Couture with a human face from Kenya

Modelling Louis Vuitton Maasai-inspired designs.

What you need to know:

  • Consumer giants have been fried for underpaying under-age workers in their shoe and apparel factories in the developing world but Italian fashion maverick Simone Cipriani wants to change this state of affairs from Nairobi where similar-minded fashion houses are in business

Elizabeth Wanjiru’s face lights up when she describes her workplace. It’s an airy, freshly painted building in Waithaka, outside Nairobi, which buzzes with the sound of women pedalling at their sewing machines as they piece together the lining for the latest Vivenne Westwood bag.

“Really, I really enjoy it” she beams. “When you come, you meet lots of friends. I am happy. It’s enjoyable.”

The Waithaka workshop is part of Kenya’s transformation into an “ethical fashion” hub and part of a growing debate over whether the growing global demand for ethically-made clothing can generate economic opportunities for ordinary Kenyans.

Kenya is already familiar with textile manufacturing on an industrial scale. Estimates suggest that mass production of clothing for export has created 60,000 direct jobs and 200,000 indirect jobs in the country over the past decade.

According to the last available statistics from 2007, clothing and textiles are Kenya’s third most important export, bringing in more than Sh6 billion in revenue.

But the industry has faced criticism for its poor work conditions as most large-scale clothing manufacturers are characterised by low pay, sexual harassment, poor compensation for overtime work, and weak labour rights.

Italian fashion maverick Simone Cipriani wants to change all that. In 2008, with support from the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, he founded the United Fashion initiative and chose Kenya as its launching pad.

“United Fashion is about real fashion produced in a responsible way,” explains Cipriani.

“My way of being responsible is to involve people in a dignified way, to provide work and a way out of poverty. My intention was not simply to sell existing local products in the market, which is competitive and complex, - but to merge talents from the fashion world with skills and materials available locally.”

The result is a program that draws on simple skills like sewing or tailoring, as well as traditional Kenyan crafts like beading, to provide Western designers with unique items and give locals well-paying jobs in safe work environments.

Currently, the scheme employs about 1,000 Kenyans in marginalised communities around the country although the workforce can swell to around 7,000 when a large order is placed from abroad.

The organisation’s clientele include high profile luxury designers such as Vivenne Westwood and Stella McCartney, who are in the market for artisanal, hand-crafted items rather than mass-produced goods.

That, according to United Fashion’s Product Development Adviser Jeremy Brown, carves out a niche for Kenya as a provider of quality items.

While Kenya cannot yet compete with manufacturing behemoths like China, hand-crafted products can be sold at a mark up to Western consumers interested in ethically-made items.

“You can sell it at a premium; it’s a real luxury product because every single thing is made by hand. “The fashion houses will try and sell that story,” he says.

And the luxury market, research shows, is less prone to the fluctuations in the global economy. While Kenya’s large scale textile industry suffered from a sharp decrease in business as a result global economic downturn, US consulting firm Bain and Company’s latest report on high-end goods finds that the luxury market is “defying initial concerns over Eurozone turmoil and fears of a cool down in emerging markets.” Sales are anticipated to exceed €200 billion (about Sh21 trillion) in 2012.

At the height of global recession in 2009, United Fashion estimated the total value of its exports at $2 million (Sh160 million).

Rajiv Arora, the executive director of the African Cotton & Textile Industries Federation, believes Kenyan manufacturers currently focus too heavily on mass production and are missing the opportunities presented by the international fashion market.

Partnerships with the fashion sector, he argues, could lead to broader economic development in Kenya.

“I can say for the past few years that we have been working with the fashion industry I think (the cotton and textile industry) has been well-supported by those companies. They have been recognised as a key factor in developing markets” says Arora.

United Fashion touts its initiative as more than just money-makers. Work places standards are guided by the Fair Labour Association, and employees are educated about their labour rights and empowered to pursue their own business projects.

“What we try and show the communities is that there are other things you can do,” explains Jeremy Brown, who is based in United Fashion’s Nairobi office.

“You can explore different designs and things, so hopefully they become more competitive. Because if everyone in the Masai market is selling exactly the same thing it doesn’t really work. But if they try different things, they’ve got a better chance”.

The organisation’s approach seems to be paying off. In a recent review of the project by the Fair Labour Association, more than 90 per cent of interviewees said they had learned new skills, made improvements to their homes, and increased their self-confidence as a result of employment with United Fashion.

Elizabeth Wanjiru in Waithaka is no exception. She now harbours ambitions to start her own tailoring business, and wants to pass on her new skills by teaching other women in her community how to sew.

Her colleague, Pauline Aluoch, has already applied her training to a small side venture where she mends ready-made clothes. She, too, appreciates the safe work environment fostered by United Fashion but says the casual nature of the work, which depends an irregular flow of international orders, is a financial concern.

“Sometimes you work for two weeks, then you have to wait for another three months before you are called back. So it would be better if you were working regularly. I’d like to work here if it was regular, because the money we get here is good,” says Aluoch.

But, she adds, her average daily wage of about Sh600 would not be enough if she was a single mother like Wanjiru.

“The pay is enough because I have a husband and we supplement each other’s income. I don’t depend on it.”

United Fashion says it pays from five to 12 US dollars a day depending on skill level. But despite the best intentions of such initiatives, settling on a fair wage can be difficult according to Nairobi-based fashion designer Ann McCreath of the KikoRomeo fame.

“A lot of what is being exported to the West is not what I consider to be properly paid for,” she says. “The first question starts with what is fair? What is fair can be interpreted in different ways.”

Fair or not, there is certainly a huge discrepancy between the remuneration Kenyans receive for their work and the price their products are sold for abroad. A Vivenne Westwood canvas bag made in Kenya through United Fashion, for example, sells for the equivalent of Sh32,000 in the United Kingdom.

Not all ethical fashion products are sold at such a premium – indeed, many are marketed to young, socially conscious consumers with relatively meagre incomes. And United Fashion insists that its mandate is not just to provide employment in the developing world. It also wants to change the developed world’s attitude towards consumption.

“I think what needs to be done is education of consumers,” says Chloe Muktai, who works for United Fashion’s Corporate Social Responsibility and Communications Department. “People don’t understand that when they buy a t-shirt that costs a dollar something is wrong. Something is just not possible.”

But while a growing sense of social responsibility on the fashion scene means job prospects for women like Wanjiru and Aluoch, Kenya’s fashion designers say they deserve some opportunities of their own.

“I would love to expand overseas but right now it’s kind of limited to friends who live and work there” says Ogake Mochache, who works on a sustainable fashion project at the University of Nairobi and whose clothing line, Ogake, was launched in Kenya last year.

“We don’t really have the capacity to go international. So much more could be done to help people like me to get out there.”

That kind of support must be part of the ethical fashion industry’s mission, agrees McCreath, who moved to Kenya 20 years ago and runs an ethical fashion label called KikoRomeo.

“You’re going right down to the grassroots and you’re zooming [products] into the luxury market internationally. And you’ve missed out everybody else in the chain,” she says. “I’m just feeling like it’s because we haven’t managed to get our brands there that there’s a lack of money in the whole industry here. And then it becomes like you’re still waiting for the foreigner …but we shouldn’t have this mentality of having to be rescued.”

Ogake Mochache’s work might not yet be recognised by the fashion world, but Kenya’s cultural heritage certainly is – prompting concerns that it will be appropriated by Western designers for commercial gain.

In 2008, for example, a British company attempted to trademark the kikoy, which would have given the firm the exclusive right to use the term as a marketing tool.

Although the bid was unsuccessful, it served to highlight the risk posed to Kenya’s traditional crafts by companies eager to commercialise them for profit.