I first visited The African Shirt Company on my trip to Nairobi where I hosted our Fashion Africa Seminar. I flew from Nairobi into Mombasa (after taking near to 10 planes already) and was so glad to be met by the lovely Kenyan born, Pin aka Lindi Clause-Campbell (ask her about her nickname…but when you meet her you may understand….bless). We stayed in a friends rooftop apartment where I saw amazing views of Mombasa town and views of the sea quite close and I was in awe. I just knew that my time with The African Shirt Company was going to be equally amazing. And so off we went the next morning for a 3 hour drive on the Mombasa Nairobi Road to a remote spot near to Tsavo/Voi.
The journey enough is remarkably beautiful with amazing views especially at night and I felt that this was truly Africa. From the red soil to the picturesque yet sparse branches of the familiar African Acacia trees, often seen in most travel brochure holiday shoots.
My bed for the night was a humble tent in an area set up by Pins Dad. A truly awesome man and Conservationist with a love for his homeland of Kenya. I will never forget the beautiful sky at night where everything in the sky is enhanced. Stars shone with high intensity against a pitch black sky and earlier in the day before the sun set we could see Mount Meru and the peak of Kilamanjaro in the hazy distance. The view of the sunset left me equally in awe. Maybe im thinking with superfluity but it was truly heaven on earth.
The next day waking up in my tent to the sounds of nature posted by a mountainside I prepared to meet with Clara one of the tailors at the The African Shirt Company base and was delighted to see that my book Fashion Africa was a source of inspiration to the growing company in such an interesting location. Once inside I observed the shirts and in typical designer style (I cant let go of my roots as an industry Fashion Designer) I check ou the inside, the seams and the stitching for quality. Understanding that the shirts were not made on electric operated machines but foot pedalled machines, the quality was very good. So I went on to ask more questions and find out more.
1) How did the company begin?
ASC – The company began when I (Pin) returned to Kenya after studying for 10 years in Dublin, I wanted to do something to help the less fortunate fellow Kenyans. Joan had been talking about this idea since she visited Kenya in 2009 and had a khanga shirt made for herself. We decided to do something instead of wasting time thinking and talking about it. Kenyans need jobs NOW, especially in the remote areas where there is very little opportunity to reach a wide market.
Our shirts are made in Kenya. To be more precise they are made in Kitege village, underneath Kasigau mountain, on the boundary of Tsavo West National Park, 120 miles away from Kilimanjaro. This is a very dry and dusty place. We have approximately 2 inches of rain in 1 year. There are 5 villages around Kasigau mountain, Kitege is 1 of them. There are 800 people living in Kitege, 400 goats, 30 cows and a few troops of monkeys. There are 2 lady tailors who live in Kitege by the names of Clara and Ruth, they have made this possible. Our shirts are made without electricity, without running water and we iron them with a charcoal iron. Sorry if there is a bit of Kitege dust in it
2) Contemporary African fashion has been generally associated with womens clothing. What encouraged you to start a mens shirt company in particular (as i notice majority of styles are menswear)?
ASC – The African Shirt Company is for everyone!… But yes, menswear tends to get put on the back burner… we are happy to be bringing men something fresh and colourful from Africa.
3) What is the aim of the company in relation to Africa and its fashion industry (if any)?
ASC - The African Shirt Company was set up by Joan and me (Lindi). Joan is a fashion designer in London and I am a conservationist in Kenya. Together we have been able to create a simple product.
This company is more about conservation and income generation in remote areas in Kenya than high end fashion. We go to the local villages to offer job opportunities rather than expecting women to travel away from their homes and families in order to work. We teach them to pattern cut and sew and offer them a link to the fashion market overseas, we want our story to be heard and shared and hopefully bring more and more opportunities to the impoverished people we are working with. We also want to promote the fashion industry here by showing that Kenyans have talent that needs to be unlocked and nurtured.
4) How difficult or easy was it to set up a company making clothes in such a remote part of Kenya? And why Kenya?
ASC – So far it has been easy! We are small, all we needed were 2 sewing machines and 2 talented ladies – Clara and Ruth and we don’t even have electricity or running water. Most of the khanga’s come from Mombasa which is a 3-hour drive from Kasigau.
We believe in simplicity, consistency, sustainability and all those words. We are using simple facilities, no electricity, we collect water in buckets, we have a charcoal iron (using sustainable charcoal of course!)
When you buy a shirt, lots of things happen. Firstly it brightens our day in Africa. Secondly it brightens your day. Thirdly we buy 1 pounds worth of trees from our local school children and plant them into bags in our nursery, this is usually about 50 small seedlings. We employ somebody to make sure hungry Kitege goats don’t eat them! When they are big enough these trees will be planted around Kasigau Mountain to help restore the precious forest that has taken a battering in the last few years. That’s the first phase… More to come!
And Kenya simply because it’s home!
5) Why the Khanga? Will you print your own in the future?
ASC – Khanga because it is authentic East African. We want to keep the fabric as traditional and African as possible. Yes, we would love to start printing them in Kenya as most of them are now printed in India which is a shame and unnecessary. So this is our way of promoting it and hopefully bringing it all back to Africa!
6) What are your general plans for the company growth for 2012? Any fashion shows planned or new product developments?
ASC – Our plans are based on our mission. To date we have trained and employed 2 local mother’s from the village who make the African shirts we sell today. With the growth of the project we hope to employ more and expand to surrounding villages and relay making an impact.
No secure plans yet with fashion shows but would like to get involved in the likes of “African fashion day Berlin” and “African Fashion Week NewYork”.
Regarding the product presently we do two sizes for men and two for women ( S/M and M/L) we would like to expand into 5 sizes each for men and women ranging from XS to XL. These are all a basic long sleeve shirts made of all over khanga. Then we would like to work on expanding the style range but we are The African Shirt Company so new styles will always be shirt’s. Also kids shirts are on the cards!
7) If you could have one African celeb (or non Africa if you cant think) to wear your clothes who would it be?
ASC – Obama!! Ok, his father was from Kenya..does that count?!
8) Where do you see the future of Africa’s fashion and textile industry?
ASC – Hopefully up there in the limelight more! It’s growing, it is positive and its definitely exciting.
Africa is not yet the most competitive in the industry but I think we a bit of help it can get there.
9) Do you think fashion is an answer to the image of Africa changing?
ASC -Yes we think It has a big part to play. In Fashion now we dont use this vibrant african way of colour enough. The best part of African fashion is the exciting patterns and vibrant colour, this has to be shared with everyone.
10) From your experience what advise would you give to anyone starting their own ‘Made in Africa’ fashion company?
ASC – Start now…everything is possible here!
The African Shirt Company brings you authentic African made, African inspired shirts hence the name and they say their aim is to “help you help Kenya, it’s people, animals and environment.”
Check out images below from their first collection for 2012. I am loving the Green and Yellow shirt. What is your favourite one?
Find out more about them by checking out their tumblr page at: http://theafricanshirtcompany.tumblr.com/