For close to a decade, the brilliant, passionate and creative Ann Mcreath has fought to maintain fashion in Kenya as a true representation of the African culture. She is determined against all odds to put Kenya both on the African and global map as a go to destination for all things fashion.
What was your vision when you started KikoRomeo?
I wanted to create a Kenyan fashion brand, an African brand which could be franchised around the world. I wanted to have KikoRomeo shops all around the world.
Have you achieved that vision?
No. It’s been a rough ride economically and I didn’t get enough investment. I was focused on building the local market initially and creating a strong brand. Then the idea was to franchise that internationally. Since I started in 1996 the Kenyan economy has been a roller coaster. I’m, however, in the rebuilding phase.
Through FAFA (Festival for Fashion and Arts), I’ve established international links for selling both online and offline and I’m looking at which celebrities I can dress internationally so that I can get my clothes out there on the red carpet.
Has the Kenyan fashion industry got to a point where it can dress celebrities on the red carpet?
Absolutely. A lot of designers are dressing people on the red carpet. It’s only that we do not get to hear about it and some of them are not constantly in the limelight. But we need more connections in order for people to find us.
What do you think about Lupita’s style on the red carpet? Have you tried approaching her people about dressing her in Kenyan designs?
Fantastic! I know her publicists are looking but the first step for Lupita is to firmly establish herself as a brand and fashionista, which she is doing right now by wearing Ralph Lauren and Gucci.
When she is recognised as a brand in the fashion industry then she can look into designers in Kenya. But let’s not put so much pressure on the girl, we need to be patient about it and give her some time. But I am excited about it.
If she does approach you, what are you doing to prepare for that moment?
I am sorting out my website. Any fashion designer without a website is like a business person without a business card. Facebook is not enough. If I get lucky enough to dress her I will be building on my catalogue on the website, so we are putting our house in order for when she starts looking for someone to dress her in Kenya.
You had the opportunity to dress Dorothy Nyong’o, Lupita’s mother, when she accompanied her to the BAFTAs. How was it seeing your design on the red carpet at such a major event?
It was exciting, an honour and amazing to see her looking so gorgeous on the red carpet.
So Lupita is next?
It’s just a matter of time before Lupita wears something Kenyan and African. I have already sent her some pieces and she likes them. Also it’s about brand endorsement. Instead of criticising her for not wearing Kenyan, designers should get websites so that they are ready to take advantage of the PR when she does. When someone Googles and they find nothing about you, that is a wasted opportunity.
Being one of the key players in the local fashion industry, do you think Kenya is where it is supposed to be?
No. We’ll be there when fashion contributes heavily to the Gross Domestic Product and that’s my big campaign right now. Fashion is not even mentioned as part of Vision 2030 and I intend for that to happen.
There are a number of things that hold us back. A major one might be distribution of merchandise. The numbers are, therefore, not big enough to do mass production which means the garments are more costly. The sector needs investment and distribution.
Do you get people to help you out in executing or sourcing for ideas?
When we were going through a good financial phase I had a design team, a graphic designer, a fashion designer who was more technical and another who was good at drawing. So between us we covered a lot of work and we had many new design jobs.
What I tend to do now is outsource. I’ve just collaborated with Bata in Singapore for African inspired flip flops for the re-launch of the Patapata line. I did the designs manually and developed the ideas.
I outsource textile design; outsourcing design has to feel KikoRomeo, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t work. It’s really difficult to find someone who’s trained locally and who is of the level I need.
Does that mean we need to do more in our fashion schools?
Yes, they are not good enough. But I’m talking about the basic level, sometimes I find people have been badly trained that I have to tell them to forget what they learnt and start again. Reading an interview like this, fashion schools won’t be pleased with me but I aim to have a world class fashion brand.
A friend told me how Beyonce’s stylist asked about one of the pieces she bought from me while they were at a party. That’s what I am aiming for, getting noticed internationally at the highest possible level.
Can you do the same with people like Ezekiel Kemboi and David Rudisha?
Yes, that was my interest in collaborating with the rugby team because I felt that the sports people are our ambassadors and right now all they do is represent us in is sports.
It’s a major accomplishment but it’s not the only thing they can represent us in. I felt it was important they have better wardrobes.
Rudisha is on my to do list together with the volleyball team and the athletes out there representing Kenya because they can open conversations and doors and people suddenly have a different impression of our country.
Who would you love to dress?
I love that feel good factor of anybody that I transform, they don’t have to be famous for me to feel good about what they wear. Having said that, I would like to dress people who represent Kenya. I’d very much like to dress the President and the First Lady and I’d like leaders to see the wardrobe not just as a means of clothing but as a means of representing their country better.
What makes your designs stand out from others?
I have my own style; I do not copy other people. My style is intrinsically KikoRomeo. I tend to go for the understated and colourful, attention to detail and graphics but basically I don’t like frilly stuff. If it’s frilly then the rest is very simple. I think less is more.
I work with African print which can often be quite busy so I keep it very simple in terms of style. My cut also sets me apart; the vast majority of people leaving our shop will have something that fits them extremely well.
We’ve invested a lot of money in collections and photo shoots to create a brand, a lifestyle image. We are helping build the economy at the end of the day but also branding Kenya as sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
Do you ever get blocked, creatively?
No. More of the challenges I have to deal with are about administration. Admin and creative thinking are very different so I find can’t go straight from an administrative meeting into being super creative. When I am doing a collection I like to shut myself away, hang out in a hotel by the pool or go into nature and that helps me think.
Who do you dress in Kenya?
Harambee Stars coach, some of the rugby stars and I’ve recently started making clothes for Prof Judy Wakhungu (Environment Cabinet Secretary). I’ve also done a number of signature pieces for Caroline Mutoko. There are many but I don’t want to single out one or the other because at the end of the day some of the most exciting moments are when you dress somebody.
If you could summarise your fashion dos and don’ts, what would they be?
Everyone is a unique character and as an individual you have a right to express yourself however you feel good. There are some things that are more flattering on your body than others. A basic message to young people is that super tight isn’t always the sexiest look.
For me some news readers have gone way too tight and it’s not attractive. You can be sexier in well fitting clothes as opposed to a size too small with a slit somewhere, or an interesting neckline.