“When I Decided To Believe In Myself Is When My Career Took Off!” – David Avido.
David Ochieng, popularly known as Avido is an entrepreneur, a businessman, a fashion designer and above all a student of life. As one of Kenya’s leading fashion designers, he has dressed celebrities and influencers from all walks of life including the president of Kenya. After being featured on Beyonce’s Black Parade Route, I had a sit down with him and this is the story of how his success came to be.
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do
My name is David Ochieng. I was born and bred in Kibera slums and I make clothes for a living. Before I decided to take up fashion as my career, I was involved in different activities, including, music, soccer, and dance which eventually led me to fashion.
How did dance lead you into fashion?
I will have to take you back in my primary school days because a certain string of events is what led me to dancing and then fashion.
As a teenager, I used to play soccer. There used to be sponsors in our area, who would pick teams and then pay school fees for the members as compensation. The short of it is that soccer paid for my primary school. However, immediately after I joined the high school the scholarship ended since the sponsors stopped sponsoring our team.
I had to quit school…
My mother who worked as a laundrywoman was in no position to pay for my high school, which charged 10 times what she earned. Hence, considering I had no other option, I quit high school so I could support my family. Being the firstborn of two brothers and one sister, I felt I had to take the reins and particularly, show my siblings that even though I couldn’t complete my education, it was necessary that they do. I would always remind myself that even though education was important what I did with my life mattered more. So after dropping out, I started working at construction sites, which I did for 6 months. But this led to me having chest problems which added to other mental and emotional issues I was going through at the time.
I started doing spoken word…
You see, in Kibera, it’s very easy and at the same time very hard to make friends. But in my case, both extremes applied. At one point I lived as a street boy, engaging in glue so that I could survive and blend within that particular context, but years later, I couldn’t even have friends.
The truth is, Kibera is a place where bad company and idleness can cost you your life in a matter of seconds. After all, people would always assume that birds of the same feather flock together.
So after having seen some of my friends lose their lives as a result of mistaken identity I decided it would be better to stay away. Nevertheless, this decision took a toll on me because I lacked people I could relate with or share my problems with since many of them were in school. Additionally, I couldn’t heap my troubles on my mom, because she too had loads of her own. I mean raising 4 kids in poverty and as a single mother is already a handful. Daily she was struggling to put food on the table and still support us as we grew. So venting to her was not an option.
As a result, I went through periods of emotional turmoil due to loneliness, health problems, and the living conditions we were in. I had to quit working at construction sites because of my chest problems. In the long run, I could not even support my family because the money I had saved in those few months I had worked in construction, ended up being used for my treatments.
This is where the spoken word came in. At the time I didn’t realize what I was doing was called spoken word. I would go near Nairobi dam, sit alone somewhere, then start reciting my feelings and everything I was going through. So one day, while I had gone to Kamkunji-Kibera, which is where artistes used to hold their shows, I happened to come across a roadshow that was being held to promote Soko maize flour.
While I was there, one of their marketers asked if anyone in the crowd had a talent that they would like to showcase. He promised a reward of one pack of Soko, maize flour which would be given to the winner after performing any talent to their level best. Hearing this and factoring that if I won we would sleep on a full stomach that evening, I volunteered.
It didn’t matter what I was capable of or if I knew how to sing like the artists who had done so before me. My concern was that I couldn’t afford to lose out on the reward which could sustain us that night. When I arrived on the stage, one artiste who had just finished singing handed me the mic.
The rules mentioned by the MC were simple. Use any talent to entertain the crowd and you will receive the reward. I was ready to do so. However, instead of playing an upbeat tune which, I could sing or dance to the like the others, the DJ, keyed in a slow tune. Talking was the only option and so I took the opportunity to recite the struggles I was going through and voice my feelings like I used to do whenever I would visit Nairobi dam. When I finished, the marketer handed me the pack of Soko maize flour and before I could internalize my win, artistes began approaching me to find out where I had learnt to do spoken word.
People must’ve thought that what I had spoken out was someone else’s story because a former classmate who had also volunteered to do something on stage, began asking when I became an artist. She was in a group of dancers and as they joined her to listen to what I had to say. They asked me to join their dance crew.
I began dancing… my dance team made me who I am
You see during my earlier years when I used to play football, people would think that I could dance due to how I would do acrobatic stunts after scoring a goal and what not. So when I did spoken word on stage, people who knew me from before must’ve thought that I was an aspiring artist too. So at the moment when the group offered me a place in their dance group, all I could think of is how lucky I was to gain friends, and work because the dancers were paid for certain gigs.
So I began dancing. We trained, went to Sakata, engaged in street competitions and performed in all events together.
Time went by with me as part of the dancing crew. I had trained a lot and so I was as good as my peers. But then something else started to pique my interest. Whenever we were required to perform at an event, we used to wear costumes. Tailors could only come up with so many different patterns and designs because upon arrival at any event we would see similar designs and outfits on other dancers.
Going to Gikomba or Toi market and buying many similar outfits was also futile because when we went to perform we would see other dancers wearing something similar.
That is when I started looking for ways in which we could make our costumes unique. So I began drawing different sketches and learning the different ways I could make this happen. After many trials and errors, nights of reworking I started to get good at it. But it was not easy.
People used to criticize my work so I would try something else so I could please them. Until I learnt that pleasing everyone wasn’t possible and threw caution to the wind. After all, I was already at the bottom, where else could I go?
Describe the challenges you experienced after taking on this new resolve?
Immediately I realised that I had to pursue the things I wanted instead of existing as a victim of circumstances my outlook towards life changed. Around that time I was still a dancer, an NGO from the UK happened to host some projects in Kibera. I did some research on them and found out that they were sponsoring well-performing children from the slums and also taking them back to school. Four years had gone by since I had dropped out, but nothing did I crave more than completing my education. So I approached the organisation intending to ask them to take me back to school. Unfortunately, they couldn’t because I lacked the necessary documents. The only school they could take me was the university which was also not possible considering I was a high school drop-out.
I was disappointed, but I never gave up. As a dancer, I had been part of a few events that the organization had held in Kibera. So I told them since they cannot take me back to high school, and they had yet to pay me the wages for being their dancer on several occasions, I would rather they keep the money and once I’ve found a way of going back to school they would use that for my fees.
So I embarked on a journey of searching for options and saving the wages I earned from dancing, so I could add to the amount needed for my fee. Often we would get paid ksh3,000 which we would divide amongst ourselves. Mind you we were a team of 10. So mostly each of us would end up with ksh50, Ksh100 or Ksh 500 at most. When times were bad and the wage was too small, I would have to walk home from the place we were performing, because I still needed to have something for my family and extra to put in my piggy bank. It took me 3 years to save Ksh10,000.
With my Ksh10,000 I approached my mother and told her of my decision to go back to school. I asked her if there was anything she could add so that I could use it for my fees. At the time my mother hadn’t saved any cash, although she was part of a women’s group. So she took out a loan. The issue was the chama could only lend her as much as she could afford to pay back or the assets she had. KSH 2000 was the sum.
In total, I had Ksh 12,000 but this sum wasn’t enough to cover my fees. I knew a mentor who was coaching kids in the slums and so I approached him too. He checked my results from when I was in form one and after seeing I used to perform well he decided to add Ksh3,000 to my kitty.
After many contributions and mind you times had changed, I settled for the fact that its either I went to gumbaru school or forget the education altogether. I used the money to pay for my exams, two weeks tuition and after doing my KCSE, nothing was the same again.
The costumes I made as a dancer and the sketches I had drawn ended up making the portfolio I needed to join BIFA and the rest is history.
Many would say that education is not that important nowadays. What role did you see it playing your life that you invested so much time and effort to go back to school?
We used to hear that education guaranteed a good job and a better future. Based on this narrative, I had always dreamt of becoming an electrical engineer. Therefore, we could say that being an engineer is the reason I wanted to go back to school. However, as you know by now my circumstances were difficult and the obstacles forced me to take another path. So I abandoned the dream of becoming an engineer and decided to pursue education as a gateway for more opportunities.
How did that work out for you?
Gumbaru gave me a KCSE certificate, but the results I got couldn’t take me to the university. So I thought why not pursue tailoring as an option. This is what I had in mind when I went to BIFA (Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts) to look for a placement. I also remembered that the NGO from the UK had agreed to pay for my fees if I managed to go back to school. So I thought if I managed to pass BIFA’s interview I could proceed with the next part of my life without too many hurdles.
The interviewing panel at BIFA liked my portfolio, but my KCSE results offset my qualifications in getting admitted to the school. Nevertheless, the costumes I had made and my skills as a dancer qualified me and in the end, I was accepted. I was put on probation though, under the condition that if I failed in the first semester, I would lose my placement in the institute. I didn’t fail, but then school fees became a problem.
It was then that I came to find out the organization from the UK had moved back to their country. At the time, I wasn’t on social media and neither did I have their contacts. Additionally, they used to visit the country only once a year.
But then I remembered that during one of our meetups, we had done so at the MP’s office. I figured if I could sign up on Facebook, I could look for them via the late Ken Okoths’s list of Facebook friends. So I did and after a lot of searching, I got in touch with one of the guys from the organization. They were coming to Kenya in a month and they wanted my crew to perform at their event.
So after they arrived and we had performed for them they planned for another meetup so we could catch up. On the next meeting, I showed up with my certificates and documents. One of the guys suggested that it was time they paid me the amount they never got to – since they were returning to the UK soon, but I had something else in mind. So I told them instead of giving me that money, they could sponsor me through school as they had promised before. They looked at my certificates then asked me what I wanted to pursue. Fashion was my answer.
It took me a moment to realize that Fashion had come to my rescue while I was trying to survive but looking back I see that it was the decision that made me who I am.
The organization paid for my fees together with the hostel fee needed for the first semester and by the end of the year, I was the best fashion student in the institute. I received certificates to prove that and that solidified my stay at the institute. So did my career as a designer start to take root.
What happened to your career after you left school?
Our MP used to have friends from China or was it Japan… So this one time they gave some sewing machines and tools which he decided to distribute to the women in the area. When I learnt about it I approached him, explained to him why I needed one and asked him if he could spare one for me. After he considered it, he called me to the office, gave me one and on that day my career as a fashion designer began to blossom; even though I now realise it in retrospect.
I say this because after he gave me the machine, I couldn’t find ways of using it. I didn’t have any money to buy fabrics and at the same time, our tin shack was too small to fit in such a machine; so it had to stay outside. Keeping it outside was a risk too because at any moment someone could’ve stolen it. Therefore to secure it, I would disassemble the parts, keep the metal part in the house, then tie the rest with a chain and then to my bed. This made sure that if someone ever moved it or tried to steal I could hear the movement and thus catch them in the act.
Days passed without me ever sewing and it reached a point where I thought I didn’t need the sewing machine anymore. But just before I could make up my mind, I happened to meet the guy who once contributed the Ksh3,000 for my fees. We talked and he offered to host me in his house, which apparently had one extra room. I was to use the room for my sewing activities and he was okay with me staying until my business picked up.
That settled, my mum also gave me Ksh200. In other words, this was the amount of money that started my business. With 200 I left for Gikomba in search of pieces of fabrics that I could use. Since Ksh 200 was too little an amount to purchase a standard fabric, I opted for the huge bed sheets which cost me Ksh60 in total. That was the price for two bedsheets and the rest of the money I used for my fare and water.
With these two bedsheets, I could only make the type of clothes I had made before. So without hesitation, I cut out pieces of fabrics from the bedsheets and voila, I made costumes for my dance team.
We had opened a Facebook page for our dance team and it happened that one of the members had posted a picture of the team wearing the shirts I made. I couldn’t believe it when I saw people commenting that the shirts looked good. To my surprise word had got around and people started asking me to make them similar shirts.
This was overwhelming for me especially because I wasn’t confident in my skills. I mean, the only person I had dressed thus far was the late MP Ken Okoth whom I used to make shirts for from time to time. I didn’t view Ken Okoth as a high profile personality. To me, he was like a father, a mentor and a friend. Even so, because he used to snap pictures of outfits and different designs, from wherever he travelled so I could make them myself or get inspired. It’s not once that I have called on him for advice or inspiration. So what would be the big deal in dressing him?
But dressing clients, now that took me by surprise. Especially because of the stigma that was associated with people from Kibera. For instance, whenever we would go to perform in the uptown sides of Nairobi, in places like Kileleshwa, you could see how people would change their demeanour once they learnt that we came from Kibera. As in Kibera is associated with thugs, crime, drugs and abject poverty, it was not surprising to receive such reactions and this to me meant that it would be challenging to inspire confidence or even get clients to trust me.
Hence, from these circumstances, I developed a passion to make clothes as a way of changing the narrative as well as to elevate the life of the people around me.
When did you get your first client?
Before I got an order from the person whom I have always considered as my first client, I had made clothes for artistes. However many would take them pro bono. Like someone would place an order, and after I have delivered the attire to them they would say that it didn’t come out the way they wanted. So they would cancel the order altogether or ask me not to make the changes when I offered. But then days or months later, like a bad joke you would see the artiste wearing the same outfit. If you asked them, they would say that it’s their manager who handles their wardrobe so they can’t talk about it. In the end, it would just become a game of push and pull, which was exhausting.
Nevertheless, you wouldn’t believe who ended up becoming my first client. Its actually a funny story this one, and full of coincidences, but I’ll tell you.
After I got my certificate, I went back to BIFA for my diploma. So at the end of the first semester of my first year, I went back home. On the streets and around town word had spread that Don Carlos would be coming to Kenya to perform. So everyone I would meet, would either be talking about it or trying to exude some reggae vibes.
I wasn’t left behind, although I was dressed in a kitenge shirt that I had made for myself. It made me stand out because at the streets no one else would be caught dressed in a Kitenge attire, except our mothers and that too was on specific days.
So on this day, I happened to be passing where Don Carlos and his group of bodyguards were standing (By the way they had come to visit Kibera because apparently, it reminded them of their hometown). You couldn’t see him clearly because a huge crowd had formed around him. I was at the company of my friends and as we got near we started shouting Rastafari, Jah and so forth.
I heard a reply, Wagwan and he added that my shirt was byad. I was caught by surprise. My heart was racing and I couldn’t move from where I stood. Then he started moving towards me while saying that he’d like to know where I got my shirt from. I don’t even know how I managed to break the spell but I responded immediately and told him, that I could fetch one for him. I had an extra.
He agreed and so I ran back home and picked up the shirt. It didn’t even matter that I was giving him the shirt for free. I just relished the feeling of being appreciated and getting recognized. Once I had picked up the shirt, I ran back and I found him standing where I had left him, waiting. He took the shirt, wore it to see if it fit and before I could react, photographers were already taking photos of me with him.
Tears filled my eyes. After that encounter, I went back home full of happiness and willing to tell everyone who cared to listen. At around 9 pm that night, my phone rang. Don Carlos wanted to see me and so the manager had called to invite me to a meeting. The reggae artiste was staying at a hotel in Ngong road and so on the set day, I went to meet him. We talked, sang and when we were done he gave me 300 USD and placed an order. We exchanged contacts, I took measurements of him, his kid and wife and I left. That was the first time I had ever received payment for my work and as if that wasn’t enough, Don Carlos, performed the next day wearing the shirt I had given him then mentioned my name on stage.
From there, I began networking and dressing international artistes, local models, artistes, influencers and various people from all walks of life.
Fashion is a competitive world yet you have come this far at barely 25. What’s your edge over other fashion designers in Kenya and Africa?
Different people have different goals and at the end of the day, I work so that I can motivate the people who live around me.
Having lived in Kibera all my life, one thing I learnt during my struggling days is that teaching a man how to fish is always the best alternative than giving him a fish.
Again, for me to get this far, so much has happened because of the help of people. If I didn’t have people to help me through each stage nothing would’ve changed. In other words, my aim always was to make clothes so I can create job opportunities for the people around me. Yet along this journey, I also learnt to tell stories from Kibera through my designs.
So in everything, I do it has to have an aspect of Kibera in it. That, in a nutshell, is what I could say is my edge.
From your background, it’s obvious that you have experienced many challenges. What kept you motivated?
I wanted my siblings to have a different narrative. I wanted them to have a better life and more importantly, to never lack what I lacked.
Again at each step of my life, I had people who would motivate me and keep me inspired. For instance, after I left school, forming a relationship with the late MP Ken Okoth, taught me how to dream big. As a man who was well educated, well-travelled and well exposed, Ken Okoth taught me to dream with different eyes, be ambitious and have big goals.
Living in Kibera also taught me how to tell stories through my designs. I am motivated to share the stories of Kibera through my designs and tell as many people as I can that good clothes can come from Kibera too.
You have received recognition across the world, Take us through the most memorable point of your career?
The most memorable point of my career is when I decided to believe in myself. Believing in myself drove me forward towards achieving my goals, the dreams I have and thus far it has kept me on the path towards achieving what I haven’t.
You have also dressed so many celebrities here in Kenya and internationally. Tell us what that means for you as a fashion designer and how it has influenced your career?
I recognize the privileged that I have had over my career in that I have been able to work with very many people in over a short period of time. Dressing celebrities has not only gave me a boost in my career but through it, I have received different opportunities, achieved different goals, opened doors that were once shut and also met people I never thought I could. For example, dressing Don Carlos propelled me to work with different personalities including, Cecille, Christopher Martin, Chronixx, Romain Virgo, Usain Bolt, TY dollar sign, Bruno Mars and many others.
A year after working with him I also received an offer from the late Bob Collymore (former CEO Safaricom) to become a BLAZE ambassador. Never in my thoughts could I have achieved that if not for the platform that different people gave me and for the fact that they believed in me. I say never, because I had been in one of the BLAZE interviews before, but it didn’t push through.
I don’t have a specific person that I want to dress. Ultimately, I would like to dress everyone, if I can. I say this because I am not exclusive and neither do I see myself as a designer. In fact, I am a businessman. That means if I can solve a problem for my client, whether they are as famous as Beyoncé or just the average person, then I will.
Besides, every opportunity comes as a lesson. Celebrity or not, I take my clients as human beings because they go through the same life and experience the same challenges humans do.
Is collaboration possible and if so which designer(s) would you like to work with and why?
Yes, I would like to collaborate with other fashion designers. Leave alone fashion designers, I would like to work with others from different fields because I engage in different projects like mentorship. I always say that as long as someone believes in themselves or a cause then I can work with them.
Talk to us about being featured on the Black Parade Route. What did this mean to you and how does it impact your career?
I really didn’t expect it. But it showed me that people are seeing my grind, appreciating what it is I’m doing and that all my efforts are paying off. I could say that being featured on Black Parade Route was one way of the world showing me love and as long as I receive love, I am happy.
Sustainable fashion is at the core of your brand, talk to us about that and what drove you to take this approach as a designer.
The future of fashion is sustainability both in Kenya and worldwide. Since sustainability aligns with my dream, then this was the approach for me to take as a designer. Like how will I be able to create jobs for people if I don’t embrace sustainability, yet I know it is the future of fashion? In that regards I had to start early so by the time, I am able to employ like a 1000 people or so I am already aligned with the future instead of wondering how to adapt.
Sustainable fashion is also about clothes that are distinct and unique. How do you describe your style of fashion?
I see fashion as a channel for me to educate people.
Fashion is a platform for me to express myself. It is a platform for me to express different emotions, the cry of my people including, how they feel about life, the economy, their mental status and to solve the problems the people around me go through.
I use fashion to showcase the African culture and African stories which are distinct and unique.
I have different items because I make clothes for a living. I can make everything. However, if you head to my website you will see that I have more of the bomber jackets because it’s a best seller and the fanny packs. Nevertheless, I make pants, shorts, dresses, hats, shirts, and just about anything that a client requests.
What/who inspires your designs?
People. Seeing the struggles people in Kibera go through everyday inspires me. It motivates me to change the narrative about Kibera. I want to share the message that good things too can come from Kibera and that Kibera is not just about crimes and murder and poverty. Kibera people can also be stylish.
Where do you source your materials and is it challenging for you to source materials and other resources as a sustainable fashion designer?
I source materials from Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana or Nigeria depending on the fabric that is in season. Nevertheless, I mainly use cotton because of its good for the environment.
Yes, it is challenging. You see fabrics, just like plants are grown. So ultimately, the environment where the fabric grows will have an impact on the material you get. For instance, if the weather wasn’t favourable, this might affect the colour of the fabric which eventually yields different results. Sometimes it’s not what you want but since you are an artist, you make due.
What would alleviate this situation?
I have been learning more about materials and I am looking forward to making my own fabrics. I would like that once you buy a lookslikeavido outfit, you are guaranteed that you cannot find it anywhere else except from me. But on a wider scope, so much would change if as a country, we went back to producing fabrics as we used to before.
How has COVID-19 affected your business? What lessons have you learnt through this pandemic? 23,000
You see in Kibera, food, at the end of the day is still a struggle for most people. Having gone through that myself, I can relate to the situation. Therefore, telling people to buy masks would be like asking them to die. So currently I’m more involved in the making of masks and educating people on the regulations for COVID-19 prevention rather than making clothes. Thus far we have made over 23,000 masks which have been distributed to the people of Kibera, free of charge.
Also, before COVID-19 I had planned to venture into retail but that had to take a backseat as priorities changed. Business-wise, the orders are not as many as they used to be because not many people are attending events. In terms of the lesson I learnt, well it’s good to save for emergencies and to adapt according to the changing times.
So far, have you seen the vision you had set out for Looks Like Avido take off?
I haven’t yet reached the pinnacles I plan to, but so far so good. Nonetheless, I am on the right path and I believe I will be able to create more job opportunities which is my dream.
What are your plans going forward?
I want to be able to empower more people, to grow more, and to create more job opportunities.
What advice can you share with aspiring fashion designers here in Kenya?
Everybody has their time. You can get your breakthrough at whatever age. The important thing is to stay true to yourself.
To contact Avido, go to his website, where you can also get to create your own designs, or follow him on Instagram to know what he’s up to.
I am a writer with interest in hair, beauty and fashion. I also like telling stories, but most of all I enjoy listening and reading them. If I'm not doing any of the above, I will be trying to crack a game of chess or monopoly. My biggest fear is being ordinary.