A break from tradition at Nairobi fashion fair

Friday November 23 2012

Models in Nike Kondaki’s designs. Photo/Jason Patinkin

Models in Nike Kondaki’s designs. Photo/Jason Patinkin 

By Jason Patinkin

Funky, ethnic, and modern are just a few words to describe the eclectic styles seen on the runway at Nairobi’s Ngong Racecourse the night of Saturday, November 17.

Sixteen designers from Kenya and around the world showcased their latest ensembles at the fourth annual Festival of African Fashion and Art (Fafa).

Organisers of the event, which attracted over 800 guests, paid attention to detail — flower petals strewn across white table clothes, multi-coloured lights flashing on the runway.

Anne Mpinga, a Kenyan designer said: “I’ve been to other shows in Africa but Fafa has set the bar high.”

Founded in 2008 by Ann McCreath from the KikoRomeo fashion house, Fafa is a welcome relief to emerging and established Kenyan designers as well as internationally acclaimed ones.

At Fafa 2012, African designers dominated. But in their attempt to break from tradition, they faced the challenge of representing their country and competing on an international platform at the same time.

Bee Arthur, a Ghanaian designer who commanded top billing at the show, had 16 pieces, half of which were African inspired with funky, bright colours.

Still, Arthur is frustrated by stereotypes of a single “African” fashion based on the colours and patterns of West Africa’s famous textiles. Rather than African or European, she said her work best reflected the two sides of a woman: Fierce and fragile.

Kenyan designer Anna Adero’s first model carried a walking stick, while the last held a carved croquet mallet. Adero’s modern gray and black suits relied on small “ethnic” accents rather than bold Afro-centric statements, featuring fly whisks and shoes with a red Maasai pattern.

Ugandan designer Gloria Wavamunno was the most outspoken about her homeland, but remained subdued. One dress had a small outline of Africa with a black power fist, while another featured prints of cranes. The cranes represented her home country while the dresses were reminiscent of traditional Japanese kimonos.

But Olympia Wereko-Brobby, a British citizen living in Kenya, thought the designers handled the challenge perfectly.

“They got an ethnic twist, but it looks quite modern, which is hard to do,” she said.

The crowd’s favourite was John Kaveke’s “Men at Work,” line. Kaveke, who has showcased his work in Lagos, London and New York, featured futuristic takes on male occupations — a construction worker with a flowing cape, an aviator with a steampunk helmet, and a businessman with bright red suit pants.

Despite the success of Fafa 2012, Kenyan fashion has a long way to go before reaching the level of Nigeria, where models are national celebrities, said McCreath. The next step, she said is expanding the high fashion market.

“Most items are one of a kind or very limited edition because we have a problem with distribution,” she said. Mass production of high fashion garments requires a lot of capital and a strong network of retailers, but neither of these exist yet for most Kenyan designers, she said.

The show’s theme was Fashion for Peace, and proceeds will be donated to Seed of Hope, an organisation that provides life skills to destitute girls. Whether Fafa 2012 can help foster unity remains to be seen.