Fashion break helped me design a new brand

Fashion designer John Kaveke.
“Despite being at the top of my game, I was burned out, my creativity was dipping and my bank account struggling,” says international fashion designer John Kaveke.

“One day I decided to take a break. I shut down my house, put everything in storage and moved to Samburu. I needed to re-strategise and I couldn’t do it in Nairobi.”

What started out as a three-month hiatus ended up lasting two years as Kaveke, 47, stepped away completely from the fashion scene. His brand, John Kaveke, had graced the most prestigious fashion events in Nairobi, featured in Vogue Italia (2011) and taken to the runways of London Fashion Week.

At this peak performance, he walked away.

In a candid conversation with Hustle, Kaveke describes his journey, from his sabbatical in 2012 to his return to fashion in 2015, where he once again rose to become one of Kenya’s most renowned designers.

He has participated in acclaimed such as the New York Fashion week (2017) and the Siemens FABRIC project in Johannesburg, South Africa (2018).

What is the John Kaveke brand?

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Our brand history has been focused around menswear, particularly designer suits, which have a unique African touch. Most recently, we are branching into the wedding space.

Traditionally a wedding day is about the bride, right? Few people cater to the groom. This is our aim, to design products that stand out for the groom and groomsmen.

What’s the largest number you’ve dressed at a single wedding?

Ten. Our suits for these occasions range from Sh15,000 for a party of about four to Sh25,000 for a party over seven.

Does this mean you’re not doing collections anymore?

I am still doing collections. Though the wedding brand is a large part of who we want to become, our core will always be the designer suit, for whatever occasion.

In February 2020, we will be celebrating 20 years of John Kaveke in what I’m calling a ‘fashion installation’.

Our collection will comprise of 40 pieces, 20 of those commemorating the years in the market and the other as part of a fresh collection. I’ll also be part of an upcoming show on September 7 dubbed ‘A Man’s World’.

Why do you use the word installation?

A fashion show is simply that; models showcase your designs and leave.

An installation, in my mind, is about immersing the audience in your world through fashion pieces on the runway and screen as we recapture our entire journey and identity.

How much does such an event cost?

A solo showcase can cost anywhere between Sh1.5 million and Sh3 million. Sh1.5 million will get you a ‘decent’ show but not a good one. A decent show would have about 10 models, basic lighting and refreshments, media coverage and marketing.

I however, prefer to hold off my showcases until I can present an excellent show.

Lighting alone costs approximately Sh500,000. You spend another Sh300,000 on marketing, Sh20, 000 on models and at least Sh200,000 on the suits. Other costs are spread on food, venue and logistics. The quality of your show speaks to the quality of your brand.

You walked away from the industry in 2012 and moved to Samburu, tell us about that experience.

I lived in Samburu, amongst the Samburu people, for a month. There was no electricity, no Internet, no vehicles and the nearest town was about an hour-and-a-half away, on foot. I could only charge my phone when we went to town, so most times it was dead and I was unreachable.

What did Samburu teach you?

When you strip your existence to the barest minimum, the things that are important rise to the top. In many ways I re-discovered who I was and what I wanted to stand for. Though money was important, it wasn’t my bottom line and I knew it never would be.

My vision was to be relevant, to use my tools to touch lives and empower others to do the same. I wanted everyone who had experienced the brand John Kaveke to have a story to tell, whether it was through interactions with me or the clothes.

In 2017, when I did the New York Fashion Week, my collection was based on the Samburu.

How does someone get to participate in the world’s top fashion events?

You don’t find them, they find you. Though I didn’t have a website, I had a lot of online presence. They sent me an email asking if I’d like to participate. I instantly said yes, it’s a designer’s dream. The whole event cost about Sh500,000, inclusive of travel, accommodation and participation fees.

We were in partnership with Kericho Gold, who paid Sh300,000 towards our expenses. Chef Ali Mandhry was the face of John Kaveke for that event. As a TV celebrity chef who has been named among top reigning male chefs in Africa by Africa Style Daily and has cooked for dignitaries the world over, his association with our brand gave us incredible visibility. Fashion, I’ve come to learn, is about making great partnerships.

What are some of the other partnerships you’ve had?

One of my iconic ones would have to be a collection we did with Chivas in 2015, right about the time I was coming back into the industry.

Like me, Chivas was positioning their brand. We built a story around the Chivas man and the Kaveke man. They picked 10 successful men for me to dress.

I sat with each one of them to understand their personalities, likes and dislikes. It was very engaging, particularly because four of them were already my clients.

Among the men were broadcaster Eric Latiff, sports manager and professional athlete Martin Keino, photographer Emmanuel Jambo and Nelson Aseka, the former brand ambassador of Jameson.

How do you identify a good brand for pairing and partnership?

You have to know who you are. When it comes to sponsorship, it’s too easy to take money just because it’s being offered. But the thing you must consider is if the brand you’re taking money from matches yours. I wanted to pair whiskey with my designs, but I couldn’t just pick any whiskey brand, it had to align with what a Kaveke man stands for - stature and class.

Would you then decline money from a brand you didn’t think was a good fit?

Yes. But you need to explain to them why, because no party would be served by incorrect brand placing. Most whiskey distributors, for instance, have more than one shelf.

If they offered a product that didn’t match, we would tell them why and then suggest which one we think fits better.

I’ve found that builds credibility because they know you won’t just accept anyone who walks in through the door. You’re confident in your position in the market and you will defend that position, which means you will defend their brand too.

Never position yourself lower than what you’ve worked hard to build.

If you were to name a few hallmarks of your career, what would they be?

M-Net Face of Africa 2005, where I was one of three judges and we dressed the finalists. Arise Africa, which took place in Nigeria. It was an event celebrating African brands with presence.

I am also proud of my involvement with Safaricom’s Blaze where I mentored young people in three towns. Then of course both London and New York fashion weeks, and other smaller ones around the globe.

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