Most of us have accepted Covid-19 face masks as an inconvenient, albeit necessary, safety measure. For the style-conscious like James Maina Mwangi, however, they are an unmissable fashion opportunity. Mwangi’s brightly coloured suits and hats made him stand out even on the busy streets of Nairobi’s Umoja neighbourhood, where nobody ever seems to sleep.
Since the pandemic hit and Kenya made face masks mandatory, his outfits have become even more eye-catching. This week, the 59-year-old jack of all trades modelled his collection of face masks for Reuters. “Men knew how to wear clothes in black, brown, grey or dark blue. Those were men’s colours,” he told Reuters while wearing a bright yellow suit with matching hat and face mask. “God gave me wisdom and showed me all the different colours I can wear to be different from everybody else.”
Mwangi, who dropped out of school at 12 because he could not pay the fees, said he only had one shirt when he was a child, which he would wash it daily and put on still damp. People would laugh at him, but he promised himself that “one day I will be a star.” He now has about 160 suits, over 200 pairs of shoes, and 300 hats in colours ranging from saffron yellow to grass green, scarlet and plum. Mwangi said his clothes drew curiosity, then admirers when he first started wearing them 25 years ago.
“Now you can see me wearing all kinds of colours,” he said. Mwangi, who earns a living as a jack of all trades, says he lends his suits to members of his church and street children who need them. “Things have become harder now because of COVID-19. This country has no money,” he said.