Sonal Maherali is one of the most stylish personalities in Kenya. Her walk-in closet, valued at slightly more than Sh20 million, features mostly rare, custom-made and limited editions of various articles, mostly Diorama and Hermès brands.
From Christian Louboutin stilettos to Lady Dior handbags, top-of-the-range perfumes and other high-priced personal accessories, Sonal is a passionate collector of the finest delights money could buy.
She emerges from a backyard porch at her enclave in Nairobi’s Kitisuru for a chat on her passion for fashion, running a luxury collection and family.
I start by asking her why she calls herself ‘Simba Maharani’ and what the lion insignia in her new clothesline Sonal Maherali means.
“It means ‘lion queen’ in Hindi. I chose the lion logo to portray bravery and power. My designs are also Afrocentric because they’re for the continental market,” she explains.
For someone who grew up in an average family in Arusha, Tanzania, she has had to deal with many curveballs in life.
Given her family’s financial circumstances, luxury was off the table. Except this never stopped her from fantasising about life in the fast lane. “Our parents used to tell us to lie low and wait for the magic of the quiet nights,” she says.
“While that worked for a fleeting moment, life taught us to step into the treachery of the night and grab our opportunities by the scruff of the neck,” she says.
Sonal has a steadfast belief in the practicality of life and that luck has little room in the equation. To her, you could choose to be a “sly hunter and sit and wait” or you could be a “gallant warrior by stepping out to fight’’ for your rightful place.
It’s by this edict that she has lived her whole life: raiding where opportunities are and wresting her share.
In 2010, she threw her hat into the luxury vlogging ring to review brands that she had consumed and “to fill a gap on the scene.” This would set the ball rolling for her own luxury clothesline, closetsm.com, an online store, that she launched in June last year.
Kenyans, she says, love luxury, “only they live in self-denial.”
“Some Kenyan consumers buy T-shirts by Gucci or Versace for up to Sh60,000 a piece. The pricing of these brands is high because they sell not only products but their brand names as well,” Sonal says.
However, she says luxury doesn’t have to be expensive.
“You can get high quality products at affordable prices. You can buy local luxury brands with the same quality and which create equal satisfaction at as low as Sh5,000, which is a better deal for the consumer,” she says. Sonal has been the recipient of constant flak from a section of her audience ‘‘for show-off’’. Misconceptions about luxury abound, she says.
For most people, there’s a fine line between luxury and opulence. So, what’s the relationship between the two, I ask.
Her countenance takes on fire as she responds:
“Opulence is pompous. Luxury is quiet. Money can buy opulence, but luxury is priceless,” she explains.
Luxury, she insists, isn’t for the elite, but for ‘‘any consumer with a delicate taste for fine things.”
“Women in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arab world wear luxury every day. They wear jewellery, clothes, shoes and other personal accessories, sometimes under their buibui. They don’t do it for show-off, but as a lifestyle,” she argues.
To her, it’s impractical to sell luxury products without accessorising.
“I have to demonstrate what to pair with what for that truly magnificent look. I don’t wear luxury items all the time as people erroneously imagine,” says the 39-year-old.
So, how does she deal with naysayers? She emphasises the need to sift grain from chaff.
“The luxury business comes with territory. You have to know your target and focus on that,” she says.
Away from the luxury world, Sonal is a wife and a mother to three daughters. Her husband, a Briton, works in medical insurance. She says family has taught her patience and putting others before herself.
“It’s unbelievable that one could love someone else more than themselves. My family has made me appreciate what I thought was impossible,” she says.
She considers her husband her biggest cheerleader “both as a homemaker and as a professional” saying that “he’s also my biggest critic.”
Where does she buy her clothes, shoes and other accessories? How often does she make additions to her wardrobe?
“I shop at boutiques all over the world,” she says, revealing: “No experience has taken me to wonderful places around the world more than my shoe-buying expeditions.”
“I buy anything from high-street to exclusive shops. What matters is that if it’s a shoe, it’s high quality. Other articles simply make their way into my collection during my overseas trips.”
She may have travelled widely, to 20 countries so far, but to go hiking in the “enthralling and poetic Swiss Alps” remains her most sacred travel goal.
Other than hiking, “sunbathing in the dreamy beaches of Sri Lanka and touring Vietnam’s stunning landscape’’ are waiting in her travel bucket list. Still, attending fashion shows in Paris is an irresistible allure for her.
Any lessons from her travels? The more you travel the world, the more you are detached from your routine worries, she says.
“Your home may be on fire but the rest of the world spins on. So, why not travel with abandon?”
For a collector of so many treasures, Sonal has gifted people she loves. I ask her if there’s an item she regrets ever having given away.
“Time,” she says, seeming lost in thought. “I gave away my time to people who never deserved it.”
Besides personal accessorising, there’s a business motive behind Sonal’s collection. She collects these items as an investment, often through resales.
The most prized items in her lavish collection are two Birkin bags by Hermès, each worth a combined Sh2.9 million, and a cross-design shoe between Louboutin and India’s Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
But these are not what she would never give away if she had to.
“I wouldn’t trade my sense of humour with anything,’’ she jokes and chuckles.
“I have a special custom-made shoe from Christian Louboutin called the Trash Pigalle. This was specially made for me using my materials that I had mailed to their Celine Mount Street Store in London. I’m obsessed with this one.” So, who does she target? Is the local market for luxury attractive or even promising?
“The luxury business is different from other investments. Those who know what they want know where to get it. They are my target market,” she says.
“My business is to connect with those who desire to own top-of-the-range items and make their dreams a reality,”she adds.