Years of craftsmanship may have made Italian master suit tailors indomitable, but young Kenyan designers are betting big on newness and boldness to lure men with a taste in fashion.
For the likes of Franklin Saiyalel, a 25-year-old Kenyan designer and Nick Ondu— the generation next tailors have brought the fine touch, similar quality, tweed, cashmere, silk or cotton suits probably found in Savile Row, Jermyn Street and Milan’s Fashion District to Nairobi.
Franklin’s pieces are exciting the bespoke suit market and so are Nick’s, who introduces himself as a sartor— which means tailor in Italian.
The young designers allow customers to choose the fabric swatches, thread and buttons and even make house calls to take measurements–offering made-to-measure suit services just like the master tailors of luxury fashion houses.
Nick is busy. Our interview happens after cancelling a number of times. He was booked for a wedding, which apart from being the tailor of the men’s suits, he was also the stylist.
“A man is as good as his suit, and this is achieved by getting the correct measurements of a person, getting a good material and then getting the correct cut. I hand stitch all my suits especially the buttons and also put special details like the initials of the client’s name,” he says.
What sets their suits apart from the rest is the fit, the craftsmanship and the material used.
‘‘For really good suits, I import super fine wools,” Nick says.
He makes from tuxedos, trench coats to normal suits that are differentiated by the cuts at the back of the coat. Two buttons at the front is in style but there are other men who prefer a single button.
For a double-breasted suit, the shoulders are possibly the most important part of the jacket, Nick says. The seams should correspond with your natural shape. The collar should rest against your shirt collar, with no gaps or bunching when you turn to the side.
His double-breasted coats have peak lapels, and they come with six or eight external buttons, which is more traditional, while others have two or four.
‘‘No matter how many buttons your jacket has, always leave the lower button unfastened, just like a single-breasted suit—but button the bottom interior button, so that the jacket stays closed and lays flat,’’ he says.
The current trend is wearing a well fitting suit. Nick says, not too tight, when someone looks at you, let them see you wearing the suit, not the suit wearing you.
Being a ‘sartor’ for Nick was an interest he developed with time. He started working at a furniture shop but lost interest after six months and started his fashion design career.
He self-taught himself how to make suits and owes his skills to an old tailor friend.
His collection has been worn by musicians such as Sauti Sol, a former French ambassador, image consultant Robert Burale among others. His suits range from Sh18,000, but he says he can make a suit that costs between Sh80,000 to Sh100,000.
“If I am making a suit from cashmere wool, then it will be expensive. The material is very soft and light, it is a combination of cashmere and silk,” he says.
He not only specialises on formal attire, he also has a collection of dress down versions of suits. He calls them ‘‘a broken down suit.’’ This include khaki pants paired with a blazer.
Franklin, on the other hand, has only been in the industry a handful of years and he says his job, going forward, is to make his clients’ style dreams come true.
He has not settled on simplicity; he says he caters to the bold who love colour and also those who are keen to dress well but are careful not to draw attention.
He specialises in single and multi-coloured suit and shirts, pocket squares, ties and other accessories.
“We go out of our way to do house calls when needed. That interactive aspect of my business is what keeps me going. I also get to learn more about the client’s expectations,” he says.
Franklin started off as a fashion and lifestyle blogger in 2009, while still in college. He got invited to various social events and he would ensure that he dressed impeccably. During those events he would receive complements as well as enquiries on where he sought his clothes.
It was not long before brands began approaching him for partnerships and this saw him team up with advertising and marketing agencies for campaigns. Most, he says, were attracted to his fashion forwardness.
Later, a friend encouraged him to start his own clothing line and it marked his debut as a designer in 2013.
More than two years after the Kenyan Stylista brand was launched, he is happy at how things have turned out.
Although Franklin’s price range is nowhere near that of made-to-measure designer suits, stitched by Ermenegildo Zegna master tailors who come in Kenya to measure buyers, he is hoping to drive fashion.
The designer has a workshop at the Central Business District and two tailors. He plans on opening an online shop for a ready-to-wear line and grow his brand through pop-up shops.
They are many other young designers courting the luxury consumers and have also mastered the game of giving free advice to their clients. They know what type of suit fits well on a certain body type.
Nick says when getting a suit it is important to know your body, your individual style and knowing how to accessorise it.
If you are bigger on the upper area, then a double-breasted suit is not for you, go for a three piece which has pants, a jacket and a waist coat.
Men with average bodies or athletic bodies can basically look good in any type of suit, depending on their style. They can wear a double-breasted, a single breast, or a three piece. Their pants can either be slim, narrow, straight or tapered.
There is no reason not to go bold, be it subtle red or bold checked suits. Nick and Franklin are not the only ones, a collective of African young tailors have entered the spotlight, bringing a designer twist to the traditional skills of Savile Row tailoring.
Some menswear tailors add a touch of African in the bow ties and others make the plain Italian-like suits—a style known for its trendiness, slim cuts, sleek silhouette and modern.
African talent is shining. Already, African designers have found a permanent space in high-end shops in New York, London, Toyko and Kenyan designers hope to follow in the footsteps of Ghanaian Osei Duro who has a collection at US department store JC Penney and boutique studios in London.
But first, it is to dress the local wealthy consumer who makes 80 per cent to 90 per cent of luxury purchases outside Africa, according to a report from the African luxury forum held last year.
For most wealthy Africans, everyday is like a red carpet event, and the designers are honing their talent to stitch to perfection.