A friend recommended that when in Malindi, in Kenya’s North Coast, I should check out “Stella Customised Kenya,” a fashion house in the upmarket Sabaki Centre.
The shop had colourful pieces and I got to meet Charity Karimi, the owner of the place, who was dressed in a colourful indigo patterned kaftan.
Karimi came to the limelight through Instagram and was recently invited to Botswana for Fashion without Borders.
She’s also been invited to the prestigious Mercedes Benz fashion week in Accra, Ghana.
At the Fashion without Borders show, Karimi saw off competition from established fashion houses in South Africa and Nigeria.
Her clients are spread across Europe and America, people whom she has never met but who follow her on Instagram.
But her wins did not come easy.
“Putting a collection together is time consuming and hard work.”
She believes that African fashion is the future and that Kenyans are opening up to designer wear.
“The House of Valentino did their 2018 fashion shoot in Maasai Mara,” she said, adding, “In Kenya, we have some way to go. We’re still looked down on as mere fundis (tailors) and not fashion creators.
“For example, the Tanzanian Swahili Fashion Week used to be serious because the selection was based on the designer’s talent and not just entry fee, but l feel that now any one can enter.”
She is in the process of launching a website.
Karimi’s journey to establish Stella Customised Kenya started in Malindi, where she was working in a salon. An Italian couple offered her a job at Il Colore di Africa (colours of Africa), a clothing and design company.
“Despite my love for beautiful clothes, I knew nothing about the industry and rejected the offer. But the couple was insistent and enrolled me in a nine-month specialised course in Italy,” she said.
That was in 2007, and with her new skills, she returned to Kenya and worked for the company until 2011 when it closed down, following the death of the owner.
“Working at Il Colore di Africa developed my design talent,” she said. But the thought of fashion design seemed out of reach, so she used her savings to open a Swahili food restaurant in 2010.
“But l felt that I was missing something.”
Unfortunately, she lost her brother and his death destabilised her to a point where she was unable to work.
“In 2011, I sold the restaurant to take a break for a month to figure out what l really wanted to do.”
In 2012, she opened two shops, one selling cosmetics and the other clothes, mainly mitumba clothes bought duty-free in Kampala.
Business picked up but many of her clients could not fit into the Chinese-made dresses.
“We African women are curvy and structured differently. I used to scratch my head to figure out what to do. So I decided to buy a sewing machine and make replicas of the dresses.”
However, she had never used a sewing machine and had to hire a tailor to make the replicas for her.
“I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing.”
The dresses were a hit.
Working in her tiny workshop with her small team of two seamstresses and a tailor, she proudly shows off her new showroom and a fitting room, which are an extension of her shop below.
“I design clothes with my customer. I help my clients realise their styles through my designs. However, one major challenge is people stealing my designs. Recently, I attending a fashion mentoring day in Bungoma where l learnt that l can patent my designs, which despite being expensive protects my creations.”
Born in Embu, Kenya, Karimi wanted to study law, and was even accepted at a university in Nairobi. However, her parents could not afford the fees and chose to instead enrol her for a one-year hairdressing course and she graduated in 2004.
Karimi always loved pretty clothes and, by extension, fashion. Adjusting and making clothes from scratch came naturally to her.
“I had a tough upbringing,” she says. “l was stitching my own school clothes and bags and also selling to my friends to make ends meet.
“At that time I didn’t see it as a talent. I saw it as survival.”
From working at a construction company to running an eatery, Karimi has never lacked something to do.
“I sold the restaurant in 2011 to take a break for a month to figure out what l really wanted to do.”
A year later she was back, this time with a second-hand clothes shop.
“I then took a course in tailoring and dress making at a local college called Sindi Dress Making and used tutorials on the Internet to learn more about the fashion industry.
In 2014, the demand for custom-made clothes outstripped supply and in 2015, she launched her fashion label, named after her daughter because “it’s been our journey.”
“When l travel I’m always buying material. I love textiles and get them from Turkey, Bali, India, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.”