Kenyan born Award-winning fashion designer Anyango Mpinga was at the Hub of Africa Fashion Week in Addis Ababa last year in October. She graced the runway with her remarkable Broderie L'Angalias design. We recently had a chat with her about her work and Fashion in East Africa.
Tell us about your brand and your art background. What inspired you to become a designer?
ANYANGO MPINGA is a slow-fashion brand who’s model is focused on ensuring a sustainable approach in manufacturing practices; promoting fair wages for factory workers; ensuring that there is no use of child labor or the enslavement of workers within the supply chain and promoting conscious consumption of clothing where people consume better quality; consume less products thus reducing the negative environmental impact perpetuated by the fashion industry.
What are the difficulties you face as a designer, does it get easier?
Difficulties in the industry vary depending on who you are. Mine are mostly in relations to expanding my distribution and the fact that it's quite expensive to do so. I happen to have a great relationship with my manufacturing partners and it takes time and a lot of investment to develop these relationships. It is also difficult to get your goods to the consumer in the most sufficient way, logistics can sometimes be a nightmare. Managing finances and keeping overheads low is not always easy. There are so many moving parts that intertwine in the process and you often have to put on your business cap and become a problem solver, which essentially is the only way to grow.
You also have to learn to adapt to the challenges and re-invent your model, since there is no single method to the madness, and what works for me won't necessarily work for another designer. The toughest bit is facing the challenges and choosing to wake up every day to keep yourself going when your mind is telling you to give up. The easy part? Designing and putting your ideas on paper, that really is the easiest thing to do.
What is exciting about East Africa Fashion at the moment?
The diversity of talent and that fact that so many people are open to experimenting particularly with their fashion choices. I see a lot more people wearing local brands which is a step up from what the fashion scene was five years ago. I think people are starting to appreciate the role of a designer much more, with the understanding that a designer and a tailor have two different roles so their services cannot cost the same. It's all great that a lot of brands are starting to get recognise their value as brands and presenting themselves as such. It's that part of growth where designers have a better understanding that beyond their design and artistic expression, there is a business that needs to be run.
Do you have anyone you look up to around?
I would say the designers I admire are further a-field for establishing solid brands that are not only consistent in their messaging but also in their design aesthetic. That's something that takes a while to build and we still have a long way in getting there in East Africa. I have always been a big admirer of Azzedine Alaia, for his design principals and aesthetic. I can identify his clothes just by looking at the images and that is the power of branding. I also love Diane Von Furstenberg's work, you can't think of a wrap dress without her coming to mind.
How did you find the Hub of Africa Fashion Week?
I started my fashion career years ago at the Hub of Africa Fashion week years ago, so it's always as if I am going home, where it all began.
Was it beneficial to you as a designer?
It's always a great place to launch a new collection, not only because of the great P/R that comes with it but also because of the dynamic wealth of talent represented, which presents opportunities for collaborations.
If you could change anything about Fashion in Kenya, what would it be?
That we would have more retail opportunities for local brands and actually have buyers who can curate items for stores. it would certainly change the mindset of how most designers work. A lot of people want to get into fashion without thinking about what it takes to be in Fashion. There is a whole industry beyond designing beautiful clothes. You have to be able to scale up, sell and maintain consistency with your quality and sizing. I would love to see the government create an environment that supports local production by reducing the taxation on textile imports. if we were producing a variety of textiles to sustain the local market, it would be one thing.
Our industry is heavily reliant on imports and there is no regulation around taxation. There have been cases where the value of imported good have been uplifted by customs officers because they felt they were within their right to do so even though there are clear guidelines. Also if you happen to sell your clothes online and export, if you happen to have returns on items if someone ordered something too small or too big, then you get charged for "importing" an item, even when you have paperwork to prove that the same item was exported from Kenya and is being returned for an exchange. It forces some of us to work with external distributors just to avoid dealing with all the bureaucracy.
Also, it would be really cool if the government imposed a 20% Made In Kenya representation on all the international retail chains coming into the country to boost manufacturing in our country and also encourage local designers to position their brands on the same level playing field as their international counterparts.
Are there any projects you are working on that you could tell us about?
I will be launching my Initiative Free As A Human officially at a fundraiser and Gala Dinner on July 5th. Free As A Human is a rally to end the sexual exploitation of young girls; the use of child labor and the enslavement of humankind. This artistic endeavour is a long-term project with a pilot of the project directed towards supporting the work of HAART Kenya, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting against human trafficking in East Africa. Proceeds from the sale of items from FREE AS A HUMAN branded merchandise are donated to support the HAART Kenya safe house for young, unaccompanied female survivors of modern day slavery.
The project will use fashion as a tool to create awareness and also build a movement for people who will wear these clothes and accessories as a statement for taking a stand against human trafficking. The project also aims to address the fact that trafficking is an issue within the fashion supply chain and that it will take industry players like myself need to speak up and encourage our counterparts to work towards sustainable solutions within their supply chain.
Q&A by Frank Ogallo