Is it important to mention that Connie Aluoch attended Istituto Marangoni in Italy, the same fashion school that Dolce & Gabbana attended?
Might it also be important that she says she is the only one with a Master’s degree in fashion styling in the region? Or that she lectures on fashion and styling at the University of Nairobi and Daystar University, the first person to teach that course?
All these started at Evelyn College of Design in 1996 where she earned a diploma in Fashion Design and Garment Making. Then came a degree in Fine Arts, Fashion Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.
In 2003, she moved to New York from Italy and worked for leading international designers like Emporio Armani, Alek Wek and Matthew Williamson. We met for breakfast at Java, Valley Arcade.
You used to have this bald look, what was that all about?
(Laughs) I knew that was coming! Okay, let’s put it this way, I used to have really long hair when I moved to the US to go to college. I didn’t have time for hair because studying fashion is very involving. It’s a very high pressure, deadline-driven industry.
Do I sit down and stitch my garments within the deadline or do I go to a hairdresser? And I was like, forget it! I shaved it. It worked for that time, but change is imminent. If my brand looked the same now as it did 10 years ago, then there’s something wrong with my brand. I’d say a big problem.
How and when did this fashion bug bite?
I think it’s literally growing up observing my folks. My parents are really good dressers, I remember going to my mum’s room when she was going to her functions, sitting on her bed and watching her dress up. She had an array of hats and clothes and I used to feel like, “Wow!” And then also my dad’s mum—Mama Tabitha—was very good in sewing.
Is your business doing well?
It’s going great, I think. Thank God. We are doing a bunch of things. My company is in charge of the KTN anchors' image. For the last four years, we create a style guide for them, what they can wear and what they can’t wear. You will notice, there’s no sleeveless, no prints, the clothes are not tight… It’s a very classic look that anyone who is eight- years- old and 88- years- old can watch TV comfortably. So literally we do personal shopping. Each anchor and reporter gives me their budget and we shop for them.
Incidentally, on a more serious note, please comment on Larry Madowo’s crazy print shirts?
(Laughs aloud) You are such a trouble maker! You know, it works for him. For his show and his personality. I don’t mind them.
You know there’s a time we tried getting a national outfit...
Oh my God! that was over 10 years ago!
Are we doomed with Western designs? Is it a bad thing that we don’t have an attire that identifies us as Kenyans?
I think it’s just us being Kenyans. We like to have our own individual styles, so trying to box a Kenyan and say “this is a national dress” might not work and it didn’t work. Kenya is a tough environment, I wouldn’t say hostile, because Kenyans have their own mind. If they don’t like something, they’re not going to buy into it.
No matter what you do. However, if you look at ‘Made in Kenya’ designers are more accepted now and people are appreciating and buying Kenyan stuff now than they did 10 years ago. It wasn’t the time then.
Everybody and their mum is trying to be a sort of a fashionista online, is that a good thing for fashion?
It’s the influence of social media and accessibility to the Internet. Look at fashion 10 years ago. There was no Instagram and Internet was barely there. Now, within a second you can go online and find out what summer 2016 trends are. And, yes it is a good thing! Remember we—designers—used to be called tailors before and it was so annoying but now, I can freely say I’m living off fashion and teaching fashion.
Do Kenyans actually buy from these local fashion designers? How sustainable is the local fashion industry?
Look at the wedding industry and how big it’s become. If you’re a designer and you choose to focus on bridal, like let’s say Ogake Mosomi and Wambui Mukenyi, how much is a wedding dress? Probably around Sh60,000 to Sh150,000. So if you make four of those in a month, not bad. Look at Vivo. Who’d imagine a ready-to-wear line opening more than three malls within three years? That means there’s a need. The middle class is growing and they’re appreciating fashion now.
There has always been moans on the horrible fashion sense of Kenyan men, it’s unfair, right? We are all right, aren’t we?
(Chuckles) You know what? It’s changed. Look at the younger generation, there are lots of male fashion bloggers now. Also, guys are wearing pink shirts. A few years ago which man would wear a pink shirt? Look at Larry Madowo. The guy is in probably in his mid-20s… Who would imagine a news anchor would wear African print on TV? There’s an awareness of fashion within Kenyan men now more than ever.
What’s the most challenging thing about doing what you do?
Five years ago when I began pitching about being a fashion stylist for news stations, I used to go around all the stations, sit there for an hour and they’d see you for two minutes and they’re like, “What are you talking about?” The awareness of the importance of style is what has been my challenge till today.
Another challenge is following up on payments. I don’t know if it’s a Kenyan thing or it’s a worldwide thing for entrepreneurs, you do the work, then you’re chasing your money. I think it’s a worldwide thing.
You’re a lecturer?
I’m a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. Yes. It’s the thing I am most proud of, ever. I am the first stylist to be a lecturer again, in the region. I think we are three or four people with Master’s degrees within the fashion industry. Right now I am teaching a few courses and we’re hoping in the next couple of years it can become a degree.
The rest of my styling work is focused on corporates and that’s where I do talks on personal branding. I also lecture at Strathmore Business School about personal branding. In the business world, we have all these managers who have the knowledge but they don’t look the part. We have women sitting in boardrooms and they don’t even look the part. Their clothes don’t fit. Their faces look dead, not even a bit of makeup and they’re telling you “This is what you need to do.” If you don’t look the part, how are people going to respect and believe in you? Credibility. It’s a big gap. They realised, you know what? Let’s bring in an expert to talk about personal branding and image.
So indeed clothes maketh man?
It does. Image. It takes less than two seconds to form an impression on someone. If I walked into a room on a Monday morning, training let’s say a group of bankers and I was in jeans and a T-shirt, would they believe me? They’d be like, “Where’s the trainer?”
Was the shadow of your mum ever over you?
Actually, I am my own person.
When did you become your own person?
When? I’d say as I grew and followed my path in fashion, I became my own person. People never say, “Is that Connie, the judge’s daughter?” They don’t because I’ve worked my own way up.
Is money very important?
I think it’s a balance. It’s a balance of being able to have enough, and to keep the business running and to pay the bills, save and invest. And then there’s more to life. There’s family, friends... So for me, key is the balance.
What did you learn from your dad growing up?
Being consistent in your work, he’s also worked his way up. This guy used to wake up at 5am every day just till the other day when he slowed down and now he goes to work around 9 am.
Hard work never killed anyone. What’s your biggest extravagance?
(Laughs) I would say it’s my image. I have to spend on my image. So from my make-up, to my hair, to my clothes…I have to look the part, there’s no two ways about it.
Are you seeing someone, Connie?
Currently single. I thought we agreed you wouldn’t ask that, Biko? I just knew you were going to throw that in somehow. (Laughs) .
OK then, here is a safe question, what book are you reading currently?
(Laughs) I’m reading “Making Money Is Killing Your Business, by Chuck Blakeman.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt running your own business so far?
Don’t take things personally, it’s just business. Also that you always have to have a plan B in everything you do. Also when it’s getting too much you have to learn to step away like I did this Thursday when I just stayed home and went for a massage.
You also need mentors —this is key. Mentors who I just call and I’m like, “I can’t do this anymore!” And they’re like, “Okay, but look how far you have come…” and next day I’m back at work. Because you just can’t give up.