When Lupita Nyong’o, an Oscar award winner, graced the red carpet in US three years ago, the focus was on her one-shoulder dress which was paired with a Sh350,000 Chesneau Heltzel python leather box clutch.
The timeless python skin bag was made in Kenya and Rudolf Heltzel, a world renowned fashion house from Ireland bejewelled it.
Later that year, Michelle Dockery, another actress and singer donned a similar clutch. Only 12 pieces were made and they sold out fast.
Kenya has had many moments in the high-fashion sun with designers showcasing on international runways and now made-in-Kenya bags that have a hint of the wild are finding space in international luxury shops and creating a celebrity gold rush.
At the heart of the fashionable bags made from serpent skins or fish skin or giraffe hide are the likes of Edmond Chesneau, the founder of Lulea, a leather firm based in Thika which made Lupita’s clutch; Mark Stephenson who is behind the Sandstorm bag which Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was given as an engagement present and Chebet Mutai, the founder of Wazawazi.
Mr Chesneau says global luxury buyers are amazed by the type of products that are made in Kenya.
‘‘They are always shocked that the country has the skills set to produce such timeless pieces,” he says.
Crocodile, python skin
Mr Chesneau who makes bags from lamb leather known for its softness, sheep leather, special for its diversity and sometimes from giraffe, crocodile and snake skins, says demand is growing and the luxury fashion houses have taken notice.
Currently, his company, Lulea, is in talks with Eden label, which is part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey, the fashion house which owns Louis Vuitton, Dior and Givenchy.
Lulea has already produced a prototype of the mini-tote leather bag for Eden’s next collection. The tote bag, to sell for $500 (Sh50,000), is set to grace fashion shows in Europe and New York before the official sales begin.
For the Kenyan bag makers, the flawless designs on display at the factory and high-end shops are end products of hours spent on research, days consumed in tuning the designs and workmanship that ensures cuts are made to precision.
Mr Chesneau, who was a designer in Ireland for 35 years before settling in Kenya and who worked at Hermès, says he now trains his workers on fine craftmanship.
The process of making a bag starts with working with the best and unique designers. Then the raw material is picked, where the colour has to be of the right shade.
For some Kenyan designers, the 100 per cent natural leather is tanned by a tree bark.
Sketching on a plain paper follows where a design is modified until it comes out fittingly. During stitching, precision is the key word, and in case of any errors, everything is discarded and the process started afresh. This is the height of perfection that is accorded the production process.
Getting products to the international market involves travelling abroad to meet the clients.
Ms Mutai, the founder of Wazawazi, spent a better part of last week in Hamburg, Germany showcasing her leather products at the Ambiente Fair.
“Our products are a showcase of the magnificent beauty of modern-day Africa that speaks the language of art, rich culture, high fashion and superior craftsmanship. We express an original creative aptitude through marriage of leather and craftsmanship by creating flawless leather masterpieces,” she says.
“Our clients expect a great product that has been made under ethical conditions. They are extremely receptive of a well told African story.”
Another bag maker, Mercedes Njoki of Eleleck leather fashion brand, opened her first oversees shop in Melbourne, Australia and is currently looking to enter the USA and European markets.
Ms Njoki says what sells in the international market is minimalist fashion.
‘‘Simple, clean designs are hugely popular in this market. We produce leather goods that are elegant and functional and best show the high quality of leather that is locally available,” she says.
Ms Njoki is currently selling her Rust Collection which she says is inspired by rich, red soil found in the Kenyan highlands; made from locally sourced brown pull up leather.
Mr Stephenson, the managing director of Sandstorm Kenya which also sells its bags in Tanzania says it will be ‘‘doing more internationally this coming year, but mainly canvas bags with some leather trims.’’
‘‘We will not be doing less leather, this just implies a shift in direction. What we have sold overseas in the past we have mainly sold canvas,” he says.
As demand for made-in-Kenya leather products grows, companies like Lulea and Sandstorm have been forced to import high-quality raw materials.
Lulea, for instance, imports giraffe or crocodile print leather from New York or Europe, which ends up adding the cost of the end product.
“I work with top tanneries in the world, and sometimes the local skins are full of blemish. High quality leather shortage is the biggest challenge especially when I am working on products with strict guidelines. Finding brightly coloured leather locally is also a challenge,” says Mr Chesneau.
This is a global problem. Big brands including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen have had to start their own python farms to get a sustainable source of skins for their shoes, bags and belts.
In Kenya, luxury brands are optimistic that an industrial park set to be built in Athi River with 15 world-class tanneries will produce quality raw materials. Increased commercial farming of crocodile and python snakes in Kenya in the long term will also develop a sustainable and responsible sourcing of exotic skins whose bags fetch good prices.
Crocodile skin export
Nile Crocodile located in Kikambala, Kilifi is among the few companies in the exotic skin export business. Daniel Haller, the Nile Crocodile managing director says the company supplies the skin to a tannery in Singapore that processes it for sale to luxury leather bags firms.
Lack of technology in local tanneries and strict laws that do not allow sale of crocodile products in Kenya are major deterrents for the firm’s business in Kenya.
“We are not able to supply the crocodile skin to the local leather market because of the legislation in place. Also, the tanneries in Kenya do not have the ability and technology to deal with the crocodile skin because it involves a different procedure from the normal hides,” says Mr Haller.
“If the proposed legislation is passed it will make it possible for us to process and to manufacture ostrich and crocodile products in Kenya.”
Despite a drop of 16.3 per cent in finished leather products exports, according the latest Economic Survey, budding enterprises like Azaria use 100 per cent cow skin are optimistic about the local market.
Consulting with local and international designers remains of great importance to the leather firm as it seeks to break into the international market.
“One fashion house we work with in particular is of great use because they have already established a presence in the USA ,” says Mariam Kaba, co-founder Azaria