Saturday, November 22, 2014

A fashion feast - with Pat Mbela

Last week I had hoped we would watch Indochine because I wanted the class to see a classic movie with the iconic Catherine Deneuve. Unfortunately the shop where I borrow DVDs and where I was sure I would get the movie didn't have it, so I settled for us watching Coco before Chanel with Audrey Tautou.

Which was just as well, because it provided a good background to today's discussion on the French fashion industry. I had sent the students the first chapter of Noel Palomo-Levinski's book The World's Most Influential Fashion Designers, which captures the history of early 20th Century European designers like Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel. The book does a good job of tracing the evolution of fashion from the days of couturiers for the nobility to the pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) industry of today, as well as how early designers inspired the latter day ones.

For me, the two most important things to note were the impact of the revolution on the fashion industry, in that even fashion got democratized (if only slightly) and no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, and that synergy between fashion designers like Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent and painters like Picasso and Matisse. Third was the role of Paris as a city of the arts in inspiring creativity.

What is the situation in Kenya?

I was privileged to get connected to Pat Mbela of the Poisa Fashion label. We have been friends on facebook and I love her work, especially because she uses bold colors and East African-rooted bead jewelry. The plan was to look at her work before making the call to discuss her thoughts on the fashion industry. But time wasnt enough.

But the discussion was still fun. Pat took us through the history of the industry from the 80s when a handful of designers would showcase their work at Serena as people were having lunch, to now where there are fashion markets and more opportunities to show case work like at the Swahili fashion week and FAFA. What was so impressive is Pat's professionalism, her determination to hold Kenyan fashion design at international standards. She also talked of Joy Mboya's role in gathering artists of different genres at the Go-Down together, and her experience doing the Kenya Airways cabin crew uniform and showcasing her work in different cities of the world. While we celebrated the milestones in Kenyan fashion, we also talked of the limited support that Kenyan fashion design gets from government in terms of an enabling environment and from the Kenyan public who still don't understand the difference between professional design and tailoring. Many Kenyans also prefer mitumba and don't consider African designs like kitenge suitable for the office wear.

After the conversation with Pat, I told the class that if there's anything they should get out of the discussion, it's that well done clothes are worth their investment. One of our guests, Sheila Obilo, is now dressmaking, which was great because we now discussed the intricacies of well-finished clothes like good cuts, darts, lining and invisible hems, which are often missing from locally made clothes because customers don't want to pay for good finish and fitting.

(left to right: Maya, Bonaventure, Nina and Sheila)
If there's something that the French have done well, it is to elevate their cultural expressions such as clothes and food (next week we sample French cuisine, or gastronomy) into art, and the world has embraced it as well. As Maya says, we Kenyans also need to experiment more, especially in food and clothes. And Pat Mbela is one Kenyan who does that. And beautifully too.

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