Fashion from the hood: Using recycled fabric to dress celebrities
If you have ever been to Mukuru kwa Ruben, you will not forget it. Mukuru means ‘mother’ in Sheng’ or in Kikuyu, ‘old lady.’ The kwa Ruben Slum (also known as the Mukuru community) was born in Nairobi’s Industrial district nearly 20 years after Independence, when people began to build make-shift homes near the factories they worked in. The area now has a population of over 700,000. It is nothing but box on box beside box – only that these boxes are corrugated iron shacks measuring 10x10 feet. The land on which the Mukuru slum now exists was once held by Jack Reuben, a British Army combat veteran who had returned from World War I. It is here that the Ruben Centre is located, and it is from the ashes of said centre that a phoenix arises: William ‘Bush’ Kitheka, the 26-year-old founder of Vaa KE, a boutique clothing brand.
How far we go in life, and sometimes where we are going in life, is down to where we have come from. The Mukuru slum combines close to 30 villages, about seven kilometres from Nairobi. From the moment you are born here, the odds are stacked against you.
It is why Kitheka’s four-year business is highly influenced by where he has come from. In a community where resources are fickle, you must not only be street smart, but generally smart, working twice as hard to get half as much. “We use thrifted and newly acquired fabrics to design unique and one-off pieces of art that is wearable,” he says. “We are trying to educate people about the importance of recycling and doing away with fast fashion. We are bringing that back-in-time fashion, these unique pieces like the kimono, which is our signature piece, and the kipepeo, which is inspired by the traditional male Nigerian gown, with a twist: ours is genderless.”
He is quick to insist that sustainability is behind use of upcycled fabrics to reduce fashion waste. As the name suggests, upcycling refers to creating an object of greater value from an object of lesser value. In other words, repurposing and ensuring nothing goes to waste. “We blend waste fabrics from other countries to give them a second chance in the fashion world.”
Vaa KE is momentarily scaling down its orders as a result of Kitheka receiving a KSh300,000 grant from the British Council KE and subsequently enrolling in a mentorship programme – Creative DNA 3.0 – that is training 20 early-stage fashion and accessories entrepreneurs to build sustainable and successful businesses. “We have been in class for six weeks, learning about quality, selling price and placing yourself in competitive markets.”
“But don’t worry,” he says, showing off his precognition aptitude, “we are working on a new collection that we shall launch soon.” His previous collection was priced at a modest KSh8,500 and KSh12,000 per piece, from which he would move around 15 pieces every month. Did he know he always wanted to be in business? “Technically, yes, because when I was younger, I would find myself playing with needles and thread, even putting my uniform together. When I was done with high school, I started selling second-hand clothes near GM (General Motors on Mombasa Road). There was free Wi-Fi available and I started watching videos on how to make clothes. That’s when I joined the Ruben Centre Vocational School, focusing on tailoring.”
Kitheka talks about the luck that he has had, the opportunities that have come his way, and the exposure he has received. He has dressed everyone who is anyone: CNN Correspondent Larry Madowo, actor Patricia Kihoro, poet Gufy Dox, singer Tina Ador, actor-cum-musician Grace Wacuka, American musician Anthony Hamilton…we could go on and on, but you get the point. He does not take it for granted. Not everyone makes it out of the slums; sometimes talent alone is not enough. The gods choose who they choose.
“I remained here so I can have an impact the youth in Mukuru. Everyone wants to make it big out there, but why not make it from here too? You can sit in a global market through the online community right from where you are. You can work from anywhere in the world.”
He tells me the biggest challenge he is facing right now is market, and the capacity and capital to run and maintain his business. “My fabrics are very expensive and the markets I want to go to are also expensive to access.” So how does he promote his business? “Word of mouth and referrals. I like to maintain good customer relationships with my clients.”
Speaking of, he will have you know that he does not play favourites when it comes to clients. “I respect all my clients and most of them are repeat customers.” The lesson runs deep: treat everyone the same, for we all dream the same dreams. Nobody remembers how the dreams end — whether you succeed or fail, whether you achieve or just fall short — but it is the dreaming that is important.
“In the next few months, I will be among, if not the top, the best fashion brand in Kenya. With the training at the Creative DNA, I am learning how to scale my business and exercise quality control over my work. It will be a smoother journey,” Kitheka prophesies.
“At Vaa KE, we deal with African and Kenyan wear. We want to bring back the lost glory and inspire new people. People associate tailoring and handmade stuff with women. I want to remove that perception of gender work, of being called a fundi, of being associated with low quality or low prices.”
Running a business has changed his perspective of judging people prima facie, by appearances. Which is ironic considering that he is in the business of appearances. Because of my online work, he says, people are very cautious, and to win their trust, I deliver first and give them the onus to pay later. “I want to show that people are trustworthy out here and that we appreciate what other people do.”
To whom much is given, much is expected. And in this aspect, too, he does not fall short. “I am here so I can give back to the community. I teach younger girls at the vocational school I went to, easing their process. I am them also training them on upcycling.”
It is very difficult for me to get two pieces that look the same, he says. Is that what makes him different? “We don’t do shortcuts. With the thrift fabric, we may have two but rarely, if ever, three of the same. We look for something unique and blend our fabrics. And of course, our designs are cut to measure, not here for fast clothes that people easily get bored with. But we also don’t want to be too loud. We are fighting for that sweet spot of functionality and aesthetic. We don’t want to commercialise our products but understand we also need to sell. It is a delicate balance.”
He looks up to fashion designers Kiko Romeo and David Avido. “I also admire my late parents, who used to wear corduroy pants. I didn’t like then because they were quite heavy. Now, I try and borrow those designs. I think our parents were the original fashionistas.”
“Entrepreneurship has taught me the art of being patient. If I was looking to make quick money, I would make the things that people want, for instance, the bootleg of Gucci, but if I am patient I can make something that speaks to me and to the people around me. “It comes at a cost, however. My time and the hard work that I had to put in are the price I have had to pay for my ambition. The idea of success for me now is to afford my needs and not struggle in raising my family, as well as helping others.”
It will not rock the earth from its axis to learn that Kitheka doesn’t really think there is such a thing as failure in life. “But if it pleases the court,” he says, “I think failure is when you are not willing to work, when you give up on your dreams.” He struggles with the fact that he trusts people easily and sometimes they disappoint him. So why does he do it? “Looking at my peers and the people where I come from, I want to change perceptions, I want to prove that fashion can start from the hood, and to encourage those who never went to university. I went to a vocational school in Mukuru Kwa Ruben and look at me now.”
This article was first published in The Weekly Review.