Morteza Saifi came up with the idea of opening a luxury fashion production house while still living and working in New York.
He left his high level position at the US based multi-brand Vince Camuto to pursue his passion and open what he terms a business with social return— Panâh, a fashion production house that offers life skills to its employees and produces luxury quality clothes.
“At that point, I felt like I wanted a different career. I left my position and discussed my plans with Evgeniya Khromina (co-founder and president of Panâh) and we started looking for where we could do this project. Africa seemed like the best option.
“Asia does not seem to have the right environment for such a project and being associated with China mostly means mass production. You cannot say you are doing something wholesome or different in China, there is always that suspicion,” he says.
With Ms Khromina, who was then a marketer, they looked to East Africa. The strategic position that Kenya holds in Africa made a lot of business sense to them. Two years later, they started Panâh, which means refuge or safe place in Farsi.
“We wanted to create something that gives back, especially to the people making the products. We placed more importance on those working in the factory unlike the robotic experience I had working with industries in China, which was not satisfying for me as a designer,” says Mr Saifi, who is now the executive creative director of Panâh.
He entered the fashion industry at the age of 16, apprenticing in his uncle’s factory and after graduating from Parsons – (top design college), he went to start his clothing line before making the switch to designing shoes when he joined Vince Camudo.
He often travelled to Italy, Spain, Brazil and China to work in factories and oversee production.
“By the time the production got to China, I felt that there was something missing, the human part of making things. Everything was mass-produced, workers lived in the factories, the quality of life was pathetic,” he says.
Panâh observes environmental and social responsibilities. “The social part is to show the human face involved in the production and get people to know who is making their products. The environmental bit is about having and enforcing a zero waste policy, keeping the cut-off to make new products and harvesting rain water.”
“Energy and labour is abundant here in Kenya compared to Asia but we are not an alternative production to China. If you want cheap, go to Bangladesh or Beijing,” he says.
Africa’s influence on the global fashion scene grows every year, but mostly as a source of inspiration for designers. There are quite a number of mass production clothing factories like those in the Export Processing Zones which are really not geared towards luxury items.
But the latter is often associated with ethical fashion. Maybe that is because one of the first such houses to promote African production was Edun, started by U2’s frontman Bono and his wife – Ali Hewson. But they soon moved their production to China from Africa.
Mr Saifi says that ethical fashion houses are moving back to Africa including Edun which has moved most of its manufacturing back to the continent. This, he says, sends a poignant message to the rest of the industry.
“Panâh uses cellular manufacturing methods where the tailors are put in support groups to allow better quality control and to reduce waste. It is not line production where everyone does only one single task and which is very robotic, says Mr Saifi.
The fashion house also be provides consultation services on the latest trends, including colours to the local fashion businesses.
“Panâh is a real showcase of luxury quality. Its mission is to produce luxury items for international and local markets and demonstrate that Kenya can compete and produce clothes that meet international standards,” says Ms Khromina.