What you need to know:
- Jeffrey Kimathi, 48, is a Kenya-born fashion designer making big moves in the US.
- He says, ‘I met Akon when he was just about to break into music the big time. He wore one of my Jamhuri Wear hoodies in a music video. I met Jay Z who also wore one of my designs during the Love 8 event in Tanzania.’
“Starting and running a business in the US as an African must feel something like what those people are feeling,” Jeffrey Kimathi says, thumping at the stamp of feet passing outside along East Harlem. He is standing outside the African Center in East Harlem with a bunch of Kenyans cheering the Kenyan marathoners in the just concluded 52nd Edition of the New York Marathon.
“It’s about endurance and hard work and good days and many bad days but there must also be beauty and love in it,” he says.
Kimathi started Jamhuri Wear as an African contemporary clothing brand that celebrates independence and a free state of mind. The brand is fuelled by the vibrancy of the Afro-youth culture.
This year the brand turns 20 years old.
“One moment you are a young boy in South B estate in Nairobi, hustling, selling clothes like FUBU to the urban youth, the next you are a father of two and a brand that has endured,” he says.
“Of course in between life and loss is happening but mostly it’s a race like the one happening behind us. Only I have always just raced with myself.”
How did you get into fashion?
My mom was a very good dresser. She worked at Citibank. Those are the earliest memories I have about clothes and how people represented themselves with clothes. And then of course there was Fundi Frank [one of Kenya's pioneers in fashion design] and the advent of foreign TV in our homes brought in American pop-culture through music. People would send me stuff whenever I travelled and I’d come back with puffer jackets in Kenya which people would rock in the sweltering heat. So I found myself a stylist by that virtue, the industry was not formed. I was travelling to Europe a lot until the embassy bombing happened and the Americans announced that if you wanted to travel to America you would go to any embassy in the world for your visa. I was in Lisbon where I got my American Visa.
I landed in Baltimore, stayed there six months then moved to Dallas. Just after the September 11 bombing, I moved to New York, the fashion capital of the world. I wanted to get into fashion so I applied to Echo and Rhino for an internship and got in on the strength that I was an African boy who had no formal education in fashion.
I met Akon [Senegalese-American musician] when he was just about to break into music the big time. He wore one of my Jamhuri Wear hoodies in a music video. I met Jay Z [American Hip-Hop mogul], who also wore one of my designs during the Love 8 event in Tanzania. Things just started happening after that, but most importantly my frame had shifted. I thought, I’m not just a black boy from Kenya, I can create something important.
What would you say was a tipping point?
There was a time when I was dating Ngugi wa Thiong'o's daughter. So I’m in his house and he asks me, ‘why are you called Kimathi?” I tell him, ‘my mom gave me the name.’ He is like next time when you come back to my house, I need you to tell me why you're called Kimathi.’
I asked my mom and discovered that my grandmother was one of those women who took care of the Mau Mau in the forest. She was one of Dedan Kimathi’s wives. The name means generous. My curiosity about Dedan led me on this lifelong journey of what Jamhuri Wear is today. The spirit of Jamhuri Wear is founded on that history. We are 20 years old this year. I just turned 48, which means I was only 28 when I started the business.
What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
(Chuckles) It's been a hard lesson to learn that being African is a lot of backlash. There are a lot of people who don't want to see you win. You have to have a lot of fight in you. Starting a business in the US isn’t easy, telling an African story while in the US, to people who are not Africans. Also looking for an African community who have their trauma about Africa.
Did you know that Central Park in US used to be a village of Africans, that they took over and made Central Park? There's a place called African Burial Ground on Wall Street, where they found bones of African enslaved people who built Wall Street at that time. History can be difficult and traumatic.
What are your own personal traumas as a 48-year-old?
(Laughs) A lot, a lot. A lot. Relationships, you know. I’ve lost a lot of friends who died in very crazy and violent ways; car accidents, gunshots... There is also that trauma of childhood, being raised by a single mother which means I have to learn to be a father without a reference.
Where is your dad?
Somewhere in Kenya. He was a rolling stone. [Chuckles] He’s old now and when people get old they get clarity and they start seeing things differently. He has another family and other children. I think not having a father figure in the house shapes how one grows up. I think what fathers change is the trajectory of how fast that child grows.
There are questions that only a father will answer. I see it in my friends who had fathers, they don’t go around asking some questions that I ask even at my age. My mom had me and my brothers to raise alone, four boys living in Nairobi. It was a lot for her. I was about to become a makanga.
Did you ever have a conversation with your father in any form or shape?
I took my children to Kenya to see him. My daughter is 10 and my son is four. They live in California with their mom. But I really try to be part of their lives. We had our conversation. I was trying to figure out why he wasn't there for us.
And he told me, ‘I was in the army, your mom was a banker, I wasn't making as much money as she was. I was born in Eastleigh at that time. There were a lot of things going on in his life.’ Etc etc. He said he regretted not being there for us, he regrets that I didn’t even name my son after him.
What's the impact of not having a father figure in your own relationships as an adult? Someone said we all turn into our fathers eventually.
(Chuckles) Yeah, we do. Maybe it’s from not having a father around but I found it hard to communicate in my relationships. I was quick to say, whatever and walk away but you have to, at the back of your mind, tell yourself ‘don’t be like him.”
I don’t think you can run away from that, he’s your dad. That’s blood. You can’t walk away from blood.
Are you a good father to your children?
I do my best. I’m not married anymore, Covid happened. I think Covid brought out different sides of people. You lock yourself up with someone for two years and you both discover your own truths. People started looking at life and saying, 'what is there for me? What's more? There's gotta be more.' People are searching for that more and ready to do whatever it takes to get that more.
It breaks my heart, of course, that I can’t see my children as often as I would like to. I spend as much time as I can with them, I try to do a month with them here in New York. Children grow so fast that each time I see them they are changed tremendously and it breaks your heart when you are not there to see them change.
What do you fear?
Failure, man. It is the biggest fear I have but I also know that if you don't fail, you never succeed. Death is also one of my fears. How I die is fearful for me. I mentioned that I have lost friends in road accidents and two shootings. It’s a very bloody way of dying, and I hope I don’t go like that. I would like to go looking nice. (Chuckles)
What's been your most challenging period in life?
Wow. That's a good question. Being a father, it doesn't come with any manual, right? You can't Google it. You're just thrown into it, right? So, there's that. Being away from home and now that my mother is ageing is a difficult period. She’s still here and healthy and I pray that holds.