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German expat cashes in on love for cashmere

By Gardy Chacha | July 10th 2021

Elena Kuoni.

It is not often that you come across a poncho that costs Sh19,000, an Sh8,000 scarf or a bathrobe that will set you back Sh49,000 apiece.

The average Kenyan would wonder who would be crazy enough to splash such money on these non-essential items at a time when many people are struggling to put food on their tables.

But as Elena Kuoni would tell you, there are many takers out there, enough to have kept her business going. Ms Kuoni specialises in luxury fashion accessories that are out of reach for ordinary Kenyans.

She is the founder and CEO of KSHMR by Kuoni – a high-end boutique at Nairobi’s Village Market; whose selling point is “luxury.”

“I started the business in November 2017. We are still going strong. I am looking forward to expanding not only in Kenya but to Europe as well,” said Kuoni.

One gets the feeling that she has never doubted the viability of the business even with the uncertainty that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on the global economy, compromising many people’s spending power.

Kuoni believes that it is impossible to create a business that appeals to all demographics in society and one has to be unique if they are to succeed in the world of business.

“There are clients who want simple practicability; they want luxury too; they want to enjoy the quality of the product. Those are the clients who come to KSHMR by Kuoni,” she said. Kuoni, a dual citizen of Germany and Russia, came to Kenya in 2005 to work on projects run by the German government. She is now a permanent Kenyan resident after being in the country for 16 years.

“I did not have plans to venture into business. But here we are; the idea crossed my mind and the rest is history,” she said.

Coming from Europe, she had mistakenly believed that she wouldn’t need warm clothing in Kenya and didn’t see the need to carry any on her maiden trip to the country.

“Shock on me,” recalled Kuoni. “I arrived in July in the middle of the cold season. I was caught by surprise. I needed to buy warm clothes for myself.” By “warm clothes,” Kuoni means sweaters, scarves, cardigans and ponchos made of cashmere – a type of fine wool from the undercoat of the Cashmere goat.

She moved around Nairobi in search of “clothing that would suit my taste.”

While Kuoni got a few warm apparel, they were not 100 per cent cashmere-made.

“I am very fashion conscious. I do not just wear anything. I put on clothes not just to cover up but also to look and feel good in whatever environment,” she said.

It was not long before she noticed that pure cashmere clothes weren’t available in Kenya.

“That was way back. The seed to go into fashion business was planted back then,” said Kuoni. However, she was still working full-time at her job and kept procrastinating going into business.

Finally, in 2016, she took the plunge and quit her job. A year later, KSHMR by Kuoni was born.

“It has been an incredible journey four years,” she said of the growth of her business. So how did she do it?

Kuoni said the first step was doing market research. In her words, she not only values dressing up; she also values the quality and essence of the fabric and the workmanship that went into putting it together.

She said anyone going into the fashion business has to be fashion savvy. Before relocating to Nairobi, she already had the perspective of a high-end fashion consumer. What she needed to determine was if selling luxury fashion is sustainable in Kenya.

As she put the plan to work in 2016, she started by selling her products to friends and those in her social circles.

“I got a few of the products and sold them at bazaars. I also sold at Christmas gatherings in the Karura Forest. The feedback was amazing. Some buyers, like me, had been looking for such products and couldn’t find them (locally),” said Kuoni.

She also researched potential customers, where they shopped for such clothes, their tastes, their feelings on high-end fashion, among other things.

By testing the waters, Kuoni was able to establish that there was an untapped market in the country.

She said those going into her line of business also have to be passionate about it and must put in the hours.  

Kuoni did not start as an ardent business lady. In fact, KSHMR by Kuoni is her first-ever enterprise. Entrepreneurship, she said, was not something she set out to do in her life.

But she had fashion sense. She is a self-proclaimed fashion junkie. Quality has always been her top priority.

“Dressing is a form of communication. You are saying something to the people that you meet and interact with. I do not take it for granted,” she said.

But investing in such a business, she noted, needs huge capital outlay and time – all with no guarantee of making profits. “Just to start, I spent approximately Sh8 million,” said Kuoni.

The money came from her savings. She also needed to resign from her finance manager job.

It was a risk, she was willing to take, because “there is sentimental value in dressing people up in top quality garments.”

So why the choice of pure cashmere garments? The yarn that is used to make cashmere garments comes from the hair of goats found in the Kashmir region of Pakistan - a highland area with distinctive cold weather.

“What is harvested is the undercoat. At harvesting, the wool is picked apart by hand. The final raw material – fine and clean – is measure and paid for in grams – like gold,” said Kuoni.

On the choice of the village Market for her shop, she said as a high-end shopping and entertainment mall-like establishment, it offers the ideal location. It is ensconced between diplomatic missions and middle-class residential apartments. 

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