Silk, a delicate yet strong organic fabric, boasts of a rich history as an apparel of choice for royalty and the world’s wealthiest.
A symbol of luxury and excess in ancient times, it gave China the ‘Silk Road’- a vast network of trade routes spanning over 6,400kms connecting the country to the West.
One locally renowned wearer of the distinct breathable textile, which produces coveted shirts and robes, is retired President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Silk is mostly a preserve of the rich, owing to its limited accessibility and costly production.
It takes over 5,000 silkworms to produce just one kilogram of silk with the ever-hungry caterpillars fed mulberry leaves five times a day.
Brian Kisimba, who dresses Kenya’s affluent and specialises in luxury apparel, knows his market for premium fabrics well. Perhaps too well.
He’s the proprietor of Caliber Bespoke, a tailoring house rooted in the tradition of London’s Savile Row and makes suits with a starting price of Sh350,000.
Mr Kisimba recently launched Barone Shirts, a shirting outlet addressing local demand and growing taste for finely tailored shirts, which the wealthy have previously sourced from the world’s top fashion destinations such as Italy.
The outfit sources coveted textiles including silk from Thailand, cotton from Egypt, brocade from India, jacquard from Italy and Indonesian batik, among others. Other niche fabrics include fine linen and taffeta.
“A fine shirt is a very rewarding garment that portrays your entire mood or persona in one look.”
“Silk shirting is an acquired taste and to better match the preferences of our patrons, we source even further for the rarest of qualities perceivable by man,” says Kisimba.
The statement shirts, which are soft, breezy and elegant, are priced in dollars and range from $315 (Sh45,155) for cotton varieties to roughly $1,303 (Sh186,785) for silk options.
“Our product is not for everyone and we acknowledge that. Our clients are not price shoppers,” Kisimba says matter-of-factly.
Kisimba has the added advantage of running a bespoke tailoring house wherein he has a pool of affluent individuals and is reacting to their demand for high-value shirts.
“These people don’t compare figures so their purchasing criteria are not typical, but the market does exist.”
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Kenya, one of Africa’s largest luxury markets, has a rising class of dollar millionaires drawn from jobs such as technology and financial services.
Over the years, luxury brands – ranging from cars, hotels, premium alcohol, dinnerware, clothes and footwear - have set up shop in the country owing to its tag as a regional economic hub and also to tap into the growing market of the ultra-rich.
According to the Africa Wealth Report 2023, The ‘Big 5’ wealth markets in Africa include South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and Morocco.
Combined, they account for 56 per cent of Africa’s high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and over 90 per cent of the continent’s billionaires.
The report, published annually by investment migration consultancy firm Henley & Partners, says Nairobi has 4,700 dollar millionaires (individuals with a recorded wealth of $1 million (Sh143 million) or more and 11 centi-millionaires (individuals with a wealth of $ 100 million (Sh14.2 billion) or more).
Kisimba notes the growing new wealth in Kenya is being driven mostly by the young who work in emerging sectors while some is attributed to inheritance.
“Our typical customer age bracket is growing younger. Many of these younger people work in fields such as tech and financial services. With access to money, they have become more informed on what particular brands and tastes suit them,” he explains.
“In as much as old money is still a big contributor for us, I must acknowledge that new money is taking its place much faster than anticipated.”
Patrons of Kenya’s luxury market are sophisticated, well-travelled, better informed and may have worked abroad or had exposure to premium products and niche offerings.
In as much as Kisimba’s clientele is a mix of both new and old money, a quick glance at the size chart on the website reveals a degree of inclusivity, meaning options are made available for much larger, towering body frames, perhaps an indicator of patrons who are mature in size and well built.
He says it wasn’t easy to set up infrastructure for the business and sourcing niche fabric varieties to start operations.
It took almost a year to get the product right with a lot of back and forth with international suppliers; exchanging samples and testing prints and print quality.
“We spent a lot of time on research and development because of the philosophy into which we’re rooted in - we cannot afford to miss a step, not in luxury” explains Kisimba.
The shirts are ready to wear, although clients have the option of bespoke service to better match their specifications and dimensions at an extra cost.
Factors informing the costly price tag of Barone Shirts include licensed designs, intensive sourcing processes and the craftsmanship involved in working with organic fabric such as silk.
Silk as a fabric is quite fluid as compared to other varieties such as cotton, making it challenging to work with.
He says that they’ve been getting distributorship requests from countries such as Rwanda, UAE and Egypt, amid a broader plan to make the business appeal to international markets.
“We’ve partnered with certain pattern makers from across the world to develop fresh designs. The whole essence of the brand is that we have international appeal,” says Kisimba.
“International retail is key for us as we want to appeal to countries with higher spending power and where the general understanding for such a product is higher.”
Barone Shirts is also working to strengthen its local distributorship network and will be occupying physical premises in leading malls and centers.
Their primary target is to retail upwards of 100 silk shirts monthly to catch up with improving demand and better production capacity.
Owing to the heavy investment, Kenya’s luxury market, especially clothing, has few players.
Better known is the family-owned Little Red, one of the country’s oldest luxury stores and stocks products from some of the world’s top brands such as Hugo Boss, Pal Zileri and Etro, among others.
A silk Etro shirt at the shop sells at over Sh136,000.