up with cuts and styles that anyone can wear.

Ogumbo is inspired in the main by the 1960s, the age of the maxi dress and lots of colour, a time she describes as fresh, stylish, practical, and elegant.
She recreates this period by recycling, using fabrics that most people would hesitate to use, and experimenting with different media.

Image is everything
“I’m selling image,” she says, “I’m selling elegance.”

She is decidedly unimpressed with black, grey, brown and navy blue business suits that professional women are inclined to wear all that time and wants to know, “what happened to colour?”

Her take on Kenyan fashion is that it carries no elegance men and women chase down the last trend and end up looking first confused, then ridiculous.

The Arise show opened up a new world of opportunity for Ogumbo.

The exposure broadened her network considerably and gave her fashion house its first interested buyer­ a South African who is on the verge of opening up a boutique.

Ogumbo has turned her attention away from made-to-measure garments to seeking multiple orders from stores.

“I only do this for my friends,” she says, of one-a-kind garments. “The only way to go is wholesale where I’m dealing with buyers from stores from around the world.”

She concedes that the path she has chosen is not easy as it is getting buyers and sustaining their interest in your designs is a daunting task.

But this is young designer is not afraid to be unconventional. For example, she came up with a “Hit and Run” marketing stunt where she and her models would “raid” cafés dressed in her designs and cause a flurry as they took photos, making for an unauthorised show albeit with prior arrangement with the owners.

“But it did not work here,” she says, “people did not really get it.” Ironically, it caught on in Dakar, Senegal, last year. Now Ogumbo is thinking of launching it as fashion movement that can be replicated across Africa beginning with Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

When it comes to fashion, Kenyans are not as open minded and engaged as West and South Africans, local fashion professionals say.

In South Africa for example, it’s the government and corporations who sponsor the prestigious Cape Town and Johannesburg fashion weeks.