We Are NBO, one of the latest brands on Kenya’s vibrant design scene is championing the dynamic DNA of Nairobi through jewellery. “ ‘We Are’ hints at circularity and interconnectedness. We are all connected, we are one. ‘NBO’ was a way to capture the dynamic energy of Nairobi, as it has been rapidly changing over the years, whilst maintaining its DNA” articulates Michael, the founder of the brand.
Nairobi’s DNA, what is it? It’s an ability to spin gold out of nothing. A dynamic hustle, an ability to become something and create with hardly any support or foundation to go off. It’s being self-made. It’s creating an industry-based off talent and innovation. Take the Jua Kali sector, for example, a whole industry that embodies this DNA. For We Are NBO, this rawness and desire to succeed despite the odds is embedded within their identity. Michael iterates “A lot of us in this city just find a way to make it somehow even though there isn’t much that has been provided.”
Michael started his journey by studying fashion design. A passion realised at the age of 13 whilst sat watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model, he iterates “I was obsessed with women’s clothing. It was deeply confusing, as I did not have the language for it at the time until I watched an episode of ANTM”. From this, he grew to overcome stereotypes around what it means to be a boy interested in clothing and accessories and more generally, what it means to want to work in the fashion industry. “All through my education, I kind of came to the awareness that fashion is where I would wind up, but I had a sense of deep shame around it because it was an industry associated with ‘misfits’ if you know what I mean”. All of this led to him securing a job before he had even graduated and now founding his brand.
From studying design to working in fashion to owning your own brand. All the experiences tend to be incredibly difficult, Michael highlights how “going to school doesn’t prepare you to understand that in the real world you wind up doing 80% of non-creative stuff. Like pricing, quality control, figuring out suppliers, marketing, making tech-packs and things like that.” With the creative part only making up 20% of your time.
When it comes to transitioning from working in fashion to owning a brand, however, a sense of a newfound somewhat daunting reality sinks in. Michael goes on to explain how “When you’re working for someone else, you have the security of having a paycheque and knowing that the end of the month you’re going to get xyz. But, when you’re a business owner, it’s really dependent on how well you position yourself, how excellent your product is… You just realise that you are the one that has to put all these moving parts in place so that you can be successful”. However, it all becomes worth it as “when it succeeds and works out it works out well and it’s very fulfilling”.
We Are NBO’s current collection, their first, is a collation of Michael’s journey to the inception of the brand. The pieces are products of the inspirations he drew along the way to becoming We Are NBO. He highlights that this was nowhere near an easy journey, “I kept deferring starting my brand because I wanted to come up with the perfect collection, the perfect brand name. I wanted everything to be perfect.” Until a little push from a friend urged him one day to just get started and everything else would fall into place where it needed to, and that it did.
When it comes to the design process, Michael notes how “every single season I ask myself, how do we spin gold out of discarded cow bone or wood offcuts from the furniture industry or old brass hardware?” Harnessing the ethos of what he sees to be Nairobi’s DNA, he goes on to explain “How do you take these materials that people have no use for and how do you make something that’s extremely valuable and that has something to say in the marketplace?”
The coming collection, that will be released later this year, is inspired by nature, natural forms and the concurrent lines that appear in nature. He highlights that a place he keeps being drawn back to in this process is the ocean, with ocean life, botanical and biological drawings, drawing him close with structures of cells and other biological forms constantly intriguing him.
At the crux of We Are NBO, is a desire to shift the negative narratives that exist around craftsmanship in Africa. Michael highlights how problematic it has become to have so many brands working with artisans and craftspeople using a poverty narrative, driving sales through marketing products as being able to elevate people out of poverty. An idea that puts the true creativity and artisanship to the side with a focus on poverty and desperation. Which not only takes dignity away from the artisans creating these products but also underplays their creative abilities. Many of which have been passed down for generations and are in fact highly skilled. “They don’t mention that they are making stuff of value and their skills have value” Michael iterates, “A lot of these artisans use whatever is around them to come up with beautiful products”.
Thus, the desire of We Are NBO, is to shift the narrative to a place that generates value, to create a narrative that “doesn’t talk about them as poor craftspeople but as people who hold desirable skills, who hold a level of ingenuity, who have a savoir-faire that not everyone has”. Michael further highlights the need to talk about artisans in a way that highlights their innovation, “they use tools, equipment and materials that would have been considered waste.” He iterates, “I want to craft the narrative towards a more dignified direction. I want to position artisans as artisans and not impoverished people who need help getting out of poverty”.