News / Africa

Kenyan 'National Dress' a Work in Progress

Kenyan designers are increasingly drawing on their heritage to create clothing that fuses Kenyan and western styles.
Kenyan designers are increasingly drawing on their heritage to create clothing that fuses Kenyan and western styles.

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Is there a distinctive Kenyan "look"?  Perhaps not yet.  A country-wide competition held six years ago to come up with a Kenyan "national dress" failed to take off. But in Kenya's burgeoning fashion industry, designers are increasingly drawing upon their heritage to create clothing that fuses Kenyan and western styles. Some hold out hope that there can yet be a Kenyan "national dress."

The Nigerians have their buba dress, and the Ugandans, their gomesi. But Kenyan designers like Patricia Mbela bemoan the lack of a distinctive outfit in this conservatively-dressed country.

"You have to wear a tie, a nice skirt suit when you go to work. If you go with a tie-dye shirt to the office, you are most likely to get your boss call you in and telling you, 'That is not something you wear to the office unless it is a dress-down Friday.' It is sad - it does not make sense," she said.

Mbela was one of nine designers selected to create a Kenyan "national dress" in a competition six years ago, an idea that did not catch on.

In a country with more than 40 ethnic groups, most having a distinctive dress of their own, designers say it is a challenge to come up with an outfit that everyone will see themselves in.

Olivia Ambani, design and marketing manager with the Kenyan fashion house KikoRomeo, says she thinks a national dress is possible with a bit of flexibility. "I think it will take people being more open to cohesion and accepting that, if it is slightly more Maasai or more Kikuyu or more Luo or more coastal, it is okay because it still is part of the country and it will still represent us," she said.

Kenya does have its distinctive fabrics, most notably the checkered or striped shukas worn by the Maasai, the lessos, or khangas, which originated on the coast, and the kikoy.

But designer Wambui Njogu says these were typically used as shawls or wraps rather than as material to make into garments.

"We did not have fabric traditionally in Kenya, so everything was based in skins and leathers. Our skills are in things like beadwork, the leather handling, and the embellishment, but the actual garment and the stitching culture was never there. All you needed was something to wrap around you to keep the cold out, which is why we had the shuka -- the cloth was always on top of the leather loincloth," she said.

Njogu says a national dress would probably consist of a western-style garment that would be embellished with beadwork, coils and other symbols of Kenyan cultures.

She follows this type of trend in her clothing line, Moo Cow. One of her outfits incorporates a long leather apron similar to that worn by the Turkana people of northern Kenya.

For its part, KikoRomeo's designs draw upon cultures from all over Africa.

Design and marketing manager Olivia Ambani said "For instance, one of the collections that we have is Afro-punk collection. There is a lot of imagery on it, embellishment that is taken from scarification, which is something that is quite big in the continent. We give it the punk style, which is obviously something that is very British and taken from that era."

Ambani says more than 20 designers have come up with their own labels, which are beginning to be recognized locally and internationally, and that more and more designers are entering the industry.

Patricia Mbela also mixes Kenyan and western influences in her designs.

She says she has not given up on the goal of having a distinctive Kenyan national dress..

And to boost the Kenyan fashion industry, designer Wambui Njogu urges female politicians and other women frequently in the public eye to purchase and wear Kenyan-made clothing.

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