Profiles

Mending fray in my career fabric

Mungai

Molly Mungai, Director Evelyn College of Design in Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • Ms Mungai studied at Fashion College International, Evelyn College of Design, and later did an International Business Administration degree from the United States International University (USIU)-Africa.
  • By some stroke of design, irony or the universe's intervention, she married the son of the founder of Evelyn College of Design where she lectured after her training. 
  • As a former student, lecturer, and now director she has been with the school for 30 years.

“There was always a sewing machine in our house,” says Molly Mungai, the director at Evelyn College of Design. Her memory of childhood is filled with the incessant sound of a Singer sewing machine as her mom made and mended clothes.

Ms Mungai studied at Fashion College International, Evelyn College of Design, and later did an International Business Administration degree from the United States International University (USIU)-Africa, because fashion is business.

By some stroke of design, irony or the universe's intervention, she married the son of the founder of Evelyn College of Design where she lectured after her training. As a former student, lecturer, and now director she has been with the school for 30 years. She is also a director of the Kenya Fashion Council.

She is at the crossroads of trying to reconnect back to her lost artistic self in her fifth decade, she told JACKSON BIKO.

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When do you think you're most in touch with your artistic side?

Before my first child was born. In the early 90s, before I moved to big business when I just had my little studio at home, with my one tailor. This was after college and getting married and us moving to Nairobi's Kitisuru, which was and still is a great environment to create. I did my best work then.

I was in my late 20s, the same age as my daughter now (Karun, the singer formerly with Camp Mullah), and funnily enough, the same garage-turned-studio that I used is what she's using now to make her music.

What are your most vivid childhood memories?

Sewing machine. There was always one in our house. My mom also did a lot of craftwork. I remember once she made a costume for my sister who was acting as a panther.

She sew the whole costume with a tail and all. When I was about 12, I remember that during the holidays I would accompany her to a shop called Singer shop and there I learnt to do pattern drafting and stitching.

I understood the structure of cut and clothes. So when I went to college it was easier for me. I had my brand at some point, my friends just called it Molly. [Chuckles].

In 1996, we started a shop called African Inspirations to import African prints. I was 30 years then and we were doing great things in fashion when the industry was good.

The 90s and early 2000 were the best time of my life. After that, the industry started collapsing. I focused on my children after closing shop. Later, I started running the school as the designer in the family. [Pause] I haven't designed in a long time.

Were you fearful or anxious when your daughter became famous in her teens?

Maybe now I can say that in hindsight I would have, but I didn't because I realised that it was coming. She has always been very talented but also shy.

Sometimes when you are very talented you find it hard to give it out, you withdraw. Yet others struggle so hard and when they get to that stage they want to shout out to the whole world.

Are there things that you wish you did that perhaps you're considering doing now at this time of your life?

What I wish I didn't do is to get into the business of management. I should have remained on the creative side of the business. So when I joined Evelyn College I should have remained as a creative director, which is why I want to go back. Being on the business side takes away your creativity.

What do you fear for yourself now?

My fear is getting into a mental state where I'm unable to do the creative things I want to do. Look around, a lot of people are going into depression, or anxiety, or early Alzheimer's...

The constant use of computers, the internet, WhatsApp to communicate is not good for the brain. I am lucky to be a creative where I can use my hands for something and that's good for the brain.

Old women crochet, which people say isn't fashionable. But hand-eye coordination is good for the brain as is cooking, gardening, painting, drawing... My mom is still doing handloom weaving and she is almost 80.

She designs for top designers in the US and is called by the government to help with designs.

What has to happen for you to say I've led a fulfilling successful life?

To get up and not have to think of work. To just walk out to the garden. I love trees and plants. But also, you don't know how hard it is to do nothing. I wake up and I'm already doing things.

When I retire, I want to be able to wake up and do things that don't involve work. I'm trying to retire, hand over the directorship, but it comes with responsibility, people you need to pay... So I am learning how to delegate and create.

One of the things I'd like younger people to do, especially running a family business is to learn about governance. We were talking with my husband that we don't practice good governance enough.

Only multinational companies can do that. Employ a CEO to run your company and stay back. It's hard for a company owner. But we need to get there so we can build companies that are independent of us as owners.

How is it working in a family business?

Being a family business you're expected to be there. But I'm thinking 'no you don't have to.' I think it's a very difficult time because we'd want the institution to run itself. How can I push this organisation to run itself without it being about me?

If you were to save one piece of clothing from your burning closet, which one would that be?

I have an African print dress that reaches me just here. [Waist] A little shirt dress. I wear it every other week. I bought it from Designing Africa Collectives. As a fashion designer, I made a conscious decision to start purchasing from local designers. For most of my life, I had made all the clothes that I wore.