Welcome to Mia Mara part 1. The interview ended up in a lengthy interesting discussion. The first part is knowing about the brand and the founder/designer Lorna Abwonji, and her world of designing. The images used are her collection for the Kenya Fashion Awards 2017 show.
Yes! We are back. That was a long but necessary break. Now lets get right into it.
Tell us about yourself
Lorna is an artist basically, from the time she was a kid. An introverted artist, super introverted. Looking back at my journey, I think I doubted myself a lot. I was too tall for my age so I was really made fun of. My height right now is what I was in Primary, and then I stopped growing. It was a prayer item by the way. I was like God where do you want me to reach? It’s not funny I was really stressed out. Now am like huh short people. You finally caught up.
From the time I was a kid I loved animation, Disney. My dream was to work in Disney in animation.I consider myself a very good writer, my first art was writing. I still keep a journal. I have documented my whole life. Then I started drawing. I never thought I was good enough I thought if you are going to be good at drawing, it has to be from the onset.
A cousin of mine who was an architect used to do the drawings for me. Until one time he refused and I had to do it myself. I just did it to prove to him I could do it, he complimented me and turns out I was good. From then on I did it myself.
My sister wanted to be a fashion designer and I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t want to copy her. As time went by, in my teenage years I didn’t care about what I wore, or how I looked. Image didn’t bother me. But also I realized it felt good to be complimented. I was never really confident that I looked nice or that I was beautiful so I never cared about what I wore.
Tell us how you got into fashion and a back story of Mia Mara Creation
In my high school years I started sketching. Tony Braxton was the in thing, there is a dress she wore and because of the reaction, I thought that is what people liked. So I would sketch such outfits and show my dad and uncle. My uncle would be like “that can’t be worn everyday”
I didn’t understand wear ability. I started convincing my dad I want to start a fashion line. At that age I was just thinking I was going to be rich and famous.
I had to choose between writing and fashion. I chose to go with fashion. I used to wear granny clothes which were hideous. Kids my age didn’t have more fancy things to wear like today and parents were strict. I know I sound ancient but there was not that much freedom.
My mum didn’t believe in women wearing a trouser. I rebelled and my neighbor would give me some of her clothes. I started being aware of what I wore. I used to also sew doll dresses and practiced sewing; I actually made my own doll. My mum was a nurse but she knew how to sew and had a lot of fabrics and threads, which I used. My dad used to buy markers and such stuff for us but they were Lorna’s. Lol
I knew a bit of designing but didn’t know the practical side of it. Fine you have the sketch but how will that translate into a dress. After high school I went to study at Evelyn’s college.
So you knew you wanted to do fashion straight from high school?
Yes. A cousin told me I had to know how to sew to even make it easier for the tailor to know what I want. I failed my first pattern drafting class, most of us actually did. At that time I thought maybe this is not for me. But we were told to repeat because basically the whole class failed except for one person. My mind wasn’t comprehending but I later got it. Now I am so good at pattern drafting! That was a good lesson for me not to give up
Did you create Mia Mara immediately after your course?
I created Mia Mara in 2008. In that year I was REDDS African Fashion Design Awards [RAFDA] finalist. And I knew my name would be in the paper so I wanted it registered. I can say that was the official time because I have papers to prove it.
Mia Mara is a unique name. How did you settle on it?
My dad came up with the name. The first name I came up with was House of Diva. I have never seen my dad roll his eyes the way he did. There was no authenticity to it. Just imagine how limited I would have been if I had that name. One day my dad just came with name Mia Mara and I liked it. We added creations. As much as it’s a Luo word, meaning “give me mine” people don’t have a clue. I have fun with it.
Do you have any restrictions?
I don’t believe in putting myself in a box, like only working with certain fabrics. Fabric is dynamic, it’s art. You can’t restrict art. Sometimes being a signature designer works for others. For me it doesn’t because I approach fashion as art.
What I have been restricted to is the cotton, because of our country. People are not yet open for other creative outfits. Most clients want pencil, mermaid and the like. Very few want dramatic outfits. Most people just like to blend in.
I love print and color and lesos. I also love fabric manipulation. I get attracted to color or print. I can buy fabric on impulse buying without even knowing what I will do with it. AFA254 they said my designs were too bright.
Did you work with any designers after school, or you jump right into doing your own thing.
Designers at the time were not offering internships, and there were a few design houses. Plus you know when you are in college you just want to work with known designers because you think those are the ones who will help you. The truth is they are busy and have no time.
I used to buy magazines and try and make what I saw. I also made my own designs and people gave me a chance to make hideous designs for them. I say hideous because when I look back they were not as good. However at that time I was very proud, I appreciate people who gave me the chance.
What was your first show?
I was doing so many cheap things, but my first showcase was at Mamlaka Hill Chapel. Every two years they have an Art Fest. I was asked to showcase and for me I thought it was perfect since it was in church. I was excited about selling but I didn’t make any sales. It was a good experience. I showcased a lot of my college projects.
In 2009 we were paid for to showcase at Samantha’s bridal where my sister was working at the time Putting up bridal fair.. In 2010 there were not so many opportunities to showcase. FAFA had just started around that time, and even the slots for upcoming designers weren’t there.
How did that work for you being an upcoming designer?
I planned a showcase which got me into debt. One of the challenges at that time is that we didn’t have portfolios. So before the show, I organized a photo-shoot which designers were to pay for and it was a requirement if you wanted to participate in the show. All the designers paid upfront and I gave them the photos. I worked with Ben Kiruthi, who was also still an upcoming photographer.
The shoot was at the museum, I think I paid like 50k for the venue. I didn’t realize organizing a photoshoot was so hard until that day.
We were almost 20 designers with clothes to showcase using the same models. The photos were nice and helped the designers. Ben might cringe right now if he saw them but I will always be proud of them. The event was a success; African woman magazine did a feature on some designs. That meant the world.
So how did the debt come about?
With events you can’t predict the outcome. The challenge was the roads were being constructed so that morning, they dug the entrance and there was no signage. So people came and left because they couldn’t see the alternative entrance.
That affected the event turnout and most people missed out.
Also the people I had worked with during the first event had abandoned me. We had planned to do brochures of each designer and give guests. But it was too expensive and we scrapped it off. But they went ahead to do it and put it on my name.
That is why am hard on event organizers because of that experience. When I am participating I need to know the benefits. For my event at least designers had photos and the freedom to work with the photographer. The makeup was sponsored .
I wanted to do a second one but the first event really traumatized me. Models are not kind. Especially if you owe them money and they can ruin your reputation.
The mistake I did was that I tried to do another event 2 months later with the same models, and I got into more debt. It was 100k+ that was a lot. Coz what I did with the little money I got from the museum is make sure everyone got home.
The second event was just a big mistake.
I managed to get the money so I paid them.
Debt can really put someone down, how did you handle it?
I then went to work at a bookshop. My dad was like “what the hell is wrong with you” my mum passed away when I graduated from college. So my dad has been my support system. Even the other day when I was showcasing at KFA he called me and I felt really encouraged.
I needed to work, and earn money. I was depressed.
Later I got a job for a local fashion brand where I was later fired. The owner had friends who delayed with payments on their outfits so they complained to her when I asked for money citing I was rude. People should really support their friends. Buy; pay the full amount, it is wrong to play with people’s business. For me the only people who get free clothes are my dad and grandma. Even my sister insists on Paying the full amount.
However despite all that organizing that event helped to get into YALI [Young African Leaders Initiative]. I used it to apply for it.
Where Do You Get Your Materials?
For me everything is local. That way it’s even more affordable. And most of my clients come with their own fabrics except the ready to wear. For some reason, Kenyans always have fabrics.
As a designer, how do you pick your models?
I prefer to work with regular girls as a preference. I have not worked with models for a while since the Kenya Fashion Awards Event. The last time I really interacted with models apart from the fashion show is the Safari Fashion Runway.
What I don’t like about working with famous models is that they can take attention away from the clothes. That’s been my experience so far.
So you feel the focus shifts?
Yes, the focus is not on the dress. With models that are not well known, I will get the real feedback. Models have very big network of friends. I’d rather work with clients or regular people. I don’t like attention taken away from my dress. It’s very tricky. A lot of people don’t get that. I need to know how people respond to the dress.
All the platforms you have been part of, which one would you say is your favorite?
It attracts people who are actually fashion enthusiasts. The organizer Daniella is very professional. She takes good care of both models and designers
The backstage management is well organized. Each model has a rack. The ones I participated in training is done Dorothy Oliech and dance choreography is a collaboration with Sarakasi Dancers. It is very interesting. The designers collaborate on the music they want. I have seen people buying clothes right after the show.
I have not heard of it, Is the show still on?
Its no longer in Malindi. But Yes, they did one this year at Lord Erroll. I think I will showcase next year.
What was the inspiration behind the collection you did at Kenya Fashion Awards?
I used a lot of lines, colours and all that. I needed a net but couldn’t get it. I ended up using organza, which made me alter a lot of things I wanted to do. I wanted to do a weaving technique. You know how you have an idea in your head you can actually see it? But I had to make alterations.
It still came through. My collection was called linear perspective because objects and figures and space are re-created in a realistic manner through the use of intersecting lines drawn horizontally and vertically.
Was inspired from the election year Kenya has had. We tend to look at what divides us as Kenyans yet we should focus on the unifying factor which is what creates the beauty and cultural diversity that brings richness to our country. We cannot do without each other; we each have something to bring to the table
After independence we were so unified. This generation just fights blindly. So the collection was showing how we view things in one way doesn’t have to be tribal but that was my drive then. That is why the shoot has tribal lines. Maybe it will have another meaning another time coz we have religious, gender and class lines.
Is there a platform or show that you would like to be part of?
I used to dream about New York fashion week, but now am like if it happens fine, if it doesn’t it’s not the end of the world. I would rather know that my clothes are sold in US I mean stock other than just showcase. The fame thing just doesn’t cut it for me. I am happy for the designers whose fame is working for, but for me I stopped caring. Oh you are dressing that person? Good for you.
The only person I would dream of dressing is Michelle Obama. First lady or not.
Who do you target.
I would say the middle class. I don’t believe in over pricing clothes. I try and make it affordable. What I ask myself is if I was not a designer, would I afford my own designs. I use locally available fabric. I am intentional about my pricing. If I use an expensive fabric I will incorporate it in the design and explain to the client. I don’t relate to high end. I find it so discriminating, annoying and so niche. I like my clothes accessible. A lady who buys sweets saved and bought my design. That made really happy.
Everyone now wants to be a luxury brand. Yet I bump into them in river road.
If there is one thing you took from the Mandela Washington Fellow [MWF] in the Young African Leaders Imitative [YALI] program it is?
Meeting other Africans; Not even meeting Obama. My eyes were open the continent. The connection and the fellowship, there was a beauty to it. Two years I had zero connections in the continent and now we are like family. We still keep in touch, update each other on progress and hold each other accountable. There is a unity you can’t buy.
You mentioned mentiorship.
I do intentional mentorship. If I commit I will give you the best. I prefer working with serious people as well.
I hold bible study every week in church for young adults. I don’t fear millennials. I like one on one. I am passionate about discipleship. I won’t compromise my faith. Anything that touches my faith I don’t do it. I would like to reach out to more creatives. Art is wide and I don’t want to be boxed in. I am very open to expression as much as I have my core believes. Because of my work, it has given me an interaction with them. It is not my place to judge, my job is to love you as a person. Anything else is between you and God.
I remember Letoya told me he didn’t know I could talk to him. He heard I was too religious and strict. I got that reputation from the house during reality show. I reported someone who googled designs and it wasn’t handled well.
Some young people however feel am not good enough because I work from home. They want a shop. They don’t realize that in smaller shops you learn a lot as opposed to establish brands which are busy. For me I will be more relatable to you.
Speaking of which, you have been in the industry for a while. How comes you work from home.
I had a shop and closed it. The shop was in Jahmuri. Most times they would bring clothes to adjust, and it took so much of my time. The clients I have prefer coming to my place, and some I go to. So I decided to close it.
I sell on jumia and my site. Online is cheapest and easier. E commerce is the future.
What has propelled your success thus far?
God, my dad, and my sister’s support. Family support is important. I don’t take it for granted. My sister taught me how to use applications CANVA and many other useful tools. My brothers push me too and support me in various ways. Friends have been good as well still supporting. And of course my clients.
Are you working on any projects?
There are few collaborations that people have come to me for, I feel honored that they came to me so am looking to do more collaborative work. I am also looking to really selling my designs. Proof of appreciation is someone buying your work.
What advice would you give to aspiring fashion designers?
Find a support system and know how to sew
What mantra do you live by?
If you can perceive you can achieve.
Models: Pauline Ken,Rebecca,Jebet, Valerie, Winrose
MIA MARA CREATIONS