When you ask Sally Karago what fashion is, she says it is the sky, the trees and the animals. To mean fashion is around us and it is not conventional.
You might remember her from many projects in her long career, but it is her Turkana collection at the New York Fashion Week a few years ago that showed her head above the parapet. Apart from her SK Collection brand, she runs Mcensal School of Fashion that she started in 2009.
She met JACKSON BIKO in her studio in Karen, Nairobi.
How important is apprenticeship as an upcoming fashion designer? Do you have to go to a fashion school to be a good designer?
You can’t be a good fashion designer if you don’t go to a fashion school. I don’t believe you can. People try learning from YouTube and from books but you must be in a place where you get the skill taught. You may be an apprentice but you may not know how to design.
So you can’t watch someone design and learn from them?
No. You can’t. I’ve had students coming to do attachments and they cannot learn what I know because I’ve been in the industry for long. If you ask a young designer today what’s going on most will not be able to tell you. Being on Pinterest isn’t enough.
If people are colours, what colour are you?
Yellow. I think yellow brings brightness. What I have learnt in this business of selling clothes is that yellow is one colour that sells faster than any other colour in my shop.
Because it’s yellow and it’s very good to our skin colour and it suits everybody.
What would you be wearing and think, ‘today I’m going to dress in an extremely edgy way’?
If it’s a hot day, I’ll probably wear something sleeveless or even a loose fitting dress. It would have an edgy cut. Then I’d wear those Jesus shoes — the ones that you tie to the knees? That would be really edgy for me because that is not what people expect me to wear. And then in a cold season, probably I’ll wear high boots and a jacket because the way I would dress, even a 24-year-old girl will admire me.
How much of yourself reflects in your work? Are you able to stand away from your art and produce independently?
Everything about my work, everything that I do is loose. I don’t do tight. I’m very gypsy in the way I dress and all the things that I sell. I don’t have hems, my things are cut in a different way. When you look at my jackets, they don’t have seams. So, everything that I do has something edgy about them.
Gypsies are known to be nomadic and unconventional even ….
Yes … I used to wear these bandanas, I mean, I’ve gone through it all. I usually wear a lot of jewellery. In my house, I have a wardrobe for just jewellery. Every one of them has a value and it has something that matches whatever it is I choose to wear.
Do you always worry that as you progress in age as a designer, the latest trends will fly over your head and you will then be completely out of touch with what young people want to wear?
Oh no! It doesn’t bother me at all. I know there are some things that are a no, no for me. For instance, I will not go down the streets in a tight fitting skirt and heels.
I believe that elegance can come in different ways. You don’t have to wear too tight to be classy. You can wear something loose and still look trendy. It’s how you value your body first and what you want to show.
Some people have nice legs, so they wear minis which is OK, some people want to wear low cuts to show their cleavage and others arms, and that’s OK. I don’t have a problem with that, but, it depends on you as a person and what makes you comfortable.
Are you interested in trends?
Of course, yeah.
How do you make sure that you stay relevant?
First, I teach in a fashion school so if I’m not relevant to my students then they would not listen to me. My students also challenge me, and I also have to challenge them. So, you must always know the colours, the fabrics that are trending. That is what keeps me on top because then I’m able to go and buy the colours. I just don’t buy anything.
And what colour is trending now?
Olive green, that looks like brown mustard. Luminous yellows and greens are also trendy. I’ve just came from China, all these trendy colours were mostly sold out.
What kind of a girl were you when you were growing up? Were you the kind that knew how to match her shoes with her dress at a very early age or did the fashion bug bite much later in life?
My dad was very fashionable; he loved a good style and he loved life. From when I was 12 years old, he saw something in me so he would ask me to choose what he was to wear.
If we went shopping, he would ask me to dress all my sisters — we’re five girls. As I grew older, I met a designer called Priscilla. I used to go and sit with her and watch what she was doing. So, when I finished my O- levels, l just went into a local fashion college. Then I went to Europe for four to five years and when I came back, I started my fashion house.
How has what you do here as a designer impacted on your children artistically?
They are all artists. My son — the oldest — is in school in California, USA. He’s an actor. His name is Raymond, he’s 24 and he’s done a few great things in California. He wants to get into production.
I have a younger son called Tendo. He is very edgy in the way he dresses, very fashionable. He wants to be a music producer even though he’s good in science and mathematics.
So, the artsy bit they get from you …
And my husband is an architect, so we are all artists in the house. Through my husband, I have learnt a lot about colours. I can do interior design because as a fashion designer, if you don’t understand colours, then it’s very hard to become an interior designer.
Which piece of jewellery or item of clothing do you own that you absolutely cannot give away?
I did a Turkana collection that I exhibited in London and New York. Those are sentimental to me because nobody had ever done the Turkana look before. We always do the Maasai look. But through this work I have been invited to the Mercedes Benz fashion show in Accra in August.
How long does it take for you to prepare; from the moment you leave the shower to stepping out of the house?
Ten minutes. I never plan what to wear the previous night. I don’t wear heavy make-up so that reduces my preparation time.
Undo something in your 30-plus years as a fashion designer ….
That’s a hard one. (Pause) I’d advocate for tailors to be noticed more. But it’s an important component of our business yet they don’t drive cars or own houses or get bank loans. Nobody really sees it as a profession. I have a tailor who has been with me since I started, he’s 60-years-old. That’s all he has done in his life.