A Fashionable Journey - Kenya

My recent exploration of the Republic of Kenya included discovering what the country had to offer in the way of Fashion. When I travel, I am always searching for Fashion as it is inescapable element of our lives. You see, I truly believe that Fashion lives everywhere and I have to say that NairobiKenya did not disappoint; it is a city alive and full of constant movement. The first stop on our tour, the City Market located in the heart of Nairobi.

Housed inside of a large concrete warehouse, you can purchase everything from flowers to traditional fabrics and decorative ornaments. All of the shops and stalls are ran by rather friendly salesmen who are more than happy to engage you in polite conversation and walk you through their available wares. This place is full of all the typical items one might find at a market, but I, I was on the hunt for jewelry. My love for Fashion means that I can easily spend hours scouring markets and sifting through merchandise until I find that one special piece to take home. In this case, I found five.

Located in the back of a small shop on the first floor, I came across a selection of curios and jewelry made from malachite, a green mineral that gets its name due to its resemblance of the leaves of the Mallow plant. The eye catching stone is typically mined in parts of Central Africa and represents itself in beautiful bands of greens. On a lower shelf, I found an assortment of brass and malachite bangles. I began to try some on to find the perfect ones for me. Upon close inspection, I realized that they were all handmade and no two were just alike; they all varied slightly in color and size. While they were all lovely I found that some slid around my wrist easily, but others simply wouldn't budge. After a few minutes, I had selected a few pieces that were just my size. As I contemplated how many I wanted to take home, I successfully negotiated a fair price for the trinkets. As with every fashionable purchase, I wanted these bangles to have meaning and their own personal story. I decided I would buy five.

Africa has what they call the Big Five, a term referring to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. They are the African Elephant, the Lion, the Cape Buffalo, the Leopard, and the Rhinoceros. While I have no desire to hunt large, wild animals, I am always up for hunting jewelry. Upon entering that building, I stealthily assessed my surroundings, laid patiently in wait, and struck when the time was right. I conquered my big game and my prize: five stunning brass and malachite bracelets.

Our next stop, the famous Masai Market
This vibrant, open air market was located near a popular shopping center in Nairobi city. Not only was this market filled with local artisans displaying their colorful wares, it was also filled with an incredibly warm energy that made for a perfect shopping day. Amongst the dirt rows of fabrics, baskets, and home wares laid out on blankets, I encountered people from all over the globe. A little bit of conversation led to the realization that they were all there seeking the same thing I was, a fashionable adventure. 
I walked away with a mirror with a wooden frame made from trees of Mount Kenya, a green sandstone elephant for my desk, and a traditional tartan shuka. An elegant woman who had travelled from Central Kenya to sell her goods took the time to show me how to properly wrap and tie the shuka around one shoulder and then my waist. The shuka is a staple of the wardrobe traditionally worn by both men and women in the Masai community. The large wraps vary in color and pattern, but with the saleswoman's help, I selected a popular blue and red checkered pattern. I plan to use it for either a beach cover up or as a wrap for a chilly day. This piece will always remind me of that market on that sunny day. The gorgeous woman who assisted me may not be able to recall my face, but she will forever be apart of this shopping story. 

On day three we travelled to Thika, a small town located about 30 minutes outside of Nairobi. Along a dirt road stands a small college called the Uzuri Institute. While the college offers a range of a academic courses, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to find they also offered Fashion Design. I politely asked the professor if I could take a peek into her class. Inside, I observed students sketching and constructing garments on classic Singer sewing machines. The two small concrete rooms that comprised the design program were filled with bust forms for draping and other common tools of the trade. I noticed they were working on some of the same things I learned during my first year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I studied the craft in New York City and these students were learning in Kenya, but our goals were the same. Fashion is a universal language. One that can be translated in sketches and patterns. 

Although Kenya is a nation struggling to change its future for the better, the spirit of fashion is alive and well. I felt it while I was there and truly believe, without a doubt, that fashion lives everywhere. Even in the small town of Thika. 

On our last day in Kenya, we travelled almost 3 hours into Central Kenya to visit a Masai village. The Masai are a semi-nomadic people who have proudly retained their distinctive age old customs and traditional dress. The tribes often adorn themselves in colorful jewelry that the Masai women regularly weave and bead. Their colorful attire and accessories have meaning and are used to establish their place in the tribe. This particular Masai family welcomed us into their surprisingly spacious homes and were gracious enough to give us a tour. I spent some time playing with the many small children who lived there and taking in their culture. Unfortunately, this tribe was less than keen to be photographed.

We were giving thanks and saying our goodbyes when I was approached by the eldest of the four wives. Our driver translated for me. "She wants to know if you want jewelry." For a moment, I was taken aback. Of course I wanted jewelry! She ducked into her mud hut to retrieve the items and came out with four different pieces. I tried them all on, but ultimately selected a multi colored beaded necklace with a silver disk in the middle. The twine used to hold the necklace together showed signs of wear and it smelled of her smoky hut. I realized I wasn't going to find anything more authentic than that. I thought to myself, how extraordinary that she didn't speak English and I don't speak Kiswahili, but in the middle of a dusty desert we were able to forge a bond over jewelry. She and I live very different lifestyles thousands of miles apart, but because we both spoke the language of fashion, we were able to communicate.

In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to have traveled to several countries all over the world. Kenya by far was truly a place like no other. With most places I visit one would expect to find fashion and fancy shopping centers, but the Republic of Kenya unveiled to me a different and unexpected journey. The country offered me more than I could have ever imagined. Most importantly, I learned that in my absolute Love for Fashion, I am certainly not alone.

Fashion lives everywhere.