Clothing and accessories are well cemented within the Kenyan fashion industry. The country holds an incredible amount of creative talent and there is always something new and fresh out there. A path that isn’t as well explored however is that of swimwear. Despite our beautiful white sandy beaches, various water bodies and beautiful weather. Not many designers have ventured into the swimwear arena, until now. Ohana Swimwear is one of the newest brands on the market here to fill that gap.
Birthed from a desire to get local swimwear and a shortage of places to even begin the search, Neema Nkatha decided to take it into her own hands and create a line of swimwear that would be available to the local market and speak to the local context.
Neema’s journey began one summer, towards the end of her university degree. “I was in my last semester, about to finish University and go for a Europe tour. It was summer in Europe and so I would need a swimsuit. Being my first time travelling alone, I wanted to stand out and look really stylish and exotic abroad. There was everything African print and authentic from clothing to shoes, backpacks… everything except swimwear” she reminisces. She then decided to customize her own swimsuit to fulfil her immediate need, not knowing that the product she was creating was the start of a whole new journey for her.
Having a background in finance and admin, her corporate prospects were immediately diverted into her new passion. She had to learn everything from scratch, looking to her friends to help her with the technical fashion skills that she did not hold at the time. Explaining her designs and concepts, her friend would translate her dreams into illustrations ready to be manufactured. Whilst Neema handled the admin side, a path she was already akin to, given her previous work experience and educational training, something else she had to learn however was marketing and branding. She iterates that what has truly helped her in this journey is her constant research, something that she has always loved to do.
Neema is part of the Creative DNA Programme, a British Council programme supported by the Foreign Commonwealth Office designed to support fashion businesses in Kenya, develop skills, knowledge and networks in Kenya and the UK. The programme is focused on promoting alternative and innovative approaches to the global fashion system with the ambition of demonstrating that the fashion sector in Kenya is a professional choice for young people and a valuable contributor to the creative economy.
Nothing ever comes easy, especially in the fashion industry. Neema highlights the trials and tribulations of her journey starting very early on, with production being done outside Kenya, Ohana’s first collection came back with sizing issues. A problem often encountered when manufacturing in factories based in contexts different to your own. Sizing is in fact quite variable and is something that you have to mull over constantly when producing.
When it comes to the different designs behind Ohana, Neema searches for inspiration in different African tribes and cultures. With a current focus on the East African region. Neema highlights how Kenya in itself does not have a distinct print but looking at the East African region in general, more comes to light. The Tara bikini, for example, is inspired by the textiles of Uganda and Somalia. The swimwear serves as a celebration of African heritage, a celebration of East African culture.
Words by Iona Mccreath