In a country that is fast developing an obsession with the idea of celebrity, Rachael Mutindi Maithya has set her heart on making a product that epitomises homegrown talent. Using the kanga, long known as a traditional type of dress amongst women in East and Central Africa, she has built a fashion brand that has toured the globe as an authentic benchmark of the progress that Kenyan fashion has made in the last couple of years and how tradition is influencing contemporary art and culture.
In a most unlikely setting, two small rooms in a charming little village just outside Kitui town in rural Kenya, Rachael has built an international fashion brand that has stood it’s ground against the challenge of designs from across the world, on the trendiest of catwalks in Paris, Rome and as far as Las Vegas. With raw talent and a delicate perception of fashion she has strived to emphasize comfort, simplicity and subtle feminine elegance in her work, quickly establishing her as a key innovator in the ethnic fashion scene. From chic vintage inspired, kanga lined trench coats to formal cut skirts and everyday wear-to-the-office gear, Ki2 Fashions caters for all tastes and all situations. “Kanga was used as a work cloth and we’re not going to change it or try to make it haute couture. I want to make the Kanga like denim and have it worn everywhere in the world and until everyone has a piece of Kanga in their wardrobe I will not rest.”
Growing up in Ukambani, literally two minutes from where she now lives and has her workshop, Rachael says was awe inspiring for a budding creative. “Kanga only came into use recently here, but growing up I was surrounded by stone carvers, basket weavers … all sorts of artists working with such incredible skill! I didn’t sit down and think ‘I want to be a fashion designer’. Making clothes was always going to be a big part of my life.” After high school at St. Mary’s Girls School, Igogi and a brief stint studying information technology at the former SPS, she joined Kenyatta University for a degree in Textile Science & Design. Despite being an unconventional student, often incorporating unorthodox elements in her projects, she graduated with an upper class second. At the time, many major textile factories in Kenya were shutting down and the prospects for someone with a qualification in textile design seemed slim. After trying her luck working at an EPZ and later in resettlement work, Rachael resigned herself to the idyllic life of a homemaker.
This path set her up in her current domain as Head Designer for Ki2 Fashions. On a trip to Zanzibar with her sister, she bought some kanga fabric, made some clothes for herself and her daughter and was surprised at the response. “Everybody loved them. On the next trip we made, to visit family in Italy, I threw together some pieces and carried a couple of kanga extra and the morning after my mother in law wore one of my skirts to the office, there was a flock of girls on our doorstep, ready to buy what I saw as regular everyday stuff.”
Rachael’s aim with Ki2 Fashion is to bring the kanga back to the forefront of African fashion and design. Starting with her daughter, she has begun a critical process to reconceptualise the use of kanga in daily life and bring it into the 21st Century. “Traditions are getting lost and our generation needs to step up and preserve what’s important. As youth we need to ask ourselves, ‘what are you doing for your country and what are you doing to take your culture to the next generation?’”
Rachael’s path has not been without challenges however. Finding the degree of skill among tailors in the region to make quality handmade garments at a high enough production rate has been a particularly trying. Costs must translate to affordable prices for the customer. Furthermore, finding a sustainable market here remains an almost impossible task. Rachael is not discouraged all the same and she takes every challenge in her stride. For the youth she has these simple words of advice; “Dreaming is great because it’s where everything starts – you learn through trial and error so don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”