In Kenya, fashion houses often stem from oneâ€™s passion for quality and unique clothes, shoes and accessories. Rarely do they begin in the memory of a sister. Well, Njema Helena, which was launched this year in October, is one fashion house that fits this distinctive mould.
Njema Helena was founded by two sisters â€” Cecilia and Annika Ostman and their mother, Anne Ostman.
â€œHelena was always keen for us to have a family business and potentially one that would harnessÂ my design skills. I have a degree in fashion design and have worked for several years as a designer so it was a natural choice to do fashion,â€ says Cecilia Ostman, the head designer at Njema Helena.
Cecilia graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and has worked with various international fashion labels among them Ralph Lauren. She is now using her skills to articulate late Helenaâ€™s â€œstrong connection with Kenya and a true appreciation for African artistry.â€
The Ostman family moved to Kenya from Sweden in 1988 and the three sisters fell in love with the countryâ€™s â€œbeauty and charmâ€. They fondly remember trips to â€œNairobi National Park, the tailors on Biashara Street, and Hemingways on the coast of Malindi.â€ No matter, where they went they still had a deep connection with Kenya.
Wishing to honour Helenaâ€™s desire for a family business, the Ostmans initial conversations looked into possibilities of making jewellery. But during the research stage, Cecilia found out that she wanted to make clothes, especially in African fabrics.
â€œI have, since many years back, loved African fabrics and would always stock up when I was on holiday and make myself a bunch of things. It just felt like something I could remain passionate about and really build on,â€ she says.
Njema Helena has employed two tailors in its workshop. While Cecilia is the head designer, her sister Annika is the communications manager who handles the press, maintains the website â€” njemahelena.com â€” and social media pages, as well managing events and networking. Their mother, Anne, is the director, she manages their staff and is in charge of sourcing for supplies and book keeping.
Apart from celebrating their sisterâ€™s life, the fashion house is also working with four women in a workshop in Kibera. The idea of Njema Helena is â€œto produce quality fashion items that provide a link between African and Western design. It offers them (the women) an opportunity to learn advanced skills and find economic independence.â€
Ceciliaâ€™s inspiration comes from various sources, but mostly from everyday life â€” shop windows, magazines, and from women themselves.
â€œMy all time favourite colour to wear is white but when it comes to designing I almost always navigate to bright colours. I figure looking elegant in white or black is effortless, but looking elegant in a big bold colour â€” that is truly an art,â€ she says.
When it comes to prints, she looks for harmony in both the colours and shapes used. She goes for the powerful prints, and her ideal ones are friendly shapes, happy colours and balanced combinations.
Cecilia loves working with natural materials; Njema Helenaâ€™s first collection is made from cotton and a bit of leather for the belts. Her dream is to work with silk one day to see the colours and prints of Africa on its luminescent threads, which she says would be truly magical.
â€œThe style of Njema Helena is a mixture of the woman I am â€”young, cute and silly â€” and the woman I aspire to be â€” elegant, timeless, mature and feminine,â€ she says.
The first collection has about half a dozen dresses, two tops and two skirts. They are everyday clothes that can be integrated into oneâ€™s daily life. Well tailored, the dresses have elegant necklines, cinched waists, full skirts or sharp pencil skirt silhouettes. Skirts fit neatly into any wardrobe and can be worn with a crisp white blouse or a t-shirt, with a jacket for work or a pair of heels for the evening.
One can see view the collection on their Facebook page, Njema Helena, or on the website. Cecilia explains that the size of the collections is and will forever be changing, depending on demand, time and resources.Â For now, they are out to see how the market will respond to their first collection.
This inaugural collection is on sale in the Kache shops at The Junction and Le Rustique in Nairobiâ€™s Westlands, shops they say fit the style of Helena Njema. They say they are not interested in expanding the retail presence at the moment as they are working on opening their own retail shop alongside their workshop.
â€œThe type of store that would best fit Njema Helena would be a bright, clean, and friendly store that caters to all sizes and ages â€”Â elegant and stylish, but not overly trendy,â€ says Cecilia.
As it is a new business, Njema Helena is not immune to the challenges of start-ups. Some of them include finding fabrics and prints regularly and reasonably, making one dress in seven different sizes and making sure it looks as good in each size, finding economically smart ways of producing quality garments and finding outlets and opportunities for sales.
Through clever marketing techniques and never losing their vision, the three founders hope to overcome the challenges and build a successful fashion business.
â€œOur dream is for Njema Helena to be known for the kind of clothes and accessories you love wearing, made with the passion of a loving memory, and with that sharp edge only Africa can bring,â€ says Ms Ostman. Visit: www.njemahelena.com/