Welcome back from summer! We’re kicking off the season with a story from my friend Angela. After seeing her Facebook posts of the beautiful dresses she had made in Nairobi where she lives, I asked her if there was a story behind the dresses and, of course, there was. Angela and I met when I was her RA in her freshman year of college. It didn’t take long before I felt like she was a member of my family, but anyone who meets Angela could be similarly lucky. Angela happens to be open to the world in a way that I’ve rarely encountered and because of that, she has a way of making deep friendships wherever she goes. (Did I mention that she is also an award-winning jazz singer?). So from Angela, here’s the story of the dresses and how she came to make the switch from discount shopping to made-to-order clothing. – Rebecca
My 62-year-old mother is more stylish than I am. In primary school, I was known as “Gap Girl” because my mom bought all my clothes (from the sales rack) at Gap Kids. Somehow she managed to pull together a great wardrobe at a bargain price. By the time I was in high school, Mom had discovered discount stores like Ross. My family nicknamed her “Ross Pro” because she would dig through the store’s overwhelming clothes racks and always triumphantly pull out the best designer pieces going for about 10% of the original retail price. In short, I never had to shop for myself until college when I moved out of my parent’s house in Honolulu to Washington, DC. Even once I moved out, I barely found time to go shopping between studying, studying, and studying. My biggest clothes purchases still occurred when Mom was visiting and escorted me to Ross or her new favorite, Marshalls.
But after graduation, when I moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi, Kenya on a research fellowship, my shopping habits changed and I had to wean myself off of Mom’s help. No longer could she send me pieces from a recent snag at her discount favorites (Not only because it usually takes months or even a year to arrive, but the postal system in Nairobi also has a way of losing things…).
So when I first arrived in 2010, I checked out Nairobi’s shopping malls but quickly realized they are full of imported, over-priced and poor quality products from the Middle East and China. Next, I tried the second- and third-hand clothing markets. Those were better and reminded me a little of the discount store experience – digging through bins of clothes and never seeing the same thing twice. But eventually I tired of that too and resigned to wearing the same clothes until my annual trip home when Mom would take me shopping.
Fortunately, on one fateful day in March last year, my clothes shopping habits changed forever. I met Mumbi. Mumbi is a talkative, hard-working Kenyan lady always up for a design challenge. She’s probably in her late forties/early fifties with an energy and joy for her job that’s rare to find anywhere in the world. Mumbi has been in the same cozy studio for the past 30 years, tucked away on the fourth floor of an old building in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the bustling heart of the capital city.
I was first escorted to Mumbi’s studio by one of my AirBnB guests who loved fabric and had been recommended to Mumbi by the owner of a nearby fabric shop. “She’s really great!” my guest gushed. After previous lukewarm attempts to have clothes made by fundis (tailors), I was skeptical. “Alright, well, let’s try.” I acquiesced. Before we left, we sketched out some ideas. I look for inspiration online as I am not the kind of person who wakes up dreaming of the ideal dress I want. Then, we stopped at Biashara Street (Swahili for “Business Street”) where Indian-owned shops boasting all types of fabrics are conveniently located next to one another. After picking through vibrant shades of blues, greens, oranges, we settle on a few that fit our design ideas.
“I love a challenge,” Mumbi always tells me. Once I asked her why she didn’t save the drawings or photos of her past work in a portfolio so future clients could peruse through and choose what designs they wanted. “That’s boring! I never like doing the same design twice. I want to have new challenges,” she exclaimed. That’s why Mumbi and I get along, I guess – I keep her on her toes with my ‘new-fangled’ designs and Pinterest-inspired photos. My clothes hang next to children’s Dalmatian costumes, traditional African attire, curtains and pillowcases. I’ve learned to never be surprised at what I might find Mumbi working on when I visit her.
Mom still picks up clothes for me periodically, when she finds a deal is just too good to refuse. She saves them for me until my annual visit home to Hawaii. My husband is now also the lucky recipient of such clothing purchases by Mom and looks forward to her latest finds. That said, nowadays, it’s a reciprocal exchange: I also bring home custom-designed and tailor-made clothes by Mumbi (with some design input from yours truly), with love from Nairobi to Hawaii.
**If you are in Nairobi and need a new outfit, you can contact Mumbi directly at +254 724306117.