Making a breakthrough in the fashion industry is never easy, but there is a young Kenyan fashion designer who is determined to do just that.
Lorna Abwonji, the Founder of Nairobi-based Mia Mara Creations is focused not only on conquering the Kenyan market. Her big dream is to export her beautiful Kenyan fashion designs to all parts of the world.
Ms Abwonji registered Mia Mara Creations in 2008. In the same year, she became a REDDS AFRICA FASHION DESIGN AWARD [RAFDA] finalist.
“It was straight after college and I was immediately set into the limelight of a major fashion competition of that time that got participants from all over the continent. I learnt a lot from participating. Even though I did not win it was a great experience and got to interact with other established designers in the industry,” Ms Abwonji says.
In 2010, she took the bold step to organize DRESS UP KENYA during the National Museum of Kenya 100th Anniversary. It was a platform specifically meant for upcoming designers since at that time there weren’t such events.
Ms Abwonji recalls that the event was a huge success and helped launch many young people into some of the established brands we have to date.
“In 2013, I went full time into establishing my brand and have been growing ever since. I also do a few collaborations with people interested in working with me on various projects,” she says.
Ms Abwonji has participated in various shows such as Casino Malindi Fashion Show, Samantha’s Bridal Fashion Show, FAFA- Maybelline Make Up launch, etc.
She has also been part of other competitions such as FA254 and the Safari Runway Show that was on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
Ms Abwonji was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders in 2016 and was amongst the 1000 young African leaders to meet President Barack Obama in Washington for the summit.
On the challenges she meets in the Kenyan fashion industry, Ms Abwonji says: “Like every business the main challenge is to make a living out of your business.”
She points out that apart from being a new and developing industry, the fashion industry in Kenya is generally misunderstood. For instance, many think that when a fashion designer works with a specific fabric such as Ankara (Kitenge), then that’s the only thing they can do.
People also hardly differentiate between a fashion designer and a tailor. “It’s like comparing an architect to a construction worker,” Ms Abwonji says, adding that “the public seem to think that fashion industry is restricted to design and yet it is very wide. Examples are manufacturers, visual merchandiser, fashion marketing and PR, retailer, Stylists, models, etc.”
Fashion industry being still new in Kenya, quite often those involved end up performing several different roles. “For example, as a designer in Kenya, you are the designer, the tailor, the manufacturer, the accountant, the marketer, the retailer, the Public Relations agent, etc. In countries where fashion is established those are different jobs for different people in the industry,” Ms Abwonji says.
She points that it is not quite easy to get funds for a creative business in Kenya. Luckily in the recent years different organizations and financial institutions have been trying to fill that gap.
Ms Abwonji mainly does ready to wear clothing because that is what most Kenyans relate to.
“I also do custom made clothing for different clients. I try once in a while to do creative clothes but make them wearable,” she says. “The motto for Mia Mara Creations is CREATE YOUR OWN STYLE which is to encourage clients to wear what actually suits their body type instead of trying to follow trends. The idea is to have a timeless wardrobe that suits you and that helps you further express who you are.”
Ms Abwonji is convinced that the fashion industry in Kenya is growing and has made a lot of strides over the years. “I feel it will go further and I see that young people have more interest in having a fashion career,” she says. “What needs to be worked on is the structure and also the curriculum in the tertiary institutions. I know there are already steps taken to improve the curriculum.”
Ms Abwonji appreciates the efforts being made by both the government and the private sector to promote the Kenyan fashion industry.
The government, through the Export Promotion Council, offers training to help people from different sectors including fashion raise their skill levels to export quality.
Ms Abwonji says: “There are various people who have begun getting into retail in both small scale and large scale. Some retailers are stocking only made in Kenya brands such as REPUBLI.KE and THE DESIGNERS STUDIO and there are fashion brands that are doing ready to wear affordable clothing in retail such as VIVO. There are also people getting into fabric manufacturing such as TOSHEKA. There are others doing clothing manufacturing for high end brands such as PANAH. Magazines such as COUTURE AFRICA feature local designers work.
“Kenya Fashion Awards also help bring out top people in the industry through its annual event. Fashion bodies such as AFAD try and bring industry players together.”
Commenting on her future plans, Ms Abwonji says she would like Mia Mara Creations to grow to more than a fashion brand. “I want to eventually get my brand to incorporate more upcoming designers. I also want to make it more accessible not only locally but globally.”
Click here to order your ready to wear designs from Mia Mara Creations
Mia Mara Creations’ custom-made work is done on appointment. Click here for further information.
All the photos are from Mia Mara Creations’ CULTURE SHOCK collection.
Photographer: Brian Mwando
Make Up: Marilyn Wanjiru