Kenyan executives drop the colonial suits for hip look

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Summon the top male executives in Kenya today for an impromptu meeting and you will come up with one quick conclusion — the corporate look that colonialists impressed upon our grandfathers has undergone a dramatic shift.

“Smart casual” and “athleisure” are some of the words you are likely to hear from this crop of leaders. Who said being a corporate leader needs you to wear a tie? Is there a sin in leaving the top button undone and showing some chest? Who said you have to keep off the ‘box’ and other hairstyles to look businesslike? Who said a bushy beard doesn’t cut it? Who said rolling sleeves like Barack Obama makes one a less serious boss?

Even in the UK, the territory that rubbed off its corporate dressing culture to Kenya, a lot of shifts are happening. A 2023 report by analytics firm YouGov showed that just a small minority of workers were sold to the gospel of what is considered business attire.

“Just 7 percent of workers say they don ‘business attire’ at work, including 8 percent of male workers. Even in ABC1 occupations (that is middle-class jobs) just 10 percent say they wear a suit, and among those in ‘A’ occupations (those in higher managerial positions or professional occupations) this still only hits 13 percent,” reported the firm.

“The most common work dress is ‘smart casual attire’, which 34 percent of workers say describes what they wear to work,” it added.

Similarly in Kenya, younger leaders are keeping up with their generation’s “anything goes” permissive attitude about self-expression. It’s about what they bring to the table, not how they bring it.

The who’s who wear athleisure as a way of gesturing their commonality or, conversely, to communicate that they do not follow societal rules, much less clothing norms. Business owners dress casually — sometimes even in jeans and T-shirts à la Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk…the list writes itself. And why not? They probably have bigger fish to fry than matching their tie and pocket square.

Emily Kimathi is the managing director of TheLocco Prime Merchants, a Westlands-based shop that specialises in men’s clothing. She notes that today’s man is not bound to the very strict rules of donning suits and their colours. However, Ms Kimathi, a former banker, notes that there are professions that have not evolved as quickly.

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“There are those industries that are very focused on how you look. For instance, if you’re going to look for businesses out there, you need to look sharp. The way you are dressed will actually speak even before you open your mouth. So, there are other industries that go for a relaxed look; they will come and do the broken suits (coat and trouser of different colours). So, we couldn’t generalise and say that all men in the corporate sector are doing a relaxed look or a semi-casual look as opposed to a full-suit look,” she argues.

One profession that may take a long time to change its ways, according to Ms Kimathi, is law. This is because there exist rules on how an advocate should dress while appearing before a court.

“They need to be in a full suit and they have specific colours. They do mostly the blues, a bit of greys, and mostly the striped suits. That works well for them,” she says.

Ms Kimathi began her business by observing her male banker colleagues. They were required to wear crisp suits but had little time to buy them as they typically worked six days a week. She began supplying items to her colleagues, barely aware that she would later break out into a full-fledged shop with a robust online presence.

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What's up with the tie?

Whereas our observation is that there are fewer Kenyans who fancy neckties, Ms Kimathi reckons that the clothing item that completes a suit look is not facing any turbulence.

“Do you know, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, that is OEC, in 2021 and 2022, neckties exports grew by 50.9 percent? This was after the Covid period. And if you look at the same source, you will see that Kenya, in 2022, was the 69th highest country importer of ties. You know how many countries we have? Around 195. So, Kenya being number 69 clearly shows you the ties are here to stay,” she argues.

'Nguo ya Ruto' demand rises

Ms Kimathi observes that another clothing item fast creeping into official wear is the Kaunda suit, not least because President William Ruto has been a constant ambassador of the semi-casual safari suit.

“People are calling and asking about ile nguo ya Ruto (Ruto's clothing),’” she says. “I think, by seeing our head of State doing it more often on screens and everywhere, people have accepted it.”

In November last year, National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula had to make a ruling on whether the Kaunda suit was acceptable in Parliament. Parliament is also one of the places bound by strict dress codes. Mr Wetang’ula’s verdict was that the suit, alongside the so-called African wear, would have no place in Parliamentary chambers.

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As per the rules of Parliament, proper dressing for men comprises a coat, a collar, a tie, a long-sleeved shirt, long trousers, socks and shoes or service uniform.

We also ask Ms Kimathi, whose shop also offers grooming tips, whether there is a tone of formality or lack thereof in a bushy beard.

The beard problem

“You can have a beard and still dress up sharp,” she answers. “But the problem is keeping a long beard and long hair while you’re dressing down. That one speaks: This guy is not responsible. It speaks a lot about you.”

If indeed language is the dress of thought, then suits are the idea of a well-put-together man, the panjandrum who simply gets things done. A man who exudes danger but not crookedness. He gets what he wants, and he doesn’t want what he doesn’t get. The power of a great suit is how it accentuates a man’s frame: how the shoulders pull back, how the back straightens, the canvas in which every brush stroke paints the man at his best.

But does the suit (like the hat before it), once the go-to “ambitious executive” cheat code, the Harry Potter of clothing, still cast the same magic spell on its audience as it did in the past?

Colour and power

And the darker the colour – black, dark blue, dark grey – the more the power, each line from its wearer delivered with the ringing authority of Moses on the mount. As esoteric as it sounds, generation after generation, the suit remained impervious, maintained its insipid menace, and kept its implacable secrets uncreased.

But lately, the suit has become a symbol of conformity. Its currency has held value for the established professions – the lawyers, bankers, and undertakers – but the younger executives appear to be pulling in a totally different direction.

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