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African fashion designers: ethically changing lives.

Fashion journalist Deirdre McQuillan and photographer Fionn McCann were funded under the winter 2017 round to travel to Kenya and report on the next generation of sustainable fashion designers

The idea for this project was prompted during Fashion Revolution Week in 2017 in Dublin and meeting many people actively engaged in creating awareness of sustainability and ethical methods of production. Many referenced Africa and we already knew of some successful businesses like the African Shirt Company and Soko Kenya (who produce for  ASOS).

We did a lot of preliminary research. We consulted various people, bought books on African fashion, learned as much as we could about it and made as many contacts as possible in advance of the visit. In this we were helped greatly by Vikki Brennan of Proudly Made in Africa who has long experience of working in Kenya and knew many people who had set up brands and manufacturing units committed to ethical standards. It was important to have that validation before we started. She also had useful practical advice about Kenya.

It was also key to have someone on the ground who could act as a ‘go-for’ for us to save time when we got there. We found Goodie Odhiambo in Nairobi, who was very skilled in sorting out itineraries etc. and who helped smooth paths.  The plan was to highlight the work of a number of entrepreneurial African fashion enterprises based in Nairobi and Voi, most of which would be female-led or female-run, and to highlight the vibrant nature of contemporary African fashion and how such businesses can empower and transform people’s lives.

In the event, we visited nearly twenty places in the ten-day period – more than had originally been planned – on a very hectic and tight schedule. Getting to grips with the nightmare of Nairobi traffic which we had not anticipated was the first obstacle. Any visit took hours there and back in grid-locked traffic making it impossible to do more than two or three in one day. But wherever we went we were impressed with what we saw and women were quick to explain how much their job meant to them, how much they enjoyed their work and what it meant to be able to educate their children.  

In the Kibera slum, the biggest in Africa, for example, we met the sixteen workers making jewellery whose lives have been transformed acquiring new skills, and in Panah factory, one worker told us that her work enabled her “to grow as an individual, to do something you are passionate about and to support your family”.

It was useful to get an overview of Kenyan fashion which we did from a spokesperson from the Nest Collective who told us that creatives bring more revenue than mining in Kenya  “so that the government is listening to us”, and to meet the country’s foremost blogger Diane Opoti with 74k followers on Instagram.

We spent a morning with one of Kenya’s most successful fashion designers internationally Anyango Mpinga who is also an activist fighting human trafficking (and whose lovely clothes are now sold in Atrium Dublin).  

We met Furaha Bishota an ex accountant now creating a vibrant new range of clothing, two sisters making award winning jewellery, Penny Winter who exports jewellery all over the US and a designer who takes particular pleasure in buying silk from a farm outside Nairobi in a farm to fibre operation. Fashion in Kenya is certainly vibrant.

The second part of the trip was to drought-ridden Voi, half way between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa. It is one of the biggest areas of unemployment with big issues of prostitution and HIV being on the main link between Mombasa and landlocked African countries. There was a constant line of trucks on the narrow motorway with long tailbacks. 

Soko Kenya was a very impressive set up – a factory that started with four people in a shed now has over 60 and aims to have 250 in two years’ time. Conditions are exemplary, local women learn not just how to sew, but to set up their own businesses if they wish. The workers’ children are cared for right beside the factory where they have several supervisors. One woman told us that her wage enabled her to bore a water hole in her garden, avoiding have to queue like so many do to wait for a tanker to buy that precious commodity. We had to laugh when the children gathered around to sing a little song about getting up and getting dressed “on a cold and frosty morning”…. given the hot climate.

This was a long and often demanding trip, but rewarding in that we achieved what we wanted to do – and more. Hundreds of portraits of those who we met were taken, sometimes carefully set up formally, where that was possible. The feature, with a selection of photographs, appeared as a double page spread in The Irish Times Magazine in February 2018, and an exhibition of portraits will take place in September in the Copper House Gallery in Dublin.


The online version of Deirdre and Fionn’s piece can be read here. The exhibition will launch on Thursday, 27th September at 6.30pm in Copper House Gallery, Synge Street. It will run until Thursday, 4th October.