My real name is Chepkemboi Mang’ira. I am the creator of the #OwnYourCulture continental movement. Inspired by the success of this continental movement, we offer creative directing services along that theme. In addition to this, I design unique traditional style jewelry (neckpieces and head pieces) I am also editor in chief of the lifestyle website www.ownyourcultureafrica.com. I began the Own Your Culture movement, 9 months ago. It has since exploded and is received as far as South Africa and Ghana. It’s from this that my team and I are creating some exciting projects for each part of the continent.
We also curate and sell various traditional pieces from around East Africa. We offer styling services with the own your culture theme as well. Besides that I run a fashion consultancy business under my blog Miss Vavavum.
2. How did Own Your Culture start?
Own your culture stemmed from a lot of things actually. When I first had the idea, I had been working in the fashion industry for about 4 years. I had just quit formal employment and was working on our startup as well as taking on consultations through my blog. With the blog, I felt there was need to be part of the solution to buy Kenyan, promote Kenyan.
I held various discussions with various local industry experts on their thoughts about our traditional jewelry and their place in modern day fashion. Many felt that it was difficult to see the fashion/cool/beauty of these pieces- they felt that they were ‘too traditional’. I then took this research further to the artisans and sellers of these pieces. Many informed me that their biggest customers are foreigners or Kenyans living abroad. I found this absurd – and I was also guilty of the fact that Kenyans complain about our lack of original fashion styles yet we have over 42 different types of intricately designed traditional jewelry embedded in our cultures that are still relevant today.
It is from all this that I created the own your culture movement to discover, preserve and promote traditional jewelry. The idea was to do this in a fun way that will appeal to the youth and I also opened this movement to everyone to share how they would style their ‘traditional’ jewelry from their community. The reason behind this is that we have such great diversity in Kenya and with different people from different age groups knows something or two from their grandparents about traditional accessories.
3. Did you always plan to get into this line of work? Or what did you want to pursue as you grew up?
Growing up I loved reading fashion magazines and everything about fashion. As a young girl I would model at school talent shows. I also used to take part in plays and drama- the costume dressing was my favorite! At about age 10, my parents brought home a book on ancient Egypt- I was so mesmerized I swore to be an archaeologist- but a very fashionable one.
A few years later in school we learnt that many of our Kenyan ancestors came from Egypt- I was floored! I would constantly question my parents about it, many of the ancient gods of Egypt had recognizable names that were also similar to ones from my Kalenjin heritage. As a child I would really question our life currently compared to that of our ancestors- what made them so much better with the pyramids, jewelry, hair, art and language.
Between high school and University, my love for archaeology started to fade, overtaken by my passion for fashion. I wanted to be a model but they couldn’t accept me because I was not ‘light-skinned’ enough. But I swore to make my own way in fashion. Later in the same year after much pressure from my parents, I applied for university to study media – my high school teachers often praised my writing, plus fashion and media seemed closely related. In University, I took various side hustles in fashion from freelance styling to fashion writing; all my school projects were always based on fashion. I began my blog sometime in the middle of my university education.
I have always had a passion for fashion and I always knew that I would one day have my own business. When I finished University and while in employment, I thought I would wait for a few more years then begin my own business. I first began my fashion blog out of passion, then soon I was getting all sorts of payment offers for the different services through my blog. I then decided to have it registered and turn it into a business. Through my blog and trying to find my own style as well as bringing something new to the fashion scene.
4. Describe to us your typical day of work
My day starts at around 4:30 am. I start my day with some inspirational reading. I read some select Bible verses & inspirational business/life books, then I do some Yoga stretches and go for a 30minute jog/walk. I work best early in the morning, so If I have any urgent proposals or emails to draft, I do them just before jogging. Thereafter I have shower and breakfast. Then I check my emails at 8 am and respond. I have clustered my days into errand days, free days – Sunday and very occasionally Monday – and meeting days. The rest of the day is just a mix of Skype meetings, brainstorm sessions, emails, and meeting with the team, delivery and collection of jewelry and photo shoots. When possible, I travel to research on cultural pieces.
5. How many clients and orders do you get in a day/week/month? What are some of the biggest clients and orders you’ve made?
This ranges again from projects. Sometimes we have 3 month long projects so we take on very few clients during that time. However the jewelry orders are in the hundreds!
6. Where do you source your material from? Is it easy/hard to acquire? What do you think we can do as a Kenyan market to make sure some of these materials are more accessible?
I collect pieces when I travel so that really depends on the artisans I purchase from. As for the ones I have designed, I have identified various places where I source from. It’s not always hard to acquire the materials but for some art projects, some items have been hard to find. I think suppliers should stay up-to date with the latest styles and designs.
7. What motivates you?
Anything is possible for those who believe.
8. What are some of the biggest and most memorable moments of your life so far?
So many really but one of them is seeing #OwnYourCulture grow into a phenomenal continental movement and the various opportunities it has afforded me. Other big achievements include working with household brands and speaking engagements because of my expertise.
I’m also lucky to have such a great team by my side. Depending on the projects I have, I usually work with a team of 10 individuals. These range from artisans, photographers, stylists, models, fashion designers, social media managers, publicists and videographers who all believe in the dream of seeing Own Your Culture grow.
9. What are some of the ups and down you’ve faced in your business?
I am such an optimist; I look at all my ‘down’ moments as lessons learnt. Lessons learnt; selecting the right team that delivers my ideas. The ups include collaborations with some of the best African women, speaking engagements, business growth and achieving goal.
10. Do you have any other side businesses or personal ventures apart from Own Your Culture?
Yes. My consultancy business.
11. What do you think fashion designers and creators should do to promote the fashion industry in not just Kenya but east Africa and Africa as well?
Originality is very important. We also need to support each other and work in unity. For example, for the 2014 FAFA (Festival for African Fashion and Arts) event, I was inspired by a South African to try wearing the traditional Maasai necklace as a fashion statement-with my ordinary clothes. I went on the internet searching for ideas on what I can wear it with and only South Africans style mavens came up. I was shocked at first, I mean these pieces are easy available all over Kenya but there weren’t that many fashionistas styling any traditional necklaces, with the easy availability of these pieces around Kenya.
We should learn to embrace the diversity of our cultures and believe that this diversity can be used as a hope for positive growth in our creative economy.
12. Where do you see yourself as a company in the next ten years? What target market do you want to have?
In the next 10 years, this will be a global franchise. I am lucky enough to have created custom pieces for phenomenal Kenyan women and I look forward to an even bigger future.
13. Creating a brand, one that has been well received so far, must have been hard work. What can you tell to those who aspire to get into the business of fashion?
Be original: Create from your soul, believe in yourself and in your dream, stay persistent, and believe some more. You should also have a strong clear vision for your business as well.
I am an idealist, an emotional dreamer. A goddess encapsulated in a densely melanated work of art. On normal days, I am an environmental enthusiast, PR practitioner, Events organizer, Coffee addict, Poetry lover. I also sometimes jot down my thoughts at toashtraysandheartbreaks.wordpress.com