Today on Pearls And Heels we feature Lorna Abwonji, a fashion designer based in Nairobi. She says, “because I was that awkward tall girl in the group who had fluctuating weight, I understand the complexities African women have getting clothes made that fit them well. Because of this getting fitting clothes has been an issue and my mother would make clothes tailored for me. After high school, I studied fashion. I got a lot of compliments on my clothes and people wanted me to design and make their clothes and that is how I started on my journey as a fashion designer.”
Lorna Abwonji has been in the Kenyan fashion industry since 2008 and she has been shortlisted in various prestigious awards such as RAFDA [Redds Africa Fashion Design Awards] in 2008 and FA254 Africa Designers for Tomorrow in 2014. She has also been active in the local fashion industry and has participated in various fashion showcases including Samantha’s Bridal Fair as well as the Casino Malindi Fashion show, FAFA / Maybelline Launch, and Kenya Fashion Awards among others.
In 2016 Lorna Abwonji become a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders by former US President Barack Obama because of her work in the industry with my DRESS UP KENYA project.
What do you do and what impact do you think it creates in your industry or the world?
Let us start at the beginning. I have always been artistic since I was a child. I was the kid who did not like school at all and I honestly think I tolerated the experience because it was what was expected of me. I do think children these days with options such as home school are very fortunate. Truth be told my mother probably wouldn’t have gone for it if it were available then.
I was lucky enough to find solace in art and I even did well enough at it in school that I was usually among the top art students in school. I knew I wanted to be in the arts but what made me settle for fashion is that I was that awkward tall girl in school with fluctuating weight. That just meant I never got clothes that fit me, especially those made for girls my age. Part of me is grateful that the Kenyan school system has uniforms because I don’t know how I would have managed to think about what to wear on a daily basis with all my issues.
Being the awkward tall girl also meant I was bullied. I took it for a while until I finally realized I was taller than everyone so I stood up for myself. Since then I haven’t stopped standing up to bullies, unfortunately, it doesn’t end as an adult.
Most of my drawings as a child were of cartoon characters especially Disney and all I wanted to do is become a Disney animator which I used to call “a cartoon drawer.”
When shows like Style with Elsa Klench and The Bold and the Beautiful came on TV and I started to fantasize about fashion. I just thought it would be nice to have the freedom to actually make what I want to wear that actually fits me. I was not really thinking about it as a career.
Fortunately for me, people liked what I was making for myself and started to ask for things, even when my sewing skills were not yet up to par, but it motivated me to keep going and so here we are now.
I would honestly say I still design a lot with myself in mind and even when I do my one-on-one consultations with clients, I realize that what they want to be made has more to do with how they are feeling on the inside.
Now I make custom-made African-inspired gowns and corsets and I also have a ready-to-wear collection that I am working on. Though I honestly think I am in the self-esteem business. After 15 years in this industry, working for people and for myself, it always boils down to how someone feels when they are wearing something.
The majority of my clients are women and the secret is that women do not actually dress for men [despite the fact that they think that]. Women dress for themselves. Women actually feel that another woman complimenting her dress is more sincere than when it comes from a man.
My business tagline is: Create Your Own Style so in a nutshell, my job is about helping this woman feel beautiful in what she is wearing. It is not as automatic as people may think because most consultations are lists of what they want to hide. Sometimes it’s because they are insecure about what people will say or they have had a major body change and they are not yet comfortable with how they look or they just don’t think it’s worth much of an effort.
Most consultations can take more than an hour and despite the fact that it is not ideal, I realized that on top of everything else, a lot of women are lonely and the process of designing a dress for them is very therapeutic because it forces them to think about themselves, outside of the many roles they have even if those roles sometimes still influence their decisions.
What things would you change along the way if you had a chance to go back to the past?
I am a very forward-thinking person, so I do not believe in changing the past but I do believe in learning from the past. I am who I am and where I am because of my life experiences.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your current job?
The top three skills are resilience, teamwork and kindness.
Resilience needs to fuel your passion because passion alone will not be enough in the fashion industry. If you are the type that gives up easily you will not make it. It’s a very unstable industry.
Teamwork because you cannot do it alone, there is no designer who has a legacy brand who did it alone. Their brands outlived them because they had the systems and the teams.
Kindness to yourself when things don’t work out, to those who work for you because getting good talent is hard and to your customer because it’s really more than about buying clothes.
What do you love to do, that makes you light up when you talk about it?
My biggest passion is God. It may sound like the safe Christian thing to say but I did not grow up in a church-going family, I became a Christian when I was in high school so I cannot say it was drilled in me.
God is the one who has brought me to where I am in this life journey, seen me through so many hurdles in life, opened opportunities for me and equipped me with the skills I have to help people.
This is how I know that being a designer is more than about clothes, it’s about people. If I make a positive difference in anyone’s life because they met me [even if they don’t purchase anything from me] then I am truly living in my purpose.
What motivates you to keep going?
My community for sure. God has blessed me with the most loving supportive people that I know. Many times I have wanted to give in because of how erratic the fashion industry is, but my people know that I am good and that I am talented and fashion does make me happy.
I was fortunate enough to have parents who supported me in my decision to pursue fashion. My late mother was always very creative with her dressing and she used to come up with designs and take them to a tailor to have them made. They were always very flamboyant. She is my inspiration and was also the one who taught me how to sew with an electric sewing machine and also how to knit. I do feel like what I do is part of her legacy living through me.
My dad has always financed my many projects and even sponsored many fashion shows I participated in and is always cheering me on. Currently, 90% of his clothes are made by me. He also watches all my YouTube videos and constantly tells me how proud he is of me and all my siblings
I also have very supportive siblings, I honestly won the lottery in that department and I appreciate that they insist on paying full price just to see me thrive.
Lastly, friends have been very supportive as well. I have friends from school, some I met along the way, and others in the industry. Such fantastic women with big hearts.
How do you define success?
Success is fulfilling your life’s purpose and it is not a destination but a journey. You have to keep at it and keep pivoting as you go. Even if you do give up, there is always another chance to take it up again. It’s never too late.
What is more important for you, passion, purpose or both?
Definitely, both because we have this one life on earth and it’s best that you make the best out of it. No one is here by accident, everyone has something they are supposed to do in this lifetime that will add to the big picture of God’s plan for our lives. So pursue your purpose with passion.
A lot of people like to talk about success but not failure. We are told to embrace failure on our road to success. Is there one time you failed at something you were working on that taught you valuable lessons that you can share? What lessons were those? You can also share what you failed at if you are comfortable sharing.
Most of my biggest opportunities came from the foundation of something I failed at.
In 2010 I organized the first fashion design show for upcoming designers [before that only established designers showcased in fashion shows] at the Nairobi National Museum called DRESS UP KENYA. I had no money to do it and I had no sponsors, the only cash I had was what the participating designers paid and it was not enough to cover the costs. I trusted the wrong people who promised me sponsors but never came through and I naively thought that ticket sales would cover costs. That year had so many things go wrong including some political tension that made us postpone the show by a week.
Unfortunately for me on the day of the show is when the road contractors dug a trench at the museum’s main entrance and a lot of people did not know about the alternative entrance. I had no one to help me and I had designers who were finally anticipating a chance to showcase their work.
We proceeded with the show but at the end of the night the money wasn’t enough and I ended up in a lot of debt. The designers had a great time and had fantastic photos for their work, some of them their first professional photos. Unfortunately, the models left without pay and I got called every minute of the day for one month being asked for payment got into depression as I tried to look for a solution. I am grateful that at least blasting people on social media wasn’t a thing those days. Eventually, I raised the money and paid them and since then I have kept away from events.
The funny thing is that the event was actually a success in its own way. Because it was a such a new concept we got featured in African Woman magazine, 2 newspapers and a lot of people who showcased in the show became very successful designers, models and photographers.
I also used that experience to apply for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in 2016 and I went to the US for 6 weeks and also met President Obama.
Sometimes it does feel like dream but events still traumatize me a lot.
Have you ever faced imposter syndrome? How do you deal with it?
Sometimes I wonder if my experience with imposter syndrome is usually my horrible habit of procrastinating. I know I have a habit of putting things off at times when I am not sure or even disqualifying myself because of being tired of working so hard and things not working out. It does take a lot of work but most times I do a lot of things afraid. I learnt a long time ago I have nothing to lose so I think these days I do take more risks and I am ok with things not working out as well because I always pivot.
What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
Fashion is a hard industry to be in. All that glitz and glam are only one part, which is marketing. The truth is the people who make money from fashion are the ones who make the most basic things. The white/black shirt, the black/navy/brown trouser/skirt, and the brown/black/navy blazer. Those are called staple pieces because they never go out of style and people always need them.
It’s not as easy to convince people to wear creative things, if you really take note you will realize it’s usually the younger people who will take the fashion risks but they do not always have the spending power.
As I have grown older I have noticed that my clients’ priorities change as they age. Their budgets for clothes may increase but they will also seldom get clothes because their focus goes into raising a family or investments, so they will buy more expensive clothes that last longer and they also have more options because they travel more.
So basically in fashion, you should know who your customer is and adjust. You may keep the ones you already have or you have to pivot into a new direction. That statement Heidi Klum usually says in Project Runway, “in fashion one day you are in, and the next day you are out” is 100% true.
Lastly, fashion is more than just designing, there are many careers in the industry that are often overlooked. Explore the other options.
Are there specific books or movies or podcasts you would recommend to somebody for them to get a better sense of what success is or what success could be like? This is an auntie moment to pass wisdom
I started my YouTube channel [LORNA THE SEWIST] because of exactly this. I wanted to empower the next generation of fashion entrepreneurs and give them a resource. I kept answering the same questions over and over and I decided to create a resource that made more sense. In the process, I have also discovered more resources as I create videos and I would say in fashion it’s a lot more about how you think than it is a formula that will work.
I tend to watch documentaries about the impact of fashion on the environment e.g. The True Cost or the many documentaries about fashion designers from the past.
I also watch shows that teach you more about being a global fashion brand such as Making The Cut
Check out design challenge shows such as Project Runway.
There are several newsletters you can sign up for that have news and information about the global fashion industry such as Business of Fashion and Women’s Wear Daily
Locally I love magazines such as Couture Africa and follow newspaper columns in the local newspapers that feature local designers like in the Sunday Nation.
I follow several social media platforms and YouTube channels are well for local and international fashion industry people, from designers, photographers, publishers, models, content creators, cos-players, costumers etc.
Shows and movies with the best costumes so far like Black Panther, Wednesday Adams, Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings, The Crown, The 100, Star Wars Movies, and Marvel Movies. Basically a lot of Sci-Fi shows and historic shows.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I used to blog a lot, I had one where I shared my musings as an African Christian and then I wrote for an online publication called FOR CREATIVE GIRLS for a while but now I have my YouTube channel which I run and for me, it is actually a passion project because I learnt so many new skills like video editing and shooting.
I started baking in 2022 after avoiding it all my life and now become very excited about trying new recipes, especially savoury ones.
I am also very passionate about Christian apologetics so I study a lot of that and even got a certificate.
I watch a lot of shows and movies, especially Sci-fi.
I also sew as a hobby and do a lot of passion projects that help me experiment more and in the process, I have grown my sewing skills.
I am starting to read more again as well to reduce my screen time.
What would you like your legacy to be?
For me, after losing my mother at a young age it’s very clear to me that the impact you have in people’s lives matter because that is what will live on as your legacy.
To find out more about Lorna Abwonji check her out on different social media here. Check out her Youtube Lorna the Sewist channel here.
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