Twenty-five-year-old fashion designer Katungulu Mwendwa is making waves in Kenya’s fast growing fashion scene with her African-inspired edgy and contemporary designs. The talented designer, whose work has been featured in the prestigious New York Fashion Week among other high profile fashion events, talks to EDNA GICOVI about chasing her design dream.

Simple but exquisitely elegant, her black, loose-fitting frock sways softly to the gentle breeze as she poses for a photograph. She moves gracefully, turning this way and that, at the photographer’s request. The scene could easily be mistaken for a fashion shoot, save for the lack of photographic gear. The frock is one of Katungulu Mwendwa’s designs from her Spring-Summer 2013 collection. We settle down a short while later on a colourful wooden garden chair whose cushion covers were designed and made by her.

Katungulu is a natural artist. She experimented with different forms of art as a child before exchanging pencil and paintbrush for needle and thread. She recalls putting scissors to her mother’s wedding evening gown to make a dress, which obviously did not sit well with her mother. “When she came home from work I hid inside a cupboard. I knew she would be very angry with me,” she says with a soft chuckle.

That was not the first or the last time the budding fashionista would experiment with her mother’s wardrobe. Consequently, she got into trouble numerous times for her ‘redesigning’ work and other creative adventures. Amidst this conversation, a man walks across the manicured lawn a few metres away from us swinging a guitar case. “Good bye daddy!” Katungulu calls out and waves. “He usually plays the bass on Thursdays. My dad is actually an architect though music is his hobby,” she says. It’s easy to see where Katungulu gets her penchant for art.

The very first of Katungulu’s designs went public in 2001 when that year’s Miss Tourism pageant winner wore her creation. She had been requested to design something for the beauty pageant by her grandmother who was one of the organisers.

Despite many indications that she would land in fashion, Katungulu didn’t feel like her career path was clear-cut. She toyed with the idea of pursuing law, and in 2007, a year after finishing high school, took up an advertising internship at the advertising agency, Ogilvy. “I knew I loved art but wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to head into. Many people asked if I wanted to be a fundi wa nguo (seamstress) which made me a bit nervous and unsure if that’s really what I wanted to be,” she says.

Breaking new ground…
The year 2007 became a defining one for Katungulu. She entered Catwalk Kenya, a reality TV design competition by M-NET, and won. This surprised her as she was fresh out of high school and was competing against seasoned fashion designers. It also gave her the nudge she needed to fully commit to fashion design.

“It was fun. I got to learn from many people from different backgrounds. It was great to be around them because they made me feel there were a lot of people like me out there and there was potential in what I wanted to do,” she says.

Her designs were featured in a local magazine and several women approached her to make dresses for them. She didn’t disappoint them. “I didn’t have any real skills but people still approached me and were happy with the work I did for them, which was something,” she says.

In early 2008, she competed in Idols East Africa, a singing competition, though she didn’t make it to the finals. “I love singing and music has always been one of my passions, but for now that’s not my niche. I’ll probably release my first album when I’m 60,” she laughs.

Katungulu proceeded to the University of the Creative Arts in Southeast England, graduating with a degree in fashion design after three years. On her return to Kenya in 2011, she spent three months at Lalesso, an international fashion house based at the Coast, gaining valuable insights into the Kenyan fashion scene and the players involved. This experience was critical to her plans for establishing her own fashion line. She went on to launch her own label in February 2012.

After her stint at Lalesso, a friend invited her to the Fashion High Tea, a yearly social and fashion event held in Nairobi, to showcase her collections. “I was not sure how people would react to my designs and so was a bit anxious,” she says. But people liked her designs and she even got a call from a boutique owner who was interested in stocking her unique designs, though at the time she had a relatively small collection. Taking part in this event also got her invited to participate in Tribal Chic, an annual charity fashion event organised by the Tribe Hotel.

“I was up nearly all night before the event finishing up on some details when I was called and informed that some people from New York were going to be at the event and would select a designer to attend the New York Fashion Week,” she recalls. This information added to the pressure she was already under. She had an unfinished collection that she would be showcasing in a week and had barely slept for many days.

He debut at Tribal Chic was a huge success. She was excited to meet Hollywood actress Emmanuelle Chriqui at the event. The actress became a fan of the young designer and even owns some of her pieces.

A month after the Tribal Chic event, Katungulu was thrilled to receive a call inviting her to the GenArt’s Fresh Faces in Fashion show at the New York Fashion Week in September 2012. The New York Fashion Week is a major semi-annual event held in February and September of each year in New York City, and is one of four major fashion weeks in the world, along with those in Paris, London, and Milan.

Lessons from New York…
Katungulu was the only African fashion designer to showcase her designs at the GenArt 14th Annual Fresh Faces In Fashion in New York last year. “Being invited to this event was a huge milestone for me. It also meant that I had to come up with a new collection within a very short time, which was challenging because of the resources required. I barely slept that whole month,” she says.

She finished her collection with help from fashion and design students from the University of Nairobi. “I was lucky to have been requested by the university to critique their fashion students and from there I got some students to help me with my collection,” says Katungulu.

There were seven designers from different parts of the world including Katungulu at the GenArt event and she reckons she must have been the youngest and least experienced in the group. “The other contestants were so organized! They had whole teams that included PR and marketing people, and I was just by myself,” she says, adding, “It was both exciting and stressful but I learnt a lot. Our fashion industry still has a long way to go.”

She showcased a collection that consisted of a futuristic, dramatic and modern take of traditional outfits inspired by the Tuareg tribe of Northern Africa. One of the challenges she has faced as an emerging fashion designer in Kenya is finding skilled garment workers. She finds herself sitting at the sewing machine quite often, in addition to both designing and marketing her work.

“We also don’t have enough support as designers in Kenya,” she says. She is nonetheless thankful to corporate bodies that are willing to support designers, especially Nivea who she has worked with. She is also grateful to her immensely supportive family and friends.

She went into mass production last year after finding a factory in Nakuru. This has enabled her to produce larger quantities of her pieces, though she admits that it’s not always easy to get the more complicated pieces into production and this limits her experimentally.

In September this year, Katungulu presented her Autumn-Winter 2013/ 2014 collection dubbed the ‘Dinka Translation’, inspired by the Dinka tribe of Southern Sudan, at a fashion event sponsored by Nivea. She is currently working on her latest collection, which she plans to launch next year.

Katungulu usually works from home with help from her tailor and her designs are available at her online shop katungulumwendwa.com, and also on order. While studying in the UK, she found herself constantly questioning what it meant to be Kenyan or African. Thus, she tries to fuse traditional and modern aspects of African cultures into her designs, and her work is largely inspired by different African cultures.

“I think everything around me inspires me, especially people. I’m a very social and curious person and I love hearing and understanding how different people think,” she says. She is committed to finding a fashion identity Kenyans can call their own.

A story behind every garment…
To aspiring fashion designers, she stresses the need for passion, commitment, and taking one’s work seriously, adding that success doesn’t come in a day. “Don’t go after fame,” she says. “Do your research, read, and keep yourself up to date. Also, be inspired by other things, not just fashion. Love what you do and have fun while doing it. Always have a story behind every garment. This makes the garment special and gives it meaning,” she adds enthusiastically.
Being a lover of art, Katungulu would like to branch out and get involved in the design process of just about everything. “I’d like us to have locally made items inspired by our cultures,” she says in conclusion.

Published in December 2013