NAIROBI INAFAA KUVAA NAIVAA
INTRODUCING NAIVAA: THE BRAND OF MANY FACETS
Nairobi is witnessing a cultural & entrepreneurial renaissance led by a new generation of designer. Forget everything you used to think you knew about this city: the old rules are out and the new disorder is in. And at the risk of sounding dramatic but stating the truth, this new generation has emerged as a potent creative force, a cohort of trailblazers paving the way to a promising & refreshing new epoch within the place of cool waters. One of these new trailblazers is "JOEL MESHAK" who has been staking out fresh ground in the local scene with his NAIVAA brand where each piece of clothing is slightly different, if not completely different. The brands re-inventive hybrid nature is what first caught our attention and thanks to Joel’s pedigree and versatility, it has a built-in desirability factor. With this in mind, ECULTURE caught up with the man behind one of the city's most lowkey yet organically evolving brands as he plays things his way, finding his own path through the fashion system with a brand that while heavily influenced by Nairobi, has also transcended boundaries trying to make a name for itself internationally having walked runways from the UK to Nairobi. We sat down with him for more context into NAIVAA and had a chat about what it's been like building a brand, dealing with failures, heritage, to what he thinks is the best place in town to get a plate of good chips.
It started as making clothes for myself honestly, then people began to notice what I was wearing from my customized denim, customized jackets, then people were like I want something like that. So at first, I made one for my aunt actually, it was quite random then people were like yeah, i’d like one too… so I thought why not make a few more things as well. I did screen printing, embroidery, but then I decided to just stick to kikoy designs, i dabbled with knitting… so slowly but surely i’m finding my way, but it’s a continuous thing, it’s never really been about just one thing.
I‘ve never considered myself as a designer, I feel like that’s a bit of a big tag for what I do. I still feel like I’m playing around with materials you know, just coming up with new stuff, that’s why it ranges from bags to shirts to dresses but right now, globally, I would say Virgil from Off-White, the way he just chose his signature “quote on quote” thing, i think it’s a testament to just doing your own thing. Locally, I would say brands such as Bonkerz & Chilli-Mango, they’ve inspired me, I remember when they were still new and starting out and now they’ve established themselves pretty well… I personally liked their vibe, it was unique.
ON HIS PROCESS
It depends. I feel like it’s a flow of energy, different people like different things, some like subtle designs, others prefer to have everything everywhere, so each Naivaa piece is different respective to that, some pieces are subtle, another is full on material. So it leaves you thinking, is it the same person who made this? That’s what it’s about, trying to accommodate everyone. So, the process is random, very random to be honest, it just depends on how I feel but also the kind of signature material I’m working with at that moment. You will notice as you go through the pieces, the idea is you can recognize that this is a Naivaa piece. You’ll see this same Kitenge, you’ll see this same hand-woven Kikoy and you’ll know that this is a Naivaa piece, that’s my goal.
ON THE COMPARISON BETWEEN KENYAN & UK FASHION CULTURE
The reality there was that, the people who were showing the most interest were the locals. The response was different there, here in Kenya it was good but the response there was insane. Here, it actually takes some convincing to get people interested in your brand but there it was quick, people were already clamouring to get their sizes asap. It was actually easier to make stuff there because it was something new to them, unlike here where I have to step my game up because a lot of people are doing the same thing I’m doing, so it’s like, if I don’t push something different, I’m not going to attract anybody’s eye. There was actually a collection I released there called ‘Afro Caribbean’ because over there, there are a number of people from places like Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago but they were born in the UK… so I was like, let me make something that kind of recognized those guys as one of us, as Africans, something that identified with them and the response was quite good and I felt like I was doing it more for them than myself and sure enough the collection moved, it was great! So while I found it a bit easier there, I am enjoying the challenge here and I’m up for it.
ON HERITAGE BEING USED AS AN AESTHETIC
I got that vibe before I started, that certain brands weren’t putting much energy into designing the clothes but just because they knew that that people abroad will notice that this is from Africa, they’ll appeal to it. In both ways, it’s good because our products are still being known and recognized but like I said before, for you to now appeal to an African audience you definitely need to do more than just make a typical African piece. Actually, in the beginning, I felt like the main thing about Naivaa was the tribal thing but as I moved on, I didn’t want to keep insisting too much on just that as the main attraction but instead making Naivaa work with it and blend it in, instead of making it look as though I am forcing that issue where it has to just be a African or tribal. When people look at Naivaa I don’t want them to ask, ‘why does it have to be tribal?’ but, that they see that we managed to do this unique subtle or colorful design and it still managed to come out looking tribal.
ON WHERE FASHION MEETS COMMERCE
I’m not going to lie, I think the hype train is taking over a bit because I'm looking at some of the things in high-end fashion and i’m like… “I’d never wear that” or “That doesn’t even look good”, but I think what those designers are trying to show us is, to them, it’s more about relating to the people and reaching to what everyone else is feeling rather than what one percent of the population thinks is dope or what looks good. To them, it’s about what’s trending or what everyone is feeling at the moment but I don’t follow that philosophy. I make what OUR brand is feeling at that moment. My main priority is to make good quality products over simply just trying to make money over what’s trending. Take fanny packs for instance, they were trending, now I could make fanny packs but I won’t make them how other people are making them, I’ll make it different or I’ll make it after the fanny packs have died out because if I make a good piece even if the trend is dead, it will still be appealing.
ON STRIKING A BALANCE BETWEEN CREATIVITY AND ORGANIZATION
When I first started off, it was hectic.. I remember out of the percentage that I invested, I spent so much on production, that at the end, when I was doing my accounting, I realized I did it all wrong, but now, now that I've made those mistakes obviously i won’t do the same thing again, I’m approaching things differently. So now, when i’m not producing, i’m promoting. The promoting side isn’t as interesting to be honest, it can be fun sometimes but i prefer to be at the workshop making new stuff. I wish I could find someone who could do that other part, but nobody can do what i’m thinking, nobody can do it how i’m thinking it should be done, so while it’s possible to give away the business side, it’s difficult to give away control even a part of it so yeah, it’s been hard but slowly getting easier as you continue to make mistakes, you learn and it starts to get easier. As you create your brand, it’s a journey that you familiarize yourself with, because at the start I didn’t really know what it all involved and i’m still getting to know what Naivaa is all about even now and i’m the one who started it.
ON HIS CREATIVE SCHEDULE
It’s dynamic, it’s very dynamic. I can have a week set out purely for production but on the same week I can get hit up by someone who’s like, “I really want this hoodie” so I go out and make the delivery and at the same time. Also, when i’m working on a collection, I also come up with new ideas while i’m at the workshop and just make something entirely new all on the same day so it’s dynamic, it can change.
ON HIS BIGGEST CHALLENGE SINCE STARTING NAIVAA
Management. I realized that management is actually a big deal in terms of how to say manage your tailor and still be able to relate with your customers because you’re the same person who has to market, the same person who has to pay who for which service, so being able to manage all that and still manage your finances to break-even or make profits… it was beef. That was the hardest part and it still is. Being creative isn’t difficult, but the business side of things, when you’re losing money, YOU ARE losing money… you can’t hide from that.
ON BOUNCING BACK FROM FAILURES
For me, it’s reached a point where, if something doesn’t work, I try not to take it personally. Nowadays, it’s more of… it’ll come. That time will come, maybe someone will like something I made months ago and want it now… and that’s fine, sometimes it takes time.
ON WHAT NAIVAA’S MESSAGE IS
That’s tough to answer, because I’m the one making it but the vibe I would normally want to give, is someone feeling comfortable in Afro-Urban streetwear and having people be just as excited to rock the new Naivaa or local brand rather than feeling the need to rock international brands like the new Supreme or what not, you know? So yeah, that’s what we’re going for.
ON USING INSTAGRAM TO CONVEY NAIVAA’S MESSAGE
I think it’s both on me and also on the culture generally because it’s on me to convey Naivaa’s message but I can’t just be posting pictures and hoping people will see my vision. I also can’t be posting paragraphs for people to read, so I need to slowly blend those two, blend the message into my pictures, my videography, my previews…. to try to vibe with the people differently. That’s my biggest challenge for 2019 honestly. Before I used to post and hope I’ll just sell but nah, it doesn’t work like that. You have to include people, that’s why I’m starting to slowly include people in the process of releasing stuff. I would ask people if they would like to see this or when they would want me to drop this and people will engage, even if i’m only getting like 20 out of 1000 followers responding, it’s better than getting 100 likes and zero engagement.
ON BEING TRANSPARENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
I think it’s a bit of a risk, because you have to find a balance in between showing people what you’re doing, showing people how you do it and not revealing too much at the same time. You have to be smart about it but the whole point is, let the people see that they’re doing it with me not just… boom, end product, here it is… I hope you like it. Like, I aim to show that, we made this with you and this is the end result.
ON DEALING WITH INFLUENCER HYPE IN NAIROBI
I won’t mention any names but I've definitely had issues with influencers in the past. When I first started out, I thought it was an easy way to market and instead of having to create content, I was just thinking let me just post this on their page, hopefully I’ll get a thousand followers and a bunch of orders or something, but it doesn’t work like that. The cost of constant advertising on Facebook & Instagram is expensive so I thought let me find a middle ground. I recently worked with Wabosha and the response was phenomenal so, I look forward to working with similar people who share my vision and I can say that one was a positive. The thing is though, you can’t really tell who’s for real or not until you reach out and feel the vibe when you work with some of them, it’s basically like stepping into unknown territory.
ON NAIROBI AS AN INFLUENCE ON NAIVAA
The vibe, definitely, the vibe. I think I've gotten to know a lot more about Nairobi ever since I started Naivaa. The idea of what Nairobi was before compared to my perception of it now, there’s a lot going on. We don’t have to change how we do things for us to be considered international, so the whole point is integrating people into your thing, don’t change. I never feel like i have to change the image of Nairobi to suit other people, you know? A lot of things are happening, like the hip-hop culture, shout out to Prxnce, Bey T for example... people are becoming more confident and expressive and social media has been a huge influence on that progression.
ON NAIROBI’S FASHION SCENE IN THE FUTURE
I think the main issue we’re having with us guys who starting out brands is that it’s not going to be cheap, obviously because i’m using strong and quality material so it’s hard because I'm competing with the very growing thrift culture that’s coming up or that’s been around for a while already in Nairobi. And while the stuff that’s being made is good, at the end of the day, you know it’s not new, so while I'm not against it, I do think its a challenge for us guys creating new things from scratch with new material. But there’s definitely hope, because people are starting to appreciate brands like us, because support for new upcoming brands has been growing more & more recently.
ON HIS ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY SO FAR
There are tough times because at the end of the day you’re still thinking I need to make money but that’s only for a bit, because the satisfaction you get when you see people’s reactions… it’s priceless.