Composed. Calm. Introverted. Shy.
These qualities may not represent the typical personality of a fashion star but they do for Wambui Mukenyi.
On the first handshake, it is easy to tell she has a yet-to-be-explained phobia for press.
Her answers barely go beyond a sentence. From the view of her gallery though, Wambui has a lot to offer – at least in acumen.
“I am the head of Design at Wambui Mukenyi Fashion House,” she calmly introduces herself. “What we do is based on passion; passion to dress our customers; passion for the craft of clothes and design; passion to excel.”
Breaking into an industry that worships beauty and praises style was not easy, she says. She was just 24 at the time when her whims flew into the wind; taking her to a world she had never imagined she would grace.
Her papers indeed speak of something different: Accounting. Right after accomplishing high school, she joined Kenya College of Accountancy (KCA) where she studied for two years, becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA 1 and 2).
She joined a fashion company, JF Fashions (at the time), as a finance intern. It is while at JF that her destiny twirled in the wheel of fortune, resting on fashion and design.
“My job was to look at the numbers and financial charts. In the process of executing this, I became good friends with the manager. She would offer insights into fashion. I listened keenly every time we interacted. The more we talked, the more I developed greater interest in fashion,” Wambui says.
Consciously or otherwise, she began losing the track on things money. And like it is said that dreams flourish where others die, her interest in fashion was enough to lead her off the track of accounting.
While at home in Kikuyu, Wambui hatched a plan. The greatest resource she had at the time was hope and knack. With all her savings, she bought basic equipment and set up shop at her mother’s house – the only place she wouldn’t need to pay rent.
“It was a humble beginning indeed,” she says. “Even my savings weren’t enough. At some point, a friend offered about Sh40,000 for the business to hit a functional tone. I did everything by myself initially. I would create and sell,” she say.
Quickly, by word of mouth, her brand grew. Her big break came in 2009 when her products were picked and used by the cast on ‘Shuga’, a drama series themed around love, sex and money.
“It propelled our products to a place we only dreamt it would one day reach,” Wambui says of the film that also featured Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
She increased the size of her team. It wasn’t long before she was offered a chance to showcase her line at a fashion show. Orders from as far as Uganda served to bolster the belief that she was in right space – where she needed to be.
Wambui’s first formal office opened at Diamond Plaza in Westlands. She got more professionals who assisted her in creation. She took up marketing (having earned the skills in college) and only involved herself with design minimally.
“It was deeply satisfying to see that my dream was bigger than me as a person. I could no longer manage it by myself. It always pleased me to see everyone who has gotten a job through the fashion house. This is teamwork at its best,” she says.
Wambui recalls her first days in full glare of the industry. She was new in the field. Coupled with the aloofness of a young entrepreneur, she soaked in the shock of the actual work input that goes in creating a line.
“There is so much work that has to be accomplished at different levels. The final product represents the workmanship of a team – not just one person,” she says.
Wambui’s strokes of luck didn’t end there. She has dressed famous names. The brand ambassador of her collection, Sarah Hassan – she of the much famed Tahidi High – is just one among notable names to have felt Wambui’s Midas touch – on linen.
Having studied Accounting (and never fashion design), I am curious to know the stages through which she produces a masterpiece.
Her answer is frozen with passion. She says: “A lot of my time is spent doing research. I have to know what is trending in other places.
I have to understand the origin of a fad and bring into perspective why my customers would be interested in it. Then there is a time to jot down what inspires me; putting into consideration beliefs and culture.
I will improve on the first sketch over time as ideas flow. It takes weeks to come up with a full line. All concepts have to be original,” she says.
It may be surprising to hear in a woman in fashion discredit ‘beauty’. Wambui, however, takes the onus and asks point blank, “Who sets the standards of beauty?”
Wambui believes that everyone born into the world is beautiful. Whether one is fat (euphemistically termed plus size) or slim does not depict beauty in Wambui’s book, how one perceives themselves is all that matters.
Generalisations of ‘good and bad looking’ is something she maintains she has no part in. Her collection corroborates this belief; even in her social media pages, Wambui has used models of all sizes to demonstrate her ideas.
Wambui’s has been a quick rise to the pinnacle of Kenya’s fashion industry. She, however, refutes the notion that she is a big name, choosing to heap praise on those who came before her like Anne McGrath of Kiko Romeo.
“I am still learning the ropes. Hopefully, WM will grow beyond Kenya and Africa. It takes a stepwise growth to reach there,” she says.
Whatever she says, no amount of self-deprecation will convince you that she is not a force to reckon with in the fashion industry. At 31, the married mother of one is daring to explore far beyond the sky as she aims to create and dazzle. Wherever she ends up, it is only a matter of time.