Her passion for fashion drove Helen Tolbert to pursue fashion design fulltime. Her design house, Ellen Design, grew out of sheer hard work and sacrifice. She speaks to KTN’s Julie Wambui about her journey to becoming a recognised fashion designer.
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When did you start your business?
We started this business in 2012, March.
How did you get into fashion design?
I’ve always been passionate about fashion. As I was employed, I remember, I used to get clothes and have them made here and there. I designed my own clothes and changed the design once I bought them. And so it reached a point I said, you know what let me quit my regular job and start doing this officially and put my passion out there.
As a creative, where do you draw your inspiration from?
Growing up my mum was a tailor, a very good tailor, she used to tailor back at the Burma Market here along Jogoo Road and watching her do her thing, like take fabric from scratch, cut it into nice designs and make beautiful pieces out of them, I picked up the passion from her. I used to enjoy watching her because at times she would do it overnight and through watching her, I picked up the passion from her.
How did you raise the capital you needed to start your business?
When I first started this, I didn’t have enough capital to start. When I quit my job I quit without notice so I had to pay my employer and the money that I was left with was only Sh. 5, 000. So I took that and went with it to Gikomba Market and picked a few clothes with it. From there I’d save up [until] I got to a point where I bought my first machine. From the first machine I had my first employee. Later on, I got my second employee. Like that I grew.
How do you keep up with the fast-paced fashion industry?
Every day you meet somebody who wants something different from what you made yesterday. So you have to be very fast in your thinking. People walk in here with different sizes and different shapes, different needs, different wants, so you have to be very fast to meet everybody at their point of their need.
What are some of the challenges you face?
One of the biggest challenges is getting the right fabric. What we have locally available in the market is not able to put together what at times we have on our minds.
Our fabrics are priced a bit too high for marking up our prices. At times a client is thinking, you’re overpricing your item when it’s not actually that. It’s the price you’ve gotten the fabric for.
Marketing is a challenge. We have different social media platforms that we have to use and not everybody is tech savvy I would say, not everybody is on these social media platforms. So it becomes a challenge reaching everybody where they are.
What drives you?
The feeling that I get from my clients’ faces when they are happy, that alone is enough to make you wake up. There are people who get overly excited when you get the design right and it works for their body type right.
As a creative, when you create something from the first stage, you want to see it to the last stage.
What advice would you give those who want to go into self-employment?
Have a plan and be passionate about what you want to leave your employment for because it’s not easy being self-employed. You have to drive yourself, so make sure you have the passion, you have the drive and you’re going to tell yourself that I owe it to my client to, I owe it to myself to wake up and go there and fight for my space in the market. So for that person who wants to come on-board, it’s possible, doable. I started with Sh. 5, 000, you can start with whatever you have, scale it up to the level that you want it but you have to work hard for it. There’s no shortcut to it.
What does the future hold for Ellen Designs?
We are looking into Ellen becoming a household name, Ellen crossing borders, Ellen going to the biggest fashion shows in the world, Ellen going for Met Galas, you know. Ellen just breaking boundaries. That’s what we are looking at.
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