NAIROBI, KENYA: Nkatha Karauri, 37, had always been interested in fashion design. Even as she undertook her undergraduate studies in statistics and research, she made time to sketch.
After graduating from university, she decided to indulge her creative side and worked at the fashion house, Dawn of Creation, where she honed her skills in embroidery and handwork.
Thinking that the wise move would be to get back to her career in research, Nkatha went back to school to pursue her master’s degree and later found a job in her area of study.
However, she couldn’t shake her love for design, and so in December 2012, she opened Ihsani Culture House.
In the four-and-a-half years that she has been in business, she has faced many challenges and strayed from her original vision for the business.
But as she reassesses her goals and charts the way forward, Nkatha shares the lessons she’s learned in her start-up journey.
1. Stay true to your vision
Ihsani was created to be a place where artists could come, do their thing and make money. It was to be a stable for designers where we could all work together and benefit from each other.
I, however, got so caught up in making my own designs and selling them that I forgot why I had originally set up this workshop. My first designs were very elaborate African designs with lots of embroidery. Someone liked them on Facebook and when their friend was getting married, they contacted me and asked me to dress the whole bridal party, including the bride and groom.
It was not only good money but also great exposure. I was very blessed because my first few clients included well-known photographers and other personalities who had large Facebook followings.
It was great advertising for me. Orders started coming in and although I was making money, I will fault myself for not persisting and pushing through with my design aesthetic.
I started creating what my clients wanted, and so instead of me putting my designs out there, others were dictating the kind of work that I was doing.
I’ve come to learn that it is important to find a balance where you are giving the client what they want, but not losing yourself and your ideas in the process. You have to find a balance between current trends and your design aesthetic.
2. Consistency is key
When I first got started in this industry, tailors had a very bad reputation. They would do shoddy work and some would even run off with the client’s fabrics. I was, however, able to fulfil what the client needed and would have their order delivered on time.
That earned me the reputation of being a person who kept my word. Although I am good at hand-beading and embroidery, I don’t stitch my designs and depend on tailors to do that. I have to ensure that those I work with are great at what they do.
My resident tailor is Jack Otieno, an expert tailor who produces very neat work. He has a drive to do things perfectly. Together, we are able to produce clothes that meet the client’s standards. We are constantly training ourselves to get better to stay on top of our game.
3. Define your marketing channels
The times I can say that I have sold out my designs, I have sold to foreigners in Kenya.
The FAFA (Festival for Fashion and Arts) market was a very good outlet for me, and I would sell everything I took there. Kenyans are being bombarded with so many clothes from so many places, so you really have to be aggressive in marketing to them and getting their attention.
For me, Facebook has been a very good marketing tool. I use sponsored ads, which are quite cheap, and I have seen good results. Facebook is a great megaphone for word of mouth and I have got a lot of clients from there.
You also have to define who your target market is. I did several runway shows that weren’t a very good return on investment. I have also never participated in Samantha’s bridal wedding fair because those who go there aren’t my clientele. Ihsani caters to brides on the lower end of the spectrum.
When I started, I would charge Sh30,000 to Sh40,000 for a gown. That price has since had to go up – but if a bride comes looking for a dress worth Sh10,000, I will find a way to work with her. Another big blessing for me has been finding a boutique, specifically Carla’s Bridal Boutique, as a stockist for my gowns. They pay me upfront for my dresses, which eases my financial load as a designer.
4. Walk before you run
Some of my first orders were international. At that time, I didn’t have a website or even a workshop, but all these people would see my designs on Facebook and place orders.
I got orders from as far away as Japan, but I was not able to fulfil them. There were so many obstacles: I couldn’t find some of the fabric requested, the shipping company lost an order that I was sending to the US, and so many other small issues. This was extremely frustrating.
I shelved the idea of selling internationally for a while, but it’s definitely something that I want to revisit.
There are a number of options available these days.
For instance, there’s a company called EPC that helps designers exhibit their clothes in New York. They pay for the exhibition space, but I would need to cater for my airfare and accommodation. It’s an interesting prospect, but I’m not big on mass manufacturing so this wouldn’t be a good avenue for me to pursue.
I am considering making my designs available for sale to international buyers through my website, but this would mean creating inventory and having it in stock, ready to ship out as orders come in.
Another option would be to look for small boutiques abroad that would be willing to stock my clothes. This would be the easiest option when it comes to selling internationally.