Shy and closeted is not what you would expect from renowned fashion designer Wambui Mukenyi of Wambui Mukenyi Fashion House. From working with celebrities to big productions like Tusker Project Fame, Wambui has proven to be a mainstay in Kenya’s fashion industry. The accountant turned designer had a chat with ESTHER AKELLO on fashion, elusive search for a baby and single parenthood.
“When I introduce myself as Wambui Mukenyi, the first thing that comes to a lot of people’s minds is a large, old woman. So, often times, I don’t reveal my age to people just because of their misconception of who I am or who I ought to be. If it helps to move the business along by letting them believe that is who I am, then that works for me.”
Fashion has always been my calling…
I grew up in Kiambu County in a family of three children: my two sisters and I. My mother predominantly brought us up as my father passed away when we were young. My memories of him are scanty. My mother, however, did a good job raising us. Although we grew up in a humble background, we never lacked. She is also the one who has ingrained in me the values I hold dear such as being optimistic, always looking at the glass as half full and being God fearing. She took me to boarding school when I was nine years old, so I learnt discipline and responsibility pretty early. I carry these qualities with me wherever I go and even into my business.
Fashion was my first love. However, after high school, I couldn’t pursue it for it wasn’t a popular course; instead, I opted to study accounts and business management, as I found it challenging to voice my desire to pursue fashion. I felt like there was an unspoken expectation to have a more ‘secure’ type of job. In a sweet turn of events, I ended up working as an accountant for a friend of mine who had a fashion house. On top of balancing her books, I also helped her with public relations and marketing. It is through her that I learnt about the art and business side of fashion.
After awhile and a lot of prodding from friends, I got the courage to sketch my first design. A friend took a look at it and encouraged me to put it on social media and the response was great. I started making pieces for a few friends and then through word of mouth, got other referrals and soon I was running the Wambui Mukenyi fashion house from my mom’s living room.
It took me two years to officially quit from my accounting job to fully concentrate on my business. Before then, my routine pretty much revolved around working as an accountant during the day and then burying myself in my design job in the evening, either sketching designs or seeing clients.
It wasn’t long before I was convinced I could take fashion as a fulltime career. In 2010, I rented a shop at Diamond Plaza in Westlands using my savings and contribution from two friends. I also bought a machine and hired a tailor and a customer care representative. A friend also encouraged me to do a collection. I took the challenge but it took me four months to produce six pieces! Ideally, it should take weeks if you have a proper production workshop. But such is life.
Lucky for me, it did not take long for the stars to align themselves. Two months after starting out, top stylist Annabel Onyango approached me for some dresses for MTV’s HIV/AIDS-based drama, Shuga. That was my first big paycheck for my designs! It was exciting although for me any woman wearing a Wambui Mukenyi piece is a privilege.
Thereafter, other stylists such as Connie Aluoch, who used some of my pieces in Tusker Project Fame 3, came calling. Soon enough, mainstream media took notice, catapulting the fashion house’s brand into the limelight. Since then, we have dressed a lot of influential women including singer Kambua and Lillian Muli among others.
Making business sense…
I check into the office at around 9:30am after dropping my son to school. I then go through office reports and production work in the workshop. I schedule meetings early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The rest of the time is taken up by consultations with clients. Often times, I leave work at 7pm or later and it largely depends on how my day unfolds. As far as inspiration for creating designs is concerned, I tend to do my sketches at night when most of the staff has left the office.
When I started out, the woman I had in mind was the youthful, fun-loving 22-year-old to the more mature 44-year-old. She would probably be a middle class individual so we also cater for corporate kind of looks. Back then, African prints, designs and fabrics were my muse but I have diversified the fabrics I use. I especially enjoy working with exquisite laces.
Our designs have also changed in line with market demands to include, but not limited to, day-to-day wear, smart casual and bridal wear. We also do corporate uniforms for companies. As a rule, we do three collections annually. Our collections are inspired by the environment around us, the ideal type of woman we have in mind and the seasons. We are already working on our first collection of the year which is a fun and funky corporate look. We always work with our customers’ budget, which has never in any way hurt us business wise. Kenyans are appreciating locally made products more and that is how we have sustained ourselves.
I don’t think I have a best collection or project because every collection comes with its own inspiration. I am always my biggest critic and I always feel like I could have done something different or made tweaks here and there. However, just to get perspective, I have a group of people I turn to for an honest opinion. Their thoughts end up being the most fulfilling part of the project.
In terms of how I choose to run my business, Donna Karan’s DKNY has always stood out for me because of their business and marketing models. I also like Tom Ford. His resilient nature and how he managed to start his own line inspires me. He is also someone I have really gleaned from in terms of how to think as a creative and how not to be taken advantage of. On dream collaborations, I would love to work with South Africa’s Bonang Matheba because she is influential and her designs are beautiful. I would also love to work with H&M, Top Shop and Marc Jacobs.
One of the biggest challenges I faced while establishing my business was that of human resource. Getting someone who could understand the vision and where it needed to go was difficult. Additionally, we used to invest in a lot of staff training only for them to get poached. But have I learnt my lessons.
Firstly, my biggest mistake was not signing contracts with the professionals I was working with. Once I started doing that, the employee drain minimised and I can now say with pride that I have people I have worked with for nearly as long as the fashion line has existed. We currently have a staff of 17. Secondly, sourcing for different types of fabrics was also difficult but I learnt the best places to get them from. Our biggest source right now is China and Hong Kong. Of course, every day and every design is a lesson in itself.
In terms of marketing, Samantha Bridals Wedding Fair has been a really good platform although word of mouth remains our best marketing tool. Social media has also played a major role in putting our brand out there. I still continue to work with stylists and media houses or individuals who are willing to collaborate with me. So far I have worked with Sunny Dolat, Wambui Thimba, Brian Babu and Connie Aluoch. I am open to any stylist or individual who may want to collaborate on designs or collections.
Finding healing, single parenting and marriage…
If I were to describe myself, I would say I’m a quiet individual. That’s probably why I don’t interview well but I try my best! I would rather be the one asking the questions and not the other way round. However, in my solitary moments, I like to think about the impact I have made in society and the kind of legacy I would like to leave behind. Aside from fashion, I would like to start an education foundation. A lot of smart children suffer because their families are not able to come up with fees. Plus you can never go wrong with it.
I am a single parent to an adorable two-and-a-half-year-old boy, Ethan Muchemi. I am not scared by the prospect of single parenthood because I believe it is simply a matter of mindset: take it easy, a day at a time and the rest will figure itself out. I do, however, count myself lucky as I have an incredible support system in my sisters, mother and grandmother.
Are there times when I feel like I could be a better parent? Sure. Initially, I used to feel like I was failing Ethan by getting home late. However, to counter that, I decided to create time for him during the day. So I drop him off to school then I pick him up later at noon and that alone time in the car is what we use to bond and I get to find out how his day has been.
I hope Ethan grows up to be a decent, God-fearing man. I also hope he will be able to say that I was an amazing mother who did not spoil him… a lot. I am open to falling in love in the future. I hear a lot of people complaining about how difficult marriage is and I am aware that it is never going to be a bed of roses for sure. But I believe if you decide to concentrate on the thorns, then it’s definitely going to be thorny! My ideal man is someone driven, focused and God fearing. I also want a transparent marriage where communication is paramount. I hope I will be my partner’s ideal woman.
I have had tough situations in my life that have taught me the power of positive thinking. One of the most profound instances was having three miscarriages within a time span of one-and-a-half years. Those were hard times because I really, really wanted a child. So every time I would check into the hospital for an evacuation (a procedure to empty and clean the womb after miscarriage), I would really be disappointed, even broken.
While I never blamed myself or thought something was wrong with me, I felt cheated to some extent. After trying for one-and-half years, I finally had my blessing – Ethan. Gladly, it was not a problematic pregnancy apart from the beginning when we had difficulty tracing his heartbeat. I trusted God to make everything work out according to His will.
I’m a very spiritual person and one of the things I hold on to as my compass is the belief that I would rather feel stuck in my business or life than move without the assurance that God has ordered my footsteps in a particular direction. My mum taught me that and I hope to teach my son the same. Everything eventually worked out and I even managed to work till the last day of my pregnancy!
My advice to other women who are facing the same challenge I faced is that there is hope. While people may talk behind your back, or some even fail to understand what you are going through, do not get into a pity party. If you let words, especially the negative ones, get into your spirit, they will break you even further. So stay strong and keep trying.
Wambui Mukenyi Fashion House is now seven years old and this is the year we hope to open some shops and move boldly into the retail sector. While all my skills are self-taught, I have been giving the idea of going to school some thought: hopefully, some time next year with Italy being my ideal destination. Until then, I live by the mantra: She believed she could, so she did.”
Published March 2017…