By Elaine Pirozzi
Chepkemboi Mang’ira has always had a passion for fashion. Even as a young child growing up in Kenya, she knew that fashion would somehow play a role in whatever career she chose. “When I was ten, my parents brought home a book on ancient Egypt. I was mesmerized by it and swore I’d become an archeologist — but of course a very fashionable one,” she laughs. While she no longer plans to become a Fashionable Archeologist, she has found a way to marry her fascination of ancient cultures and artifacts with her love of fashion. And, in most respects, fashion has indeed influenced every choice she’s made.
After high school, Chepkemboi and some of her friends signed on with a modeling agency, which seemed like the most glamorous avenue to fashion, but she was told she was not light-skinned enough to get much work. Undeterred, she vowed to find another way. Later that year, “after much pressure from my parents,” she applied at the University of Nairobi to study media, which she surmised might be useful in the fashion industry. About halfway through her Media and Journalism Studies degree, which she completed in 2013, she began writing a fashion blog called Miss Vavavum.
“I began Miss Vavavum just for fun really, but soon I was getting actual payment offers for different services through it. So I took it a step further and decided to register the blog and turn it into a business.”
The services she provides include fashion styling, fashion research, and fashion writing, among other things. “I work with brands to ensure that their fashion sense in is line with the overall vision they want to achieve. I’m able to create strategies for my clients, as well as link them to key individuals in the fashion industry through my own contact list that I’ve built over the years.” Her clients have included a Kenyan musician, a skin care company, fashion magazines, event planners, TV production houses, and publicists. As she worked to build the audience and client list for Miss Vavavum, she also continued to be employed in a wide variety of different capacities, determined to learn as much as she could before striking out completely on her own.
“Ever since President Obama came to Kenya and publicly declared that we ought to support women, there has been a positive attitude towards women in business. Of course there are barriers that still remain. Women-owned businesses are still sometimes looked down upon.”
It was this momentum, along with her long-ago interest in archeology and ancient cultures, that lead her to her next big endeavor, #OwnYourCulture, which she started in 2015. #OwnYourCulture is an online movement that aims to discover, preserve, and promote traditional Kenyan jewelry and wearable artifacts. When Chepkemboi first got the idea for the movement, she did some research, including going to museums and cultural centers to study jewelry from Kenyan tribes. She discovered over 40 distinct types of intricately designed traditional jewelry, which she believed could still be relevant to today’s fashion. She also found that relatively few artisans are still creating these pieces today.
“#OwnYourCulture seeks to restructure what fashion is to African people and go beyond the more familiar prints and fabrics to look at our ornaments, which are equally timeless and equally spectacular. I have different artisans across East Africa that I am working with to bring back these pieces.”
#OwnYourCulture operates primarily through the highly visual platform of Instagram. It can also be found on Twitter, as well as Chepkemboi’s website, OwnYourCultureAfrica. To participate, each person pairs a traditional African ornamental piece with contemporary clothes. They photograph the result and post their photos to the Instagram account. Chepkemboi explains, “I began the #OwnYourCulture movement eight months ago. It has since exploded and is spreading to other African nations. It’s from this that my team and I are creating some exciting projects for each part of the continent.” She also curates and sell various traditional pieces on her website, as well as offering styling services with the #OwnYourCulture theme as well.
When asked her favorite parts of running a business, it is hardly surprising that Chepkemboi cites those aspects that are highly creative. “My favorite part of my work is planning shoots, writing, designing pieces, and of course getting paid for it.” Her least favorite? “Doing accounts. I never saw the use for keeping track of spending before, but now I know I must account for each and every shilling I spend.”
Chepkemboi cites many role models and believes that, overall, this is a good time to be a woman in business in Kenya. “Ever since President Obama came to Kenya and publicly declared that we ought to support women, there has been a positive attitude towards women in business. Of course there are barriers that still remain. Women-owned businesses are still sometimes looked down upon.”
But she remains grateful for the presence and influence of so many women in her industry. “I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with thriving creative businesses run by young women, to sit with and learn from them. My earlier work experience really helped me be where I am today. I am constantly grateful to my younger self for seeking out jobs with such phenomenal women.”
No surprise, then, that she considers many of these women to be role models, and she seizes upon every opportunity to learn as much as she can from them. “My role models include the editors at Vogue magazine, fashion directors and stylists, and fashion writers. I follow them on social media to keep myself inspired. Every day I discover new powerful African women; I am still identifying them as I go!”
At just 23 years old, Chepkemboi is already able to reflect on her business experience and the role she’s created for herself. “With my consultancy, it has grown fairly well, in that it emerged as a side business while I was in formal employment. As for #OwnYourCulture, I’ve just been learning as I go because this started out of curiosity and something I was doing for fun. It has since grown into a viable business, but I’m still learning every day. I am inherently a very self-disciplined and focused person, and I never give up on my passions. I think this persistence has really helped me. In the end, though, it’s not about the success or failures but who I have become as a person, and what I am capable of achieving.”
Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington, DC.