You are the biggest name in fashion in Kenya, is that what you set out to do from the beginning?
It wasn’t about me personally being the biggest name, it was about KikoRomeo being the biggest name. When I started twenty years ago, I was looking to create a legendary Kenyan fashion house, just like the House of Dior, Gucci or Louis Vuitton. Basically, I was looking to create a brand or fashion house that would stand the test of time.
I named the brand KikoRomeo because its roots are here in Kenya so I wanted a Kiswahili word. The name had to be something that is easy to pronounce in a number of languages. My personal name would have given the brand a Scottish identity which I wasn’t about. I also didn’t use my personal name because I realised that though I may be the head designer for a good number of years, someone else will take over after me so I didn’t want to tie the brand to my name.
KikoRomeo is synonymous with quality African fashion in Kenya, do you have similar continental ambitions?
I think KikoRomeo is already quite well known in other African countries. Could it be more well known in Africa? Yes, definitely. A lot of that is to do with having more shows in those countries, making sure to have sales outlets and just keeping up a PR link. Just like we get excited in Kenya when we have designers visiting from other countries so do other African countries. Often, designers are an entry point into knowledge about another country. That’s why I think fashion brands are so important. They open people’s eyes to different sides of another place.
To answer your question, I think normally a market entry for any brand means first selling through someone else before opening your own place. You need to test your product in the market and different markets like different things. So the answer is I have sold a little bit in the DRC, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana but all in a more informal way. I am doing it on a small scale right now but I want to do it on a much larger scale.
People in Africa are reaching out for something different. High Society in any market wants to look different. That’s very true within Africa because we have a developing luxury Market. Everybody goes to the same parties and the same events and they need to have something that is different. When they buy in their own local markets for a specific event they want something unique that nobody else has. That’s when they look to external brands like us since that almost guarantees that nobody else will have it.
What do you think of the state of the fashion industry in Africa? (Are these the best of times, the worst of times? Or are things somewhere in between?)
The fashion industry in Africa is a bit fragmented. Trade tariffs between different countries complicate things and shipping costs are astronomical. In South Africa, their fashion industry is clearly organized and listed. So whether you are looking for a yarn supplier, a textile supplier or garment manufacturer, it’s much easier to find people.
Here in Kenya, and I think that’s representative of many African countries and Kenya is by no means the worst, it’s sometimes difficult to find the input you need for your designs so you have to go shop by shop. That is very time consuming. If you’re a manufacturer, then you can buy in bulk but designers like myself buy in smaller quantities so we tend to be subject to the vagaries of whatever the wholesaler will have brought in. Now the wholesaler is bringing in all kinds of stuff, this time it may have quality next time it may not. It’s very ad hoc and informal.
People in Africa are reaching out for something different. High Society in any market wants to look different. That’s very true within Africa because we have a developing luxury Market. Everybody goes to the same parties and the same events and they need to have something that is different
Whereas that can lead you to great discoveries that promote your creativity, it also means a lack of consistency. It means that when you are now furnishing a shop order, it becomes difficult to get continuity or a certain level of production. It also means that when you have a repeat order, you many not be able to get the same fabric again for example. And then you also have heavy competition from merchants in the informal sector who are maybe selling excess production from China, Turkey or even Mauritius. You also have second hand clothes in the market. So there’s a lot of competition from that side. Those are some of the things that are a bit tricky about doing fashion within Africa.
Apart from being the MD of KikoRomeo, you’re also the chair of FAFA and Fashion for Peace. Could you tell us a little about the two initiatives?
The Festival of African Fashion and Arts (FAFA) is a dream I had for a long time. Having lived in Africa for quite some time, I have never understood the reason for trying to copy paste, some would say in a poorer way, how fashion is presented in the west. I think It’s important to do what we can with the means that we have through integrating what’s unique about the countries that we live in. So FAFA is all about presenting fashion and art that is very clearly African to the public, but doing it to a level of sophistication that’s commensurate to any other country in the world.
Fashion for Peace meanwhile was born in Kenya in 2008 and aims to use fashion and art as a means of bringing people together and celebrating diversity. I think it’s very important to have an event that pushes the bar so high that everyone else aspires to it. FAFA does a great job, I think, of presenting things in a way that even an international audience would find appealing. I think FAFA shines an important light on what the continent has to offer and ultimately it changes perceptions about what is African.
You’ve dressed quite a number of VIPs, including Dorothy Nyong’o, Lupita Nyong’o’s mother when she accompanied her daughter to the BAFTAs. What do you feel when someone wears one of your ensembles on the red carpet?
Every time I bring out the best in somebody, I feel great. I think that’s what fashion is about. It’s about making someone feel the best they can feel. Of course, how someone looks has always been very important. It opens or closes doors. It makes me feel good that I’ve made someone feel special and I’ve given someone the confidence to shine on whatever platform they choose to shine.
The red carpet, of course, has become a very important thing at social events now. So not just the Oscars, BAFTAs or other award shows but even at local events. People like to look good. I think everybody can look good. If you feel good, that magic in your smile is what makes you look stunningly attractive. It doesn’t matter if you are perceived to be beautiful or perceived not to be beautiful. To me the magic is in the eyes of the person or the smile of the person and if I’ve made them feel that they are shinning to the best that they can, that is where the satisfaction is.
Which VIP are you most proud of dressing?
Honestly speaking, my answer might surprise you. First of all, what is a VIP? I think a VIP can be anybody and a VIP is not necessarily what the public perceives to be a VIP. To me a VIP is somebody I’ve connected with and I think is doing something special at whichever level of society.
So to answer your question, I think in many ways one of the most rewarding experiences for me was dressing the women of the Kenyan rugby team. It is wonderful to see these women really passionate about a sport and are playing it to the best of their abilities despite the fact that they don’t have adequate sponsorship. To make these women look like a million dollars in a dress and heels, now that is transformational.
Makeover: Members of the Kenya female rugby team wearing Ann’s creations (Photos via Emmanuel Jambo. Make up by Suzie Beauty)
It’s transformational for them because they are always in their sports kit although some people make fun of them for not conforming to certain gender expectations. It’s also transformational because it is about making the women look so completely different that the public realises that, hang on a minute, these are actually our sports heroes and don’t they look amazing!? That is very powerful.
People like to look good. I think everybody can look good. If you feel good, that magic in your smile is what makes you look stunningly attractive
Which VIP do you most want to dress?
Of course, dressing global celebrities like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Serena Williams would do wonders for my women’s line but honestly, I just don’t think like that. The reason I don’t think like that, as I explained before, is for me a VIP can be anyone. A VIP for me is somebody that is doing something exceptional in whatever level of society.
I get pretty horrified by Hollywood’s stereotyping of what is beautiful. So I might want to take somebody from a humble community that is doing absolutely outstanding work and make them look like a million dollars so that they are able to easily mix with globally recognised VIPs. I love being able to empower people. I love that Beyonce dressed up the mothers of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant and took them to the VMA’s. That’s transformational.
You recently attended the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Johannesburg, South Africa. Could you tell us how that was like?
The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week was great; it was the second time I’ve done it. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks in general all over the world are very significant. They are globally recognised platforms so PR from them goes global. I heard from my last experience at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Joburg that many people had watched my interview at some big official function in London. It really raises your profile as a brand.
It is always great to meet other fantastic designers. To get into the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week platform itself is always an honour. So it was fantastic, I really enjoyed it. My collection seems to have been very well received. The last time I did ready-to-wear for women and men. This time around I did a women’s haute couture range so it was mostly evening wear and silks with lots of embroidery and vibrant colours. I was very happy with the response. I would say the brand has definitely been very well received locally in South Africa and I am now working on where I can sell.
Your daughter, Iona McCreath, is now a respected fashion designer in her own right. Did you encourage her to make this career choice?
I wouldn’t say my daughter has finally made one final career choice. She is still at university. She is studying Sociology at the London School of Economics. Iona has basically grown up as an apprentice in the whole fashion business. KikoRomeo and her were born in the same year. She’s been at everything since then; the fashion shows, the model trainings and the designing.
My daughter is very interested in fashion but she’s also very interested in a lot of other things particularly music. Iona just turned twenty and I think there are many things she would like to do. I think she would definitely like to be involved in the world of fashion in some kind of way but her ambitions are wider than just fashion.
A VIP for me is somebody that is doing something exceptional in whatever level of society. I get pretty horrified by Hollywood’s stereotyping of what is beautiful
Any final thoughts on the fashion’s potential to transform Africa?
I think fashion has the power to transform society. It has the power to enable social mobility because it is an incredibly useful tool that anybody can use. I guess that’s why some leaders in the past have used it to cement their own brand. Of course, I am talking here about African leaders like Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Mobutu Sese Seko, you name them.
We’re in a world where you have to find the style of dress that suits you are as a person. When you do that, it more or less answers the question “who are you?” to the world. This is of course where even a lot of African politicians get it wrong because they forget that we see the photo before we hear what they have to say. The photo gets a lot of millage. If they are talking about building African economies and whatever they are wearing is an Italian suit, then we clearly have a disconnect. I believe that the integrity in our thoughts should translate into our clothing.
So if you’re somebody that is passionate about the new Africa then wear African-made fashion. When I say African-made fashion, I don’t mean that the fashion has to be in African print or have beadwork on it. It may even be a simple suit but it has been made and designed in Africa. We need the added value spent in our economies. We need to build our brands, believe in our brands and export our brands.