At 21, Mwagira Muriithi is a fashion designer charting her own path to glory. Despite being based in the United States, she adamantly chooses to identify with her Kenyan roots and pledges to put Kenya on the map.
Just recently, a Kenyan fashion brand BLKBURD GENES by beloved Kenyan designer Zeddie Loky made headlines after a rare sighting of rapper and mogul Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z, surfaced online, dressed in the East African atelier's limited collection.
The rapper clad in the brand's Lamu Riyadha tee paying homage to Kenya's coastal town of Lamu and its history. He fitted it with a Cactus Plant Flea Market (CPFM) Jacket and Raf Simmons Puma suede sneakers to match as he left the Giorgio Baldini Restaurant in Los Angeles.
For many, it was just another celebrity dressed in overpriced clothes, nothing special. Still, to a certain divide, the dreamers that one day will be the architects curating looks and aesthetics, this was a breakthrough for Kenyan fashion designers like Mwagira Muriithi, a fashion designer enthusiast based in the big apple city, New York.
It's no secret the playing field is far from level. African designers are barely supported or acknowledged like their Western counterparts, so this was a cultural moment of heroism for Zeddy, Kenya, and Africa as a whole as the African fashion hub morphs into a global behemoth that can co-exist with the LVMH's, Dior's, Balenciaga, and Co.
As we virtually converse, we hold no punches and get right into the thick of things why Africans don't scale up to the highest level.
"There are two theories I have about why it's difficult for Africans in the art industry and these theories co-exist. The first is cultural appropriation, no one wants to credit black people as the original creators of certain popular trends, but even worse than that, black people are ridiculed and stereotyped for indulging in said trends.
"Unfortunately, my second theory is that black people- in Kenya specifically- have a weird habit of tearing down artists that get too successful; especially women. Think of all the hate Kenyan artists like Lupita Nyongo, Elsa Majimbo, and many others get, it's primarily from other Kenyans, and there is absolutely no reason for them to be treated the way that they are," says 'the good one.' Her name is derived from her partially Maasai-Kikuyu grandmother.
Her memories of Nairobi are fond and nostalgic – there is no place like home. She acknowledges despite Nairobi's creative community lacking adequate accessible opportunities and a recurrent theme of recycling popular artists instead of giving younger talents a chance to flourish – there is a fair play that makes Nairobi the budding exciting place it is.
"Nairobi's art scene is great, the artists are very talented and collaborative and were mostly just about great positive energy, I miss it a lot! I really think Kenyan artists are taken for granted, and sadly it is usually our fellow Kenyans that do not appreciate our own artists." She tells Pulse.
Even with the local mass population negating the art sector, poisoning the water of the well that could feed them, Mwagira still felt the multitude of support from her family and friends. This is despite the notion that African parents can be stubborn when it comes to their children choosing their own dreams and career paths.
With plenty of love for her neck of the woods, she still had a point to prove and realize her dreams in the famous New York City.
"I had lived most of my life in Nairobi and only moved to New York once I had turned 18. I always knew I would want to do my fashion and art on a larger scale, and NYC is the capital for that, so I joined a small school and did a short year-long course and went right into working after that."
Her fashion line Mwagira Official has an online retail clothing store that premiered before the pandemic. It features bespoke collections ethically made in Kenya, is carefully and intricately tailored to one's preferred measurements and body size, and essentially its raw materials are outsourced from the motherland. The pieces are limited and can drill your pockets about Sh18,000/- deep. From latex, polyester, faux leather, there is a range of graphic, sexy, regal pieces that will have you walking the streets like the baddest b*tch on Earth. Hopefully, a men's wear line is in the pipeline, but she remains tight-lipped on the same.
For motivational purposes, she is also a young woman on the come-up, hoping to actualize her dreams and encourages Kenyans to pursue careers or enterprises in the creative field, that it's not Nairobi or art jinx things happen to be twice as hard. Likewise, in NYC, you have to work your socks off to be in a position of freedom.
"Like anything else, the fashion industry in NY has its pros and cons. I love working in fashion here in NY, and there are so many great learning experiences, and I get to meet the most interesting people. It's easy to be inspired, and the opportunities are many, and I realize it's a privilege. Though like Nairobi and a lot of places around the world, earning respect as an artist and especially as a black woman can be tricky." Mwagira tells us.
She states that one highlight of living in New York is the liberty to express yourself as you please. Kenya can be notorious for the socio-cultural stigmas on numerous things, such as LGBTQ rights and even image stereotypes. For example, if you wear bright colors as a man, you could be called 'gay' or a woman that wears short skirts is 'promiscuous'. The evolution of these notions is gradually happening, but they hurt creatives and the many people who feel suppressed due to society's social constructs. On top of that, Kenya is coming off the back of growing cases in sexual harassment, femicide, and sexual objectification due to women wearing clothes that show skin. In NYC, Mwagira feels really empowered and can confidently be herself without backlash.
"I have never really considered myself a super confident person socially, but I honestly am usually very confident in my physical appearance. The only thing was, I usually felt like I had to tone down what I really wanted to do with my hair, makeup and dressing because I get a little irritated when people stare since I usually imagine they are judging me.
"Though I think I am getting slightly better at ignoring that. I'm slowly learning to not pay too much attention to what others think of my appearance and to be honest, I think moving to NY helped with that because there is more freedom to look however you want without too many judgmental stares, which was not exactly my experience while I was living in Nairobi."
Mwagira knows she is shooting for the stars at this point in life, but she doesn't compromise on living her life on her own terms and having fun to the maximum capacity that she can. High-quality experiences result in high-quality results, and that's a period.