Made in Kenya: Exclusive interview with Cynthia Kimathi Founder, Creative Director at The Seamstress and African le’kiondo
Cynthia is a mother and a fashion enthusiast; who doubles up as a self-taught fashion designer, I have loved fashion and style for as far back as I can remember.
I used to accompany my mother to clothes stores every Christmas holiday to choose outfits for my siblings and me, however, I must admit that my Art and Design teacher in State House Girls High School gave me the extra push needed, from whence I learned all the basics myself.
My fashion line is The Seamstress. A seamstress is a woman who sews and one who earns her living from the craft. That is simply who I am.
I officially launched The Seamstress on November 28th, 2020 on the JW Runway Show, but we had been working on the brand and first collection for at least a year beforehand.
Oscar Alochi: Can you describe The Seamstress, the idea and concept as if I knew nothing about it or the market it is in?
Cynthia Kimathi: The Seamstress is purely a ladies-wear fashion line. During our launch, we started with the collection Dusk to Dawn, which is glam wear for evenings and events. But we are not all about evening gowns. We are a one-stop-shop for all women wear; ranging from casual, office, and streetwear, lingerie, mature looks, and older women, among others.
The brand concept is to release quarterly collections (mid-February, end June, end September, and mid-December) that will aim at introducing new designs and aspects into the fashion market. The collections are all pre-planned beforehand, with every design passing through a set of criticisms from The Seamstress team prior to the final vetting.
This is because the creative side of me sometimes needs to be controlled if we want to make functional outfits.
This February, our aim is to release our second collection just before Valentine’s.
OA: What were you doing before The Seamstress, and what motivated you to start the business?
CK: I have been running African le’kiondo, which is a subsidiary brand just like The Seamstress. The brand focuses on making authentic Africanised bags that are environmentally friendly as we source raw materials and labor locally.
Not only that, but it has been a great instrument in empowering women in Meru County by providing them with an avenue to expand their creativity, put food on their table, and have a safe space to talk about their issues.
Just like African le’kiondo, I started The Seamstress out of mere frustration in finding an outfit for myself, a great motivator. During my participation in a national pageant in 2019, Mrs. Universe Kenya as the current 1st Runners Up, it took me weeks to get an evening gown I liked.
This was simply due to all the outfits looking the same, plus they did not look very functional in the sense that I kept wondering where else I would wear the outfit, and how I could style it to look different every time. This predicament gave birth to The Seamstress fashion line.
OA: What techniques do you use? Tell us about the process.
CK: At The Seamstress, we start with a designer’s consultation, This consultation includes detailed discussions with the client ranging from color choices to fabric choices.
The client then receives three (3) designs and chooses from them. The duration from consultation to delivery also depends on design and details. The sewing process differs and the details would seem quite boring for now.
But I also add a lot of accessories to my designs to give them a 3D effect, with such pieces ranging from flowers, beads, etc, which aids in having my outfits turn heads positively.
OA: How did you learn/master this technique and why do you use it?
CK: As previously mentioned, I received basic art and design training from my high school days. In addition to this, my team and I do a lot of research, and I spend the better part of my mornings learning online.
I use this technique as it keeps me on my toes on what is currently trending in the fashion space, what trends could be making their comeback, plus the added benefit of attaining inspiration.
OA: What challenges did you face?
CK: Being a designer, one has to pump in a lot of finances before reaping anything, therefore sometimes you can be financially constrained especially as a start-up and a new name in the fashion industry.
In the Kenyan market, as much as we are now beginning to accept Kenyan designers, we are not yet there. The market still prefers ‘ready-made’ outfits from boutiques for designer outfits. Therefore, oftentimes clientele does not understand the business model especially the need to pay a Designer’s Consultation Fee.
Growth is gradual and sometimes the audience is not as receptive as imagined, but we hope for better days and are positive on the same.
The biggest challenge has however been letting go of clients who wish us to replicate outfits they find online. It is a difficult task at times explaining that we do not replicate, we create.
OA: How did the obstacles make you feel?
CK: Frustrated at times, excited at others. It is bittersweet. The challenges however motivate me, helps me find new ways of approaching things, and elevates my thinking whilst tickling my creativity.
OA: What were your achievements?
CK: The JW Runway Show is the most recent highlight since the launch. In addition, I have dressed beauty pageant judges, taken part at the end of year party for WICCI (Women’s Indian Chamber Of Commerce and Industry – Kenya Business Council) as well as having the honor of dressing an artist for their upcoming music video to be released this February.
It has just been a month and a half and we feel positive about achieving even bigger this quarter.
OA: Favourite moments?
CK: The launch at the JW has to be the highlight so far. The runway took me back to my old modeling days and I was overwhelmed by how far I have come. Seeing my pieces on the runway and how receptive the audience was to them, blew my mind away.
In some way, I felt validated that I might be on to something really amazing.
An added advantage is that I get to travel more now, another passion of mine, as I do deliveries and have one-on-one discussions with clients.
OA: How do you get dressed in the morning?
CK: I am a casual dresser. Half the time, you shall find me in jeans and a t-shirt. Whenever I have meetings and glam events though, that is when I put my mind into the dressing.
OA: What’s your take on the Kenya fashion industry?
CK: The Kenyan fashion industry is impressively growing fast.
We are seeing Kenyans being dressed by Kenyan designers for events, and the only way we grow is by supporting our own.
The pioneers have done a great job in growing the industry, but so have media personalities and bloggers like yourselves. You have given designers and fashionistas a platform to express themselves in terms of marketing to the world at large.
OA: How different is the Kenya fashion industry compared to East Africa and Africa’s fashion industry at large?
CK: Our rich culture already sets us apart. The Maasai shuka for example has been widely accepted and has found itself in some international design houses, and so has the kikoi.
OA: Any future collaboration with Kenyan or International fashion designers?
CK: Yes. I am hopeful on this front. Maybe Neomi Nganga will read this and we get to do something.
OA: If you were given the opportunity to work with a local or international fashion designer who will you love to work with?
CK: Locally, Neomi Nganga of Style By Neomi. She has revolutionized plus-size fashion, as I find her designs sexy and eye-catching.
Internationally, Zuhair Murad. He is a genius, so daring with his technique. He always delivers utterly unique and dramatic masterpieces.
OA: What are your thoughts on fashion in Africa?
CK: It is growing tremendously fast. Countries like Nigeria and South Africa are already making enough noise in the fashion industry home and away.
OA: What has changed during this period of Covid-19?
CK: Most fashion designers have started to focus more on online marketing strategies.
Personally, the pandemic has given me room to magnify my creativity and read more. Never did I think I would be designing masks for instance.
OA: How has The Seamstress adopted the new technology virtual fashion show during and after the Coronavirus pandemic?
CK: We will be doing Instagram and Facebook live for virtual shows whenever we release our new collections.
OA: How are African fashion designers influencing fashion in the western world?
CK: Most African designers like pomp and color, and lately we have seen more African prints on the red carpet, as the Western world is already recognizing our African designs.
This can even be seen in as diverse an environment such as Hollywood blockbuster films like Black Panther, where they consulted with African designers for the costume designs.
OA: What can the Kenyan fashion industry learn from the western world?
CK: Owning our products. The Western world has a lot of acceptance and loyalty towards its designers. We should borrow a leaf from that and grow our own African designers.
We can also aim at having more fashion weeks and shows to call for upcoming designers to showcase their outfits, as I believe we have so much talent to offer.
OA: Over the last few years have you noticed any significant changes with the African fashion trends?
CK: Yes, I have. There have been some significant developments. We are seeing more African designers, models, and outfits on magazines and social media platforms, which is a clear indication that the perception of African designs has shifted progressively.
OA: When dealing with Africa is it important for the fashion world to be ethical and socially responsible, and put in place strong corporate social responsibility governance?
CK: Yes. We can’t just take and not give back.
Sustainable fashion needs CSR. It helps build relationships with consumers and stakeholders, and it helps to show the market space precisely what the designers are doing and the positive effects their work has in Africa. Let us never forget that our consumers appreciate transparency.
OA: Tell us about The JW Show or Kenyan Fashion week and your experience at the Show.
CK: The JW show is an amazing platform for upcoming designers to showcase their outfits and for seasoned designers to release their collections. The panelist choice was also a wise one; we got to get first-hand information from fashion icons and legends in the industry.
They discussed different parameters in the fashion industry and gave solid advice on how to be fashion-forward and run a house as a business.
OA: Where can we find your designs?
CK: We are currently based online.
Here you will find our recently released collection Dusk to Dawn and some outfits made for our clients.
OA: Share with the audience your social media platforms or a website
CK: Our Social platforms
OA: What does eCommerce mean to you and your business?
CK: eCommerce means everything! Our business is purely online based.
We are however currently developing our website, which will give us the extra push in the eCommerce world
OA: Do you think eCommerce is important for African fashion designers that are trying to get recognized and reach a global market?
CK: Of course, it is! Ecommerce has opened doors for many businesses locally and globally. It is safe to say that eCommerce is an essential tool in the fashion industry in this modern time.
OA: How does your strategy change when running an online store to an offline store?
CK: When using an Online-to-Offline (O2O) Strategy in our business, both channels share similar significance and importance to The Seamstress in helping us achieve our success.
The Online Channels shall be helpful in widening our reach to not only local stakeholders, but internationally too, through digital marketing and advertising, and draw them into our physical store.
Whilst using the Offline Channel for a physical store, location is our primary strategy as we would wish our discerning customers to feel welcome in our brick-and-mortar when they come for measurements, fittings, and even collecting of their goods.
Finally, due to our industry being fashion, our clients still prefer to physically see, and touch and feel, our outfits when they want to make a purchase, especially if they are first-time buyers.
OA: Where do you see African fashion in the next 5 to 10 years?
CK: I see most celebrities accepting African fashion and embracing it internationally. I strongly believe that we shall be seeing more African designs in the Oscars and Golden Globe Awards amongst other international platforms. We have so much untapped talent and we are about to take the industry by storm.
OA: What 5 pieces of advice would you give to young African fashion designers wanting to enter the fashion industry?
CK: My Advice to young African designer
- The world is your oyster. All you have to do is spread your wings.
- Success is not experienced overnight, put in the work and it shall surely come.
- Social media likes do not equal sales. Clients will buy even without liking your pictures.
- Every time you feel lost, remember why in a world where you could be anyone you decided to be a designer.
- Always be true to yourself.
OA: Is there anything else you would like to add?
CK: I would like to thank you for giving me and The Seamstress fashion line by extension, the opportunity for this interview and for deeming us worthy of it. When the names of people and organizations that led the Kenyan fashion industry to be recognized worldwide will be written, yours shall surely be there.