Ann McCreath stands in a firm frame at 177cm, even taller in command of her space: Fashion and style. Born in Scotland, Ann moved to Kenya in mid-1990s, and became the epicentre of the region's fashion scene.
Trailblazer, multilingual connector and trainer. The founder of KikoRomeo is all these things and more. Ann speaks with a certain intoxicating conviction, her words bearing an intensity that runs deep into her soul.
When she founded KikoRomeo (Kiswahili for Adam's apple) in 1996, Ann had her sight on menswear of African fabrics and texture. As the years wore on, the brand widened its prism and exerted its dominance, winning multiple local and international awards.
Today, KikoRomeo, which Ann co-runs with her 23-year-old daughter Iona, is best known for its repertoire of loose fittings for the androgynous wearer.
“We make the same pieces for men and women with only slight alterations while maintaining our style,” Ann explains.
Her collections sell in high-end outlets in Nairobi, Lagos, Addis Ababa, London, and other cities around the world.
A regular at major fashion events in the world, Ann has attended fashion weeks in Milan, Barcelona, Madrid, and London. “They’re all memorable experiences. But I'm more in tune with the Paris edition because it attracts more arty and quirky styles.”
For someone who lives off fashion and all it’s worth, it's only fair to ask her what her sense of style is. Ann pivots in her seat.
“Mannish and arty,” she says quite-matter-of-factly. “You'll find me in overalls and hand-woven clothes most of the time.”
She accessorises her attire with bright coloured jewellery, although she has worn none during isolation.
“Not even earrings.” Heels? “At 5’’10, I'm quite tall to want to amplify my height,” says she with a mischievous grin. Over the decades, Ann has witnessed the industry here evolve from strength to strength to become what it is today. I’m interested to know what intrigues her the most about this transformation.
Her face is suddenly aglow.
“Our fashion is now more market-driven than before. People are more aware of choice,” she says.
Anywhere in the world, fashion is dictated by culture and climate, factors that Anne says are now more evident in how Kenyans dress. “Whether mitumba or other clothes, Kenyans are increasingly going for what works for them. Mitumba, for instance, allows people to dress with more freedom and artistry.”
Ann says textile manufacturers were slow to respond to the mitumba influx of the early 1990s.
“They looked at things from a price angle rather than a trends approach.”
It was a monumental blunder that the local textiles industry has never recovered from.
Somehow, this functional approach to fashion rather than that of clothes as enhancers is still prevalent.
“While fashion is an economic catalyst, we must integrate artistry at all levels, be it incorporating beads or other handcrafted elements into garments.” But for pulsating fashion industry, Ann says training should enable players to accurately predict and interpret market trends.
“When the coronavirus started, who would have thought the biggest fashion trend across the world in 2020 would be use of masks? The functionality of fashion couldn't have come into play better. It’s brilliant how local tailors grabbed the opportunity to answer to this huge demand.”
There’s a catch though. “Are these tailors and designers connected to the market?” Mostly not, I say.
“We need a strong connection in the entire fashion chain for the opportunities to make economic sense to our 75,000 designers and tailors, manufacturers, distributors, and the market.”
That settled, I’m curious to know why she sees the world through an artistic lens. If there’s a suitable answer, the place to look for it would be the inside of her house which is bedecked with artworks of all sizes and genres—paintings, sculptures and drawings.
“My life would be miserable without art,” she says. “As humans, we feed off beauty, vibrancy, colour and art. A creative soul can’t produce in a sterile space.”
I’m jolted to learn that Ann doesn’t have any interest in electronics. “Whenever I’ve some disposable income, I buy an artwork,” she says.
And Ann never feels as if she’s pushing the boat out whenever she spends money on art. “Art isn't about the price but the emotions it evokes in you.”
Can she cook? She guffaws, and says: “I'm not bad at it, although cooking isn’t my main thing. Iona though is excellent in the kitchen.”
Still, Ann can whip up Arroz con pollo, a traditional Spanish dish of rice, chicken, and vegetables. “It delights me to roast chicken, to bake and to make Scottish soups. I’m not fascinated by oriental food, but I love chili and hot food,” she says.
A gardening enthusiast, Ann grows spices and other medicinal herbs.
Last year’s recipient of the Cultural Hero award of fashion by the British Council says this was a fitting recognition “for the many extra hours of sometimes unpaid work I put in to create things.”
To enterprising fashion entrepreneurs, loving fashion alone isn’t enough, she emphasises.
“How do you and fashion connect? What’s the driving factor? Understand who you are for harmony and flow with fashion.”
Not everyone in fashion is a creator. Some people are in the business to make money by copying and modifying others’ designs. This is a cardinal sin and a bad business model for a would-be designer.
“Making a product from nothing is a headache. You must be keen on designing, learn to draw, and understand textiles. This takes time.”
These days, Ann alternates between thinking this “crisis is a bad dream and that humans are living in a goldfish bowl.”
She calls the coronavirus a sociological revolution.
“It feels as though someone is trying to conduct a sociological experiment on human behaviour,” she argues. “Our privacy has never been more at stake.” I urge her on. “Humans are willing collaborators. We’re willingly filming ourselves cooking, gardening and working out. Everyone now has access to our private lives.”
KikoRomeo and Avido formed an initiative dubbed Art in the Time of to promote sale of artworks for artists whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the pandemic.
“Creatives are struggling as much as everybody else. No one is buying artworks. People are holding onto their money to survive the lockdown,” Ann explains.
In this arrangement, the artist takes 50 per cent of the revenue while the other half goes to purchase of emergency relief kits for vulnerable people in the society. A major auction will take place on Instagram today and tomorrow where top-drawer artists will be selling their artworks.
As we wind up, I turn to language because, well, Ann can speak Italian, French, Portuguese, basic Swahili, Spanish and Catalan. She's even taught English as a foreign language to Saudi women.
“I love to tap into the language of the people I interact with because the language's much more than spoken words. Understanding its nuances is the doorway to the culture of the speakers,” she notes, adding that so much gets lost in translation.
“As a professional, your brilliance is lost when you can’t connect through language,” she says.
Thanks to work and adventure, Ann has toured Europe and Africa extensively. She has worked as head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in different African countries.
In her city travel, Dakar, Senegal, tops the list “because of its sereneness and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The creative craziness in Nigeria is a mood lifter. The rich history and boat rides in the Indian Ocean make Lamu a fascinating tour destination,” says Ann who’s curious about Asia and Latin America.
When I ask how differently she would approach her life if she had an opportunity, she firmly says she’s content with the journey of her life which “couldn’t have been better travelled.”
“I’ve got myself into messes and out of messes. My experiences have been very uniting and have enhanced my clarity on where I want to go.” Where’s that? “Training young fashion enthusiasts for whom I’ve endless respect. Fashion is diverse and I don’t expect all of them to become high-end fashion designers.”