Connie Aluoch on Personal Branding and Fashion Styling in Kenya's Creative Economy

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Connie's training in Fashion Design started at the Evelyn College of Design, Kenya in 1996 where she earned a Diploma in Fashion Design and Garment Making. In 1998, she enrolled in the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York where she graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Fashion Design. While at FIT, she participated in a one year study abroad program at Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing in Florence, Italy. During her study in Italy, she fully immersed herself in Italian culture and she speaks and writes fluent Italian.

In 2003 Connie moved back to New York from Italy and worked for various leading international designers and production houses such as Emporio Armani, Alek Wek and Matthew Williamson in the Design and Public Relations departments. She has worked at three of the ‘Big 4’ international fashion weeks. At the New York Fashion Week, she worked as a Backstage Director for the ground crew ensuring models were properly styled for the runway. At the Milan Fashion Week, she worked for Vivienne Westwood and Dsquared2. At the London Fashion Week in 2011, Connie was instrumental in showcasing the first Kenyan Male Designer John Kaveke.

In 2004, Connie moved home and has been actively participating in the development of the Kenyan fashion industry. She continues to mentor aspiring fashion stylists and has served as a judge for fashion design events and modelling competitions across the country. In 2009, she returned to Italy and graduated from Istituto Marangoni in Milan with a Masters in Fashion Styling. As part of her mentoring and passion to give young people the requisite skills in fashion, she is a Fashion lecturer at the University of Nairobi, School of Arts and Design.

Her distinct and unique styling work has seen her featured numerous times in East Africa's largest selling Fashion magazines; True Love and Drum. She also has a column in the weekly “Nairobian” Newspaper, an affiliate of the Standard Media Group. She was in charge of the styling for Tusker Project Fame Season 4, and conducts image training for private and state corporations as well as working on local and international advertising campaigns. She has been styling the Kenya Television (KTN) News Anchors since 2013 and this has seen the station set itself apart from other news channels styling. To ensure that her business remains profitable in the ever changing and competitive fashion landscape, Connie completed the Owner Manager Executive Program for entrepreneurs in 2015 at the Strathmore Business School where she also lectures Management Programs on “Personal Branding, Image and Grooming”. Connie is the first Kenyan in the East and Central African region to obtain a Master’s Degree in Fashion Styling and was awarded the “2014 Established Fashion Stylist” in Kenya.

We recently spoke to Connie and she shared her insight and advice for Kenyan millennials interested in pursuing a career in fashion or the creative economy at large. Read below:

Kung'ara: Connie, what got you interested in fashion styling and how important is education in the fashion sector for budding stylists?

Connie: I have always being interested in fashion from a very young age. My parents are both very stylish personalities and they too liked to dress up as they attended various functions. As a little girl I would sit on their bed and watch them as they dressed up and marvel at their style and glamour. My late Grandmother Mama Tabitha Aluoch was also very good in crafts and so I would say our fashion sense definitely runs in the family. Any form of education in any field is good and gives a good foundation for one’s career to flourish so if you are able to get a good education in fashion and styling I would fully support you and say go for it!

Kung'ara: What would you consider the most stylish aspect about Kenyans or Africans in general?

Connie: I would say that each region has their own style aspect. West Africans as we all know are famous for upholding their Afro-modern, ethnic, pompous style and are more daring than we from the East who are a more conservative in our style. All in all we all have something to contribute to the African fashion industry.

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Kung'ara: You are an avid promoter of personal branding. What tips would you give to Kenyans with regards to shaping their personal identity both in the professional working environment and on digital spaces such as their social media platforms?

Connie: In the professional field, always remember that it takes 1 second to form a lasting impression. A well-groomed person attracts and impresses upon people, and your brand is on show 24 Hours. It's also important to learn how to dress your body shape /body frame. 

In digital spaces, it's important to guard your reputation, as the internet does not forget.

Kung'ara: The term “Made in Kenya” carries a variety of meanings. For some, this phrase encompasses designs whose raw materials come from, are grown or bred in Kenya. E.g. leather from Kenyan bred cows, or straw bags/ kiondos made from sisal grown in Kenya. “Made in Kenya” could also mean that, while the raw materials may not be of Kenyan origin, the process of assembling the raw materials is done within Kenya and by Kenyans. The latter is seen most commonly in the fashion industry whereby jersey fabric, for example, is sourced from Turkey or China, but the garment sewing is completed by Kenyan tailors and machinists in either small businesses for local consumption, or in EPZs commissioned by large apparel corporations for export. What does “Made in Kenya” mean to you?

Connie: Made in Kenya to me simply means that the fabrics, accessoreis and raw materials may be sourced from beyond our borders but the production  and  final product is assembled in Kenya.

Kung'ara: In comparison to most imported apparel and accessories, Kenyan-made goods can be relatively more expensive to the consumer because many costs are factored into the pricing. For the designer, these expenditures include the cost of labour and the cost incurred when importing quality raw materials not commonly found in Kenya. Due to this, most upwardly-mobile Kenyan consumers prefer to shop abroad in bulk when they travel. Additionally, the rise of e-commerce with platforms such as “Mall for Africa” has enabled Kenyan and African consumers to gain access to global goods right from their home. It’s therefore not hard to see that such intermediation platforms will increase competition for Kenyan designers, as savvy consumers may opt for more affordable or higher quality products from abroad, and if Kenyan designers do not strategically focus on agility in production, they will consistently see decreased or stagnant revenue. What role do you think consumers (both local and tourists) play in supporting and promoting “Made in Kenya” goods?

Connie: ‘Made in Kenya” clothing  price points are dependent on the designer’s target market. Some designers focus on high end clothing with a cost to the label while others are mid to lower end priced. Thus Kenyan consumers have options of what to purchase according to their budget. Two things affecting the consumers' purchasing options are:

Social Media: With the growth of social media the Kenyan consumer is more conscious of local and international trends and styles. Kenya’s entertainment/fashion culture has evolved in the last 5 years thus they are watching what their favorite local celebrities and personalities are wearing and are keen to know which brands dress them. They too would like to ‘get the same look’ that the celebrity has. Thus 'Made In Kenya' has become aspirational as the consumer wants to identify with their local celebrities.

Quality : Consumers are always looking for products that are of good quality, great finishing and that are practical. Consumers are even willing to pay slightly more if the product is of good quality.

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Kung'ara: We love that Kenyan stylists like yourself aim to give light to the burgeoning fashion scene and aspiring designers and entrepreneurs in Nairobi. Through this, stylists are able to operate from a bird’s eye view, seeing the opportunities and challenges faced by emerging designers, often times before the designers see it themselves. What advice would you give to designers with regards to any aspect of their business e.g. marketing, access to market, access to finance, client service, creative burnout etc?

Connie: My advice to designers can be broken down as follows:

Strategy: This is key for any designer. Plan out your yearly strategy and decide how many shows/expos etc you will participate in. Be active on at least 2 social media platforms. Currently, Instagram is the key visual marketing platform for your collection.

Access to Finance:  Designers now have support from Heva and other similar organizations.

Client Service: Ensure that your clients are always happy with your product. Keep asking for feedback from them on how to improve your product/service.

Networks: Build networks with people in your industry- Hair and makeup artists, photographers models etc. These can be your  partners as you create your look books etc

Creative Burnout: Learn to take a break and rest. Eat a balanced diet. Exercise and learn how to take mini breaks throughout the year its important.

Kung'ara: Most retail researchers and analysts agree that it’s difficult to collect, compile, and segment data on the consumer behaviour of Africans, simply because of their diverse spending habits. For example, African millennials across all class backgrounds, aged between 18-35, are more tech-savvy and open to e-commerce and yet they have a lower disposable income and purchasing power in comparison to their parents, the Baby Boomers. The African Baby Boomers however, are more segregated along class lines, and the ones who have a higher purchasing power tend to be drawn to luxury brands built on decades of heritage and above-par craftsmanship. What’s your take on this? Should “Made in Kenya” brands appeal to the millennial by producing more affordable goods, or should they invest more in branding to appeal to the baby boomer, or both?

Connie: “Made in Kenya” brands should appeal to both the millennials and baby boomers. A 21 year old consumer's taste is very different from a 40 year old consumer’s taste, but the market is large enough for both segments to co-exist. 

Kung'ara: Fashion in Africa and specifically Kenya is still very gendered. Apparel is divided in a binary sense, that is, womenswear and menswear, and there’s few brands producing genderless products, with the exception of some accessories brands that create bags and jewellery that seamlessly appeal to all genders. Do you think there’s an opportunity in non-gendered “Made in Kenya” goods?

Connie: I am not sure if the local market understands or is ready for “non-gendered” Made in Kenya goods. I would have to throw this question back at our market by engaging some focus groups so that I am able to give a balanced fair response.

SUGARPIE CUPCAKES NAIROBI