Following advice from a friend, Ruth Abade withdrew all her savings, bought a sewing machine, hired a tailor, and started a fashion business at home.
“A friend once told me that one can start a company with whatever small amount of money one has. One doesn’t need big capital, that’s exactly what I did,” Ms Abade said.
The idea of starting her own fashion business came from working at Dawn of Creation, a fashion division of an interior decor company.
As the department head, Ms Abade was the designer under the directorship of the owner — Ciiru Waweru. The experience opened her eyes to opportunities in the industry. However, she did not start her fashion house immediately after the division closed.
Instead, Ms Abade joined Terra Nuova, an NGO which worked with artisans in Nairobi and its environs. The NGO partnered with design students from the University of Nairobi and passed on their knowledge to micro-enterprises. When her contract ended after three years, Ms Abade saw an opportunity to start her own business.
Blackfly, her fashion company, was registered in 2009. Ms Abade started off by making clothes using kanga clothing and recycled old leather jackets to make handbags. Apart from being environmentally conscious, recycling helped her get raw materials without much capital.
“I coined the name from Black, which symbolises Kenyans, and Fly from slang for hot and beautiful. I also realised that there is a bug called the Blackfly which is dangerous. The brand has blossomed and appeals to everyone who wants to look great and beautiful,” she said.
In 2010, Ms Abade went to Italy on a six-month leather handbag course. “It was nothing but cutting and drafting. There are very few artisans who can work with leather here and I thought this would give me an advantage,” she said.
Ms Abade described leather as a fascinating material with different textures, weights, and prints. When she came back in 2011, Ms Abade knew exactly what she wanted for her business. Her first products were blazers and leather bags.
Today she has three employees working at her workshop at Adams Arcade, Nairobi. She also works with various other workshops, which she interacted with during her NGO days.
She is now building a brand of blazers that one can wear in two different ways through manipulation of the front by buttoning and unbuttoning the collar or lapels. She said that blazers must fit a client perfectly or they appear floppy.
“I realised that blazers were the best product to start with. I also wanted to give people a chance to create their own fashion statements. Meaning one can wear a blazer with a dress, shorts, or jeans. It’s all about a client’s preference,” she said.
To diversify her product base, Ms Abade also makes accessories such as belts, computer bags, iPad sleeves, and phone pouches. She designs prototypes for tailors to work with.
She said that knowledge gained from her degree in Industrial Design had served her well.
Her initial challenge was getting people to appreciate her clothes. “Kenyans just follow trends and when they are introduced to a local trend they often abuse it. I like to be trendy, classic and timeless.”
Ms Abade said that visits to exhibitions such as Bizarre Bazaar and Soko Soko has exposed her to different designs. She recently took part in the Tribe Hotel Pop-Up Shop, an event that brought together five local designers, for a month.
She is working on expanding the business and setting up a ready-to-wear section and a physical location in collaboration with Tamani Wear Store. She also markets her products through her Facebook page, Blackflydesigns.
‘‘Blackfly isn’t just a Kenyan born fashion label, Blackfly is a lifestyle. It’s a celebration of people’s individuality and vibrant spirit,’’ the introduction to the page says.
“I love my job. My joy is seeing people happy with the end project. Being able to distinguish between a hobby and a business is challenging,” she said.
Being designer, manager, and marketer is overwhelming, she said. “I have been getting positive comments about my designs from foreign buyers. I’m heading towards the export market,” said Ms Abade.