In Summary
  • Mshonaji custom makes clothes from Ankara, cotton, chiffon... the choice of fabric depends on the client’s design.

  • People mistakenly associate custom-made to Ankara. I seek to break this association.

  • I manage the operations in Mshonaji: I source for fabrics, curate designs and meet clients to take measurements.

  • My clients never have to meet the fundis or deal with their empty promises.

Leah Otieno and I are sitting in the terrace of Lava Latte. Lava Latte is what they describe as an afro-chic boho-styled eatery. It is on 209 State House Road, Nairobi. It sits in an abandoned primary school.

Sometimes, when you are out in the terrace having your chicken-avocado sandwich, you can hear the giggles of schoolchildren rustling the leaves in the trees. It is ethereal. Even the sun cannot help but come out to play.

CUSTOM-MAKE

Leah is one of the managing partners here. She is the one who will come over to your table to ask if you need a second helping of their panini. She also lent her style voice to the interiors – the Ankara fabric that drapes the bar and restaurant counters speak her language.

Leah runs a gig that hand-makes custom clothing for a niche market of men, women and children named Mshonaji. You will find her profile by the same name on Instagram, @mshonaji.

Leah shares her story:

“Most people don’t know that Ankara fabric is not originally African. The Dutch first manufactured it, then we adopted it and made it ours. Probably because the tribal patterns seemed very African. The West Africans embraced it before the rest of Africa did. Woodin and Vlisco are some of the recognised global manufacturers of real Dutch wax fabrics.

After high school, I got a fully paid scholarship to study economics at a university in Iowa, USA. My initial plan was to study biochemistry but how it works in the States is that you do liberal arts in your first year. We got a teacher in economics who simplified the concepts and related economics to everyday life. Even writing has an element of economics. I switched majors after her class.

I launched Mshonaji in March 2017. The vision for the business was to custom-make clothes for men, women and children. I also wanted to promote the local industry of fundis. I wanted to connect them to a class of clientele they do not regularly have access to. My clients would get quality items made by skilled local craftsmen.

My confidence as an entrepreneur and stylist has grown over the years. Now I can voice my opinions to my clients. It is what they pay for, after all. I am also not shy to charge them what I feel is the value of what they will get.

EMPTY NEST

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