Startup Diaries: From Kenya With Love

WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR LONDONAIROBI COME FROM?

In Africa, projects often find you. A chance encounter on the tube became the starting point to joining two cities, 4000 miles apart.

I was travelling through London on the tube after coming back from a trip to Kenya, wearing a chunky brass necklace over a simple black top. I was stopped by a girl commuting alongside me who asked where my necklace came from. She had never seen anything like it and where could she buy it? “You can’t unfortunately”, I replied, “I bought it back from Kenya and this is probably the only one they had there!” Wow.

Over numerous trips to Kenya, I had managed to gather a unique collection of one-off pieces of jewelry and accessories. Each piece handmade by a different designer using materials and techniques I had never seen before. It wasn’t until I was stopped for a second time whilst wearing an African piece that I realized there could be a market for it in the UK.

So this was where the story began. After moving to Kenya in 2012 to be the lead creative in a branding agency, I decided I would spend the year looking for upcoming designers to showcase to a European market and build an ecommerce website as a platform from which to view and buy their accessories.

OUR JOURNEY

What was important to me from the start was that LONDONAIROBI was a brand that reflected the young, urban, creative side to Africa that I had grown to know and love. It had to spotlight designers and products that embodied a new side of Africa, one very different to the usual portrayal of the continent. First and foremost, each piece had to say style, luxury and be on-trend. Secondly it had to be inherently African in its crafting or material. This was never going to be a brand that relied on a pull-on-the-heart-string story to sell its products.

It was also essential to find a partner on the ground in Africa, someone who shared my vision for showcasing creativity and also connected with the industry to be well placed to search for upcoming talent for the brand. Wambui turned out to be the perfect partner, a fashion stylist for East-Africa’s women’s magazines and an ex Miss Kenya finalist. She was well integrated into the Kenyan fashion world and key to finding the designers I’d hoped to showcase.

What I hadn’t expected is for the two of us to become such close friends. As we got to know each other over the year, attending local craft fairs, fashion events and catwalk shows, we realised the brand was as much about our journey as a partnership as it was about the designer’s individual stories, and could be used to promote and sell the brand.

HOW WERE ISSUES WITH PROCUREMENT SOLVED?

We managed to turn our biggest problem into our unique selling point.

To begin with we were looking for high quality unique accessories that we could purchase multiples of, to market to the UK. As we searched for designers it became more apparent that in a handmade world, where material is not always readily available, we were finding these designers didn’t have the capacity to produce large quantities of one item, and when they did, there were many differences between them.

But how many other brands could say this? We live in a mass produced world where accessories are made in China and imported in their thousands to shops across the UK. We soon realised we were giving the consumer something more. An artisan piece, beautifully crafted by hand, ethically made and with a fantastic story behind it. Until this point, I had forgotten why the girl on the tube had loved my necklace so much, and that was because no one else had it.

You cannot uniform Africa, you need to understand it, and love it for what it is.

Colourful. Vibrant. Ever so slightly chaotic. We made the decision to showcase the designs as they came, and as long as they were stylish, handmade and contemporary with an African twist. They were true to the LONDONAIROBI brand.

Our ethos became; ‘OWN A LITTLE PIECE OF AFRICA’

BUILDING THE BRAND

As a designer, I used all the brand experience I had learnt over my career to create a strong, differentiating design that reflected all the values that were so important to us.

We wanted a brand that represented us, the two girls setting up this venture on opposite sides of the world.

The combined ‘N’ from the logo joins the two cities together and the diagonal line represents the line drawn between LONDON and NAIROBI if you were to pin point them both on a map. The colours are inspired by a contemporary Africa and the typography kept classic and minimal. Overall we wanted the brand to project a new Africa, look clean and simple and let the products take center stage.

Photography is a key part of any online retail brand

and we wanted to invest in professional photography from the start. When you cannot pick up and try an accessory on in person, it is vital you have a photograph that sells a product in its best light.

My background in design saved us a lot in initial setup costs so I was able to design the brand from the logo and identity, the business stationery, advertising, presentation and collateral right the way through to the website. We used a local Kenyan web developer to code the site to my design specifications and build a sophisticated back-end shopping cart that the UK market has become accustomed to using. It felt right to keep talent as much as we could in Kenya, even down to the making of our handmade packaging.

Every part of our brand from me and Wambui, our designers, the products and packaging tells a unique story, one of a new Africa… we just can’t wait to launch and share the story!

To quote one of the biggest brands out there, my advice to anyone thinking about taking a leap and starting their own business would be ‘Just Do It’. It’s surprising how much you will figure out along the way!

LONDONAIROBI launches in March 2013.

Hannah Shore, a London designer and her partner, Wambui Thimba, a Nairobi fashion stylist are launching a new concept brand bringing luxury African accessories to Europe. www.LONDONAIROBI.com

Hannah is a Graphic Designer and brand consultant with big agency experience on global brands. She is currently living in Kenya, working on one of the world’s biggest brands across 39 African countries, and about to launch her new joint venture.

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