Our Pearls And Heels lady for today is designer Lulu Oniang’o. Lulu Oniang’o is the founder of Khalayi (meaning small and beautiful). Khalayi is a creative sewing and embroidery business that create ones of a kind personalized items and gifts for kids and adults. Khalayi sets itself apart by providing unique, quality products and is perfect for people who want customized gifts that are memorable timeless yet still functional. Khalayi is known for its personalized baby (and now adult) blankies which are perfect and for people who don’t know what to get for baby showers and want to get one of a kind personalized items. They also gift wrap and deliver for customers who want to avoid the hassle of looking for a gift in town or at the malls. All Khalayi items are crafted with a lot of attention paid to detail and they use locally made materials, with Kikoy and Khanga being staples in their craft. Khalayi is a brand that spreads love and happiness by making gift-giving extremely memorable and special. The range of products includes personalized blankies, rompers, pregnancy pillows, bibs, gift sets and hampers.
Describe your typical day?
I don’t quite have a typical day. The only things that are typical about my day are the struggle to and success waking up (I am not a morning person), getting to the workshop, getting home and trying to get enough sleep. The in-betweens are different from day to day and that’s one of the biggest reasons I love my job. Every day we create and make something different. I try to put in about 8-10 hours of work every day.
Most of my days include: completing placed orders, prepping new orders, chatting with potential clients about the designs they would like for their order, cutting, sewing, embroidery, packing, gift wrapping and dropping items at the courier for delivery (and taking pics at different stages of work for my social media posts).
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wasn’t quite sure, I knew more of what I didn’t want to be, more then what I actually wanted to be. I wanted to be many things and this changed several times and included, actuary, accountant, nursery school teacher, fashion designer, housewife and rally driver – (my brother and I shared this last one). I was good in math and physics so ended up studying actuarial science in college but then realized it wasn’t the right thing for me.
So at one point in my life as I was still trying to figure out what to do with respect to career and earning a living, I was my mom’s driver by day and accounting student by evening. Because I had several moments of free time and boredom I started sewing in the car, just random things. Then I got into sewing cushions using Kikoy, but my aha moment came when my niece came on holiday from the US, stayed for a few weeks and I gifted her with a blankie with her name on it when she went back. She was 2. My sister told me her daycare friends wanted the same thing and that’s how the blankies started. It’s a product I’ve constantly been improving and generated into different kinds of blankies.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I think I would’ve started by going to a crafting school (if there is such a thing), taken art more seriously and I would’ve worked on this dream much earlier. But there’s a time and place and reason for everything. I am just grateful that I can use my love for working with my hands to earn a living.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
Creativity and an open mind. Most of the time clients entrust me with the ability to create and make something that they will love. The don’t micro-manage and only do so when say they want specific colors or would like the resulting product to come out a certain way.
Time management and Communication. The items we make take time and it’s important to communicate this with the client especially when dealing with deadlines for birthdays, baby showers and other special events.
Active listening and attention to detail because each item is different, it’s very important to listen to the customer in order to deliver them with a product that they will be satisfied with.
As a professional how is it working in the Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
Traffic is such a bore! I wish I could snap myself to different locations instantly. Besides that, I think Nairobi has a lot to offer with regard to the business we are in; although there could be more variety when it comes to the materials that we work in regard to colour, quality, prints and tools. The really good stuff is expensive or sold only in bulk/wholesale which can make it costly for us. Some consumables are not easily available in the market so many times we have to improvise with what is locally available.
What motivates you?
My clients and the challenges they give me sometimes. I get surprised by doing things that I didn’t think I was capable of. But because they believe in me, they challenge me with projects that allow me to push the envelope. One time, I was asked to upholster a stroller with pink kikoy, and at first I thought I was really going to mess it up, but eventually it came out beautifully and I had a lot of fun taking it apart and putting it back together. I am also inspired by previous work and clients who say things like “I still have the blankie you made for my daughter/son”
How do you define success?
Success for me is one project at a time; If I can make each client happy on each project and deliver a product that they are happy with, then I consider that a success.
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
My family. They have always supported me and pushed me to do better. I am extremely grateful to have parents who are in academia but still advocate for my ambition in the arts and crafts.
What is your favorite aspect of your job?
That every day is different and that (unless for mass production) no two products that we make are exactly the same. Most importantly is knowing that someone is going to feel extremely special because of the kind of personalization that we do.
What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
I think it’s a combination of many things: believing in oneself and not giving up (pushing, pushing and pushing), working harder and better by improving one’s skills, listening to constructive criticism, taking advantage of opportunities and circumstances that nurture your cause, using your networks, luck and prayer.
What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
Keep pushing and don’t give up, always ask and don’t be afraid to ask again and again if you don’t get understand something. Knowledge is everything and there’s so much you can do with information; there’s always something to learn a new, faster or better way to do things.
It’s also ok to make mistakes, it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes “mistakes” bring about new and incredible ideas.
What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of career?
I’ve had a few:
The opportunity to apprentice under Kenyan Designer Patricia Mbela of POISA.
Being the first and only Kenyan to win Swahili Fashion Week Emerging Designer Competition (2012) and having my parents there to celebrate that moment with me.
The day I got 10,000 hits on my website just for making a blankie that was gifted to Caroline Mutoko’s daughter Nduku. She talked about it on radio, called me and up to this day I still get a few clients from that.
Seeing the sign at my workshop for the very first time (Khalayi was my grandmother’s name and I’m sure she would’ve been so proud J)
Meeting the Kenya Sevens Rugby. When they won the title cup in Singapore, like everyone else, I felt inspired to celebrate them so we made throws for each player and the guys that manage the team. We personalized them with their names and the values they stand for to acknowledge their achievement to thank them for giving us another reason to be proud to be Kenyan.
What makes you happy?
Making others happy. My sisters and I have always enjoyed surprising people through gift giving and we always try to outdo each other on birthdays and things like that. When I was little and my mom left for work, I would go to her room and “arrange” her jewelry and then I would take some and wrap them in newspaper and gift them to her when she got home. Gifting (creatively) has always made me happy. I’m glad that through my clients I can do that on a daily basis, and so Khalayi offers the option of gift wrapping when one purchases our products so that they are ready-to-gift.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I like to discover new places and new ways of doing things. I listen to podcasts and I really enjoy watching documentaries.
Where you see yourself in around 10 years?
I will still be doing what I love to do using my God given talent by running Khalayi in a bigger way being a one-stop shop for very unique gifts and personalized items that can’t be found anywhere else, raising a family, and still being surrounded by a team of family and friends that keeps me in check.