Evelyn College of Design set to pass on 47-year-old family business baton to successors

Evelyn Mungai. PHOTO | COURTESY

In 1976, a beautiful, very stylish, and enterprising Evelyn Mungai was the only African female who owned a secretarial bureau in Nairobi.

Having been the first African to have studied at the then-prestigious Kianda Secretarial College, she set up a college that teaches etiquette, a key factor in her course outline that prepared secretaries for work placement.

She was only 30 years old and the owner of Speedway Bureau.

By then secretarial jobs were the most in-demand and colleges sprouted to cater for this demand.

With lower profits, Evelyn opted to sell her secretarial bureau and pursue her crazy passion for fashion design. She had no fashion training, just a bold sense of fashion and was smart enough to spot a gap in the market. She opened the first Fashion College in East and Central Africa.

It was nothing luxurious — a small room on Duke Street, now Ronald Ngala Street, leased for free by two of her Asian friends. She bought her first set of sewing machines from PFAFF (General Machines) on Kijabe Street and registered her company — Evelyn College of Design.

She advertised in the newspapers for the recruitment of teachers and students. With a need for a bigger space, she moved the college to Electricity House on Aga Khan Walk.

Evelyn recruited three teachers in 1976 who were living in Kenya and had experience working as designers in the UK and Poland and were wives of expatriates who were working in Kenya.

Ms Wyeth was the first principal, Lorely Griffiths worked as the head of the textile department and Anne Gatowiski worked as a lecturer. In the first year, the college had 10 students, including Ugandans.

Within a year, the student enrolment grew to 100 and the college started offering other courses. As the college grew, they moved again to Riara Road. Evelyn decided to buy the house in the early 80s, seeking financing from the National Bank of Kenya

. Forty-seven years later, Evelyn sits at her home reminiscing the bold journey of a young woman who defied the odds to start a business and built an iconic fashion school.

How were you able to convince parents in the early 80s that a career in fashion was credible?

My background in owning a bureau had helped build my credibility and parents were comfortable with me educating their children in this non-conventional career.

Clothing manufacturing was big in Kenya then, we had Kikomi, Raymond and Rivatex. These facilitated the growth of the textile export industry.

Major universities such as Egerton were offering training in textile and manufacturing but only Evelyn College was filling a gap in the market with a focus on fashion design, taught by international tutors.

Thus, it was not too hard to convince the parents and students to invest in this career.

There was also a gap in the market for designers and creative heads at the management level in major textile factories.

How much were you charging for college fees in the 70s?

School fee in the 70s was affordable mainly because we did not have the technology, all we required were sewing machines because a lot of the work was manual.

Evelyn Mungai. PHOTO | COURTESY

Our first set of students graduated in 1978. Among them were Sheila Madoka, Ruth Kibui, and later in the 80s and 90s Sue Apollos Muraya, Sally Macharia, Kitty Ondeng', Joy Rucha, Molly Mungai, Rachel Shebesh, Akinyi Odongo, Elizabeth Njoroge. Ms Shebesh later became a principal at the college for a short stint before she joined politics.

One of the challenges entrepreneurs face is how politics affects the economy. Was it similar in the 80s and 90s?

In the 80s, we had many students from the East African Community, especially Uganda where the industry was also booming.

In the 90s, the clothing and textile manufacturing industry was hit hard and this was due to international lenders stopping giving Kenya money.

The export market suffered immensely, and this is when the import market of clothing and textiles started booming.

In the 90s, the college also had to change its curriculum, making it easier for students to get admission to universities.

Towards the late 90s, the local fashion industry stabilised and I launched a women's magazine called Presence to complement the creative work at the college.

There was also the launch of the Smirnoff International Fashion Awards, which was an internationally run fashion design competition that offered the students a platform to reach a unique international audience and media coverage.

The Smirnoff team approached the college and we created a great working partnership.

Succession is a big challenge when it comes to sole business owners. Did it come easy to you?

Between 2014 and 2016, I called back my daughter-in-law Molly Mungai to help streamline the college and to introduce technology.

We brought in a new principal, Mr Karanja who had trained at Kenyatta University and was then working at Buru Buru Institute of Fine Arts.

He did a fantastic job for three years in reorganising the curriculum and in 2019 we acquired our accreditation with the Technical and Vocational Education and Training Authority. By early 2020, we invested in additional technology, lecturers had been trained in computer-aided design for 3D design, graphics, fashion, and interior design.

But Covid affected our recruitment of new students as parents wanted to visit our premises and meet with the faculty and under the regulations that was not possible.

In March 2022, we temporarily closed the college so now we are on a break. Let's see what happens in the next phase of Evelyn College of Design.

What are the key lessons have you learnt after 47 years of running a fashion business?

When you are young everything is possible; be bold, fearless and adventurous. It doesn't matter if the economy is working or not, learn to take risks and learn from the challenges and mistakes you make along the way.

My personal brand and the Evelyn College brand have become the same. From building a reputable authentic brand to being a public figure and speaker to networking in leadership circles around Africa and always having an undeterred entrepreneur's spirit.

Evelyn Mungai Pottery archive. PHOTO | COURTESY

It's also important to be realistic and to put a stop to a project when it's not working out and move on to the next opportunity.

Invest and hire competent people for the job. Sustainability and consistency are key many colleges over the last 30 or so years have begun with a lot of gusto but have barely survived for a few years.

Evelyn College of Design was one of the few that stood the test of time. Students of this generation are very different from the 70s students.

They are impatient and do not want to sit in class for long periods. They would rather learn key things off the internet and come to college to learn only a few very specific elements.

Students' health and mental wellness is a major factor for any learning institution these days.

How did you continually recruit students from around Africa?

The college built such a strong reputation around Africa and we were soon admitting students from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Malawi, and South Sudan where they were sponsored by Mrs Garang [Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, the wife of Dr John Garang de Mabior, the late first Vice President of Sudan].

Many of our alumnae became leading fashion designers in their countries and kept in touch with the college or returned to teach, inspiring the many generations of students who attended the college.

Being a trailblazer, you also struck a deal with Vlisco...

One day, I found myself as the only African female on the African Development Bank's business roundtable, which was a group of private sector leaders.

I sat next to one of the directors of Vlisco, known for its rich heritage and timeless designs that have been loved for generations.

We struck up a great conversation about Kenyan fashion and they were interested in finding a partner to distribute the fabrics and that is literally how the Vlisco partnership began.

We had a Vlisco showroom in Westlands and my daughter-in-law Molly Mungai managed it. She sold fabrics and created made-to-measure collections.

The fabrics were great but expensive and we were competing with many factors. In the 90s, Kenyans only wore Vlisco for special occasions and when Kenya Airways started flying to West Africa, the air hostesses would purchase Woodin fabrics, which were much cheaper than Vlisco and sell them at cheaper prices to designers and fabric stores as they did not have to pay import duty or other taxes.

This affected our business. The Vlisco team also had very aggressive and unrealistic sales targets and they used to compare us to their West African market where they had established themselves for 150 years. Eventually, we closed the showroom and decided to focus on the college.

My daughter-in-law Molly moved the production team to the college and she continued to create custom-made collections and sell the Vlisco fabrics on a smaller scale but eventually, we completely shut down that side of the business.

How did you manage to keep the curriculum current in the 80s?

One of our alumni designers, Sally Karago who is now the proprietor of Mcensal Fashion School applied to join a university in the UK and that is when we realised the need for higher national accreditation.

We registered with City and Guilds in the 80s and 90s. This advanced certification enabled our students to be admitted straight into the second year for university degrees in fashion design, interior and art and design.

All these investments in certifications created a credible reputation for Evelyn College. Over the years, we added complementary programmes such as graphic, interior and jewellery design, entrepreneurship and personal finance management.

One thing that most entrepreneurs miss is how and when to take advantage of an opportunity. What risks did you take?

In early 2000, I realised the value of the Riara Property was much higher than the value of operating the college. I built apartments that are now the Cedar Springs apartments.

I then moved the college to its current location on Maji Mazuri Road, Olengurone Avenue in Nairobi's Lavington.

Then I introduced interior designer courses to complement the then-booming real estate industry. Many people were either buying or building apartments or buildings.

We also had a lot of students flying out directly for further studies, so we then decided to focus on regional students and even built a hostel within the college to help them settle down and navigate in a foreign country.

The tourism industry was thriving at that time and this influenced and inspired a lot of trends with a major focus on uniform design for hotels and lodges.

We received a lot of requests from hotels for designers to produce uniforms that we had to reach out to our alumni to fulfil the orders.

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