Carole Kinoti: Redefining sustainable fashion

Carole Kinoti, founder of Carole Kinoti Brands

Carole Kinoti, founder of Carole Kinoti Brands during the Round Table discussing the business of fashion convened by the Creative DNA 2.0 project, powered by the British Council. 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

America’s Vogue magazine's famous Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour once said fashion is ceaselessly fascinating because it is an expression of self. For Carole Kinoti, it is a testament to her style.

Dressed in a sparkly green kaftan dress from her own fashion collection, paired with v-cut heels and a kinky afro, she creates a sublime ensemble to complement her vibrancy as she settles down for an interview with Lifestyle.
Dressing up was not really her forte when she was growing up. 

“I rarely chose what to wear because my mother and sister used to be in charge of that department. My mother spent a lot of time and energy in making sure that we dressed right. She taught us how to wear heels. She also used to sell clothes,” she says.

“There is a photo we took during a family vacation in Kisumu back in the day. We were dressed in skirts with thigh-high slits. I was in high school at that time and exposed to fashion at a very young age.”

Surprisingly, Carole spent more time in the kitchen cooking and setting the table for meals. She ended up studying food and beverage production in college for three years. As she waited for her final results, she took up a hairdressing course and then opened up a salon, kick-starting her entrepreneurial journey.

“I had a friend who had a small tailoring business and was looking for someone with a similar business to share the shop with. Whenever we were at home at the end of the day, my father would sit to listen to all our stories of the day. So when I told him about the available space at my friend’s shop, he encouraged me to set up the salon. It was to keep me busy for the next six months as I waited to go to South Africa to further my studies. But as time went by, I had decided that I was not going to continue pursuing a career in food and beverage production,” she says.

Carole enjoyed watching her business partner serve clients as they were fitting clothes in their small stall. In 2000, she bought a sewing machine and went back to college to learn Fashion Design at Woodgrove Fashion College.

“This is when I started designing made-to-measure clothes for clients. Then I started designing gowns for occasions such as weddings. By this time, I was settling down with my husband Martin and two lovely children — Joy and Philip — who are now young adults,” she says.

Silk fabric importation

In 2004, business and demand grew as Carole began to import silk fabric to give her creations a unique silk finish. She saw a growing demand for kaftans, which are long, loose but elegant pieces of clothing that are commonly worn in Asia and the Middle East. This is why she named her first kaftan collection ‘Hariri’, which means silk in Swahili.

This became her bread and butter for 10 years until she realised that she had hit a wall. 

“I realised I had stretched myself to the limit. I wondered how I would make it to the next level and what my next 10 years would look like. At the same time, my children were all grown up and leaving the nest. I knew that I needed to restructure and it didn’t help that I had suffered from burnout. We were operating 24 hours to manage deliveries. It was quite intense. So I just stopped everything without any plan. I was not in the right headspace to keep the juices flowing,” she tells Lifestyle.

Carole Kinoti

Carole Kinoti has over 20 years of experience in the fashion industry and started the Mavazi Executive Programme with Strathmore Business School. 

Photo credit: Pool

In search of new inspiration, Carole walked into Strathmore Business School in Nairobi and signed up for the Owner Manager Programme, where she met other business owners who were also stuck in a rut.

“Once I finished the course, it was clear that the first thing I needed to do was to re-brand. My business was known as Lancaster Designers and that did not resonate with who I was. I had a good reputation and that is why I decided to go with the Carole Kinoti Brands in 2016. I understood that my business was a reflection of what my clients thought of me and what I did,” she says.

10 collections in a night

In a burst of creativity, she designed 10 collections in that one night when she revamped her whole business. Even with 15 years of experience and professional training, Carole still faced challenges that she felt she could not resolve on her own.

“One of the issues that troubled me was managing the distribution of my products to retailers. I felt like there was more I could do for the fashion industry to help designers like me navigate through such challenges. Most creatives eventually lose hope. That is why I partnered with Strathmore Business School and came up with the Mavazi Executive Programme. The school offers scholarships so that we can make it possible for us to pick talent based on the ability to create and not the ability to pay. Then soon change in the fashion industry in Kenya will be visible,” she says.

The programme aims to help fashion creatives develop and enhance their networks, business structures and brand visibility. Once they complete the programme, they will have an opportunity to join an exclusive network of fashion value chain players committed to creating sustainable ‘Made in Africa’ fashion trends known as the Mavazi Hub.

“The hub should be a meeting point for designers, tailors, producers, retailers and marketers. Designers do not stitch and that is why they need the tailors and every other person in the fashion value chain to make the final product and sell it. The fashion business also needs a lot of capital. It also takes time to profit from collections as you are expected to release another even before you break even. When these people come together and buy fabrics and other necessary materials in bulk, it cuts costs. It would also help to make it more organised because the local fashion industry has no structure. You create your own,” she says.

Government support

She explains that part of the problem in the fashion industry can be solved if the government gave support by driving demand for clothes made in Kenya.

Carole says: “I recently worked on a look for an organisation to refine their image so that they would not have to wear suits every day. After I had put time into the project, they asked me to buy the clothes at Sh500 from China and sell it to them for Sh800. It was disappointing because they did not understand that my business supports 800 women, pushes the manufacturing industry in Kenya and creates jobs. People just need to find value in it because we go to great lengths to find fabrics since sometimes what we need is not found locally.” 

She applauded former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s effort in promoting local apparel by declaring that every civil servant should wear ‘Made in Kenya’ fabric every Friday. His shirts were made by Rivatex.

Carole Kinoti, founder of Carole Kinoti Brands

Carole Kinoti, founder of Carole Kinoti Brands (R) with Noreen Nthiga, Director, Programme Management and Operations, SME Advisory Uniy Executive Office of the President (L) during the Round Table discussing the business of fashion convened by the Creative DNA 2.0 project, powered by the British Council.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

“I admired him for doing that even when people made fun of the colours and compared them to cushion covers but he was proud of it and encouraged people to give our textile and fashion industry a chance. He could have worn Calvin Klein or any other global brand. It has helped and a lot of people started dressing like him. That is the change that needs to be applauded because the President was leading by example,” she says, adding that the current government has an opportunity to make things even better.

At such a pivotal point in her life, Carole felt the need to use her skills to create a meaningful impact in the community through programmes such as Fashion on the Road (FOTR) Caravan, which promotes the collection of clothes that people no longer wear across the country. 

In 2019, for example, the caravan collected over 3,000 kilos of donated clothes and fabric trimmings. These were given to at least 200 street children in Nairobi’s Mlango Kubwa and 300 girls in Mount Elgon, who were Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) survivors and children in Gertrudes Hospital.

“All my projects cut across the fashion value chain like where agriculture connects with fashion to where the environment connects with fashion and that is what I believe makes sustainable fashion. You cannot claim you are practising sustainable fashion unless you work together with the community, especially those that need assistance. I focus on helping women and youth through the Mavazi Self Help Program and Mavazi Elevate Program,” she says.

Mavazi Self Help Programme

The Mavazi Self Help Programme rehabilitates and trains women in Lang’ata Women Prisons on how to reuse and repurpose used 1,000 kilos of clothes which are donated from the FOTR Caravan. The prisoners also modelled and performed during the two-day FOTR Cultural Charity Golf tournament last held in 2021 at Muthaiga Golf Club.

“We pack the clothes into starter packs for the women when they are leaving the prison. We have also partnered with Cleanstart Solutions Kenya, an organisation which works with women and children impacted by the criminal justice system for successful reintegration into the community,” says Carole.

Carole’s luxury brand simplifies fashion to satisfy specific clothing needs such as the Big Daddy that is a wearable blanket innovated during the pandemic. It was inspired by how people stayed indoors during the lockdown, constantly wrapped in blankets on their couches. 

“One of my collections called the Kambu capsule is named after Kenya’s National bird, the lilac-breasted roller also known as Kambu. This is a capsule wardrobe solution with six pieces that can be accessorised into 12 outfits worn across the week that costs between Sh36,000 and Sh60,000,” she says.

Some of her other collections include the Afro collection, which is a range of business casual looks whose aim is to africanise corporate wear, the Dhahabu collection, which is a variety of beaded and crocheted accessories produced in collaboration with Maasai women beaders and Langata Women’s Prisoners, and the Little Afro Dress (LAD) that celebrates the unique body shape of the African woman and represents Carole’s take on the Little Black Dress in collaboration with Connie Aluoch. Carole will be launching her latest collection at the end of February.

“It is hard to balance my business and community development work. There are times that I had to close my business for a short period to concentrate on what I was doing with the community,” she says.

Her work has led to her receiving several accolades nationally and internationally such as the Woman of influence and excellence award issued by the State Bank of Mauritius, the Business Maestro award issued by Tally Solutions in partnership with Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Micro Small and Medium Enterprises Honours Awards and being recognised as one of the 100 women who pivoted in heels during the pandemic by True Love Magazine. Last year, she was awarded the Retailer of the Year award at the Mastercard Women SME awards 2022.

“All I wanted to do was to sell a dress and give the dress a story. It came as a surprise because a friend of mine pushed me to apply for it. It dawned on me that it was a big deal when I was asked to write a speech for the award ceremony. I also learnt that I was among only two Kenyans who were awarded out of all the 22 participants,” she says.

Carole adds: “I felt validated, appreciated and it made me feel like I had done something right. What I do has no template. I just follow my instincts, heart and the structures that I created in the little office in my head. The awards keep refining you because you need to be doing exactly what they expect you to be doing, and more. They give you an extra push.”