The formidable Maasai tribe have long been known as tall and fierce warriors, but they have recently also become unlikely fashion icons.
A Kenyan clothing label has taken inspiration from the patterns of the traditional Maasai shuka, a cloth usually worn wrapped around the body, to produce clothes and accessories in vibrant tribal prints.
Nairobi-based Wan Fam Clothing
was founded by brothers Jeff and Emmanuel Wanjala -- the sibling duo say they want to pay homage to Kenya's Maasai culture by turning a traditional garment into fashionable urban wear.
"Our dominant fabric is usually Maasai shuka," says Jeff Wanjala. "It's very ideal because it has like a signature for Africa -- you can just see it and notice that this is our brand."
The two brothers think time is right for Kenyan and other African designers to start looking inward and exploring their own heritage.
"The demand for local products has actually gone up," says Jeff Wanjala. "People are trying to get more African products, so that means it is actually a big market for local designers," he adds.
The brothers tried to tap into that demand for authenticity by launching a collection called 1963, commemorating 50 years of Kenya's independence. They read the consumer mood correctly, and their move resulted an astounding success:
Wan Fam Clothing makes urban garments inspired by traditional Maasai cloth called shuka. Credit: Courtesy Wan Fam Clothing
"This was one of the best sales we ever had. We had launched it on a Friday and by Monday we had sold like half the collection," Jeff Wanjala says.
The brand, which launched in 2009, says it sells up to 100 units a month, with bags carrying a price tag of $18 and jackets $29. Their success has, however, brought them to the attention of copycats:
"Once you make a good product, automatically people start coming in, so the new clients start thinking that you are actually the one imitating the products," says Jeff Wanjala, but adds that in spite of that challenge the company is making a profit. "Once you create a good product, you create demand," he says.
Wan Fam Clothing is just one in a string of African brands who have shunned imported aesthetic to focus on their own heritage for inspiration. South African knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo
creates menswear which incorporates visual motifs of his own Xhosa heritage, and Rwandan jewelery maker Teta Isibo
creates handmade pieces which fuse traditional local craftsmanship with contemporary bold designs.
Jeff Wanjala offers a piece of advice for inspiring entrepreneurs looking to start a new company:
"I would tell anyone who wants to start a local brand, don't compromise on quality. That's number one. And don't give up on whatever you love doing. Just do what you love and the rest will follow," he says.