Anyango Mpinga designs clothes. That is a simple way of putting it.
In 2015, she founded the Contemporary Sustainable brand reminiscent of white shirts, bold prints, unconventional style, partly male and partly female in aesthetics. Her style is reminiscent of the Romantic Victorian age while maintaining a sophisticated boyish edge. Currently, she is on the quest to create biodegradable textiles.
She founded Free As A Human Foundation, a non-profit organisation that raises awareness on human trafficking and the economic injustices that occur in the fashion supply chain and consumer sectors that exploit workers.
Jackson Biko chatted with her via Zoom from London.
When did this love affair with clothes start?
At the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. I studied social communication. It’s in university that I was discovered my sense of style; buying second-hand clothes and selling them. I would buy clothes and convert them into what I wanted them to look like.
As a child, my version of playing with fashion was making doll clothes by hand. [Chuckles] My mom had a sewing kit in the house with different colour threads and needles. Then there was the TV show, The Bold and the Beautiful…so I think it was kind of a journey. But my intention was never to get into fashion. I did it for fun.
After working in communication, I decided, maybe I can do this because people were telling me I was good at it.
Do you think you’re a good fashion designer?
I think I’m an awesome designer. It’s not just thinking, I believe so. And here’s why; I’m happy with what I create. There’s an aesthetic that I want for my fashion, it’s not going to be for everybody, and I don’t expect it to be for everybody because if my work is for everyone then I’m doing something wrong. It means I’m not being authentic.
I saw a nice orange dress on your website. It’s called the Rosa Orange Silk printed maxi shirt dress. It’s going for about Sh120,000…
[Laughs] I love that you converted it to Kenya shillings. It puts things into perspective.
Describe this lady you design for. Who would buy this dress?
I’m designing for an affluent lady. On average, upper contemporary clothing by a global designer brand is priced in that range. Ultra-luxury clothes will start at about Sh300,000 and above. I design for a sophisticated woman, well-travelled, who loves authentic products, and she is also buying because of the sustainability aspect of my production and the materials. She is buying from me because it is an alternative to what is available on a mass scale.
Do you exclusively live off fashion design or do you have some M-Pesa shops back here?
[Laughs] Honestly, after last year, I wished I had an M-Pesa shop. Even now, I really wish I had an M-Pesa shop. [Laughs] Because, there was a period last year when I had zero income, living in a foreign country and trying to run a business.
I had to call on friends, and I’m not even ashamed of it. Some friends weren’t in the country because of lockdowns and they were like ‘just stay at my place for a few months, I got you.’ I had to go back to the drawing board and assess my life. But I also do a lot of collaborations, some of them won’t like to be publicly promoted until the project is finalised. I also do consultancies.
What’s your quirkiness as an artist; are you broody or impulsive? Are you prone to throwing the tailoring machine out of the window?
[Laughs loudly] I can say I’m a recluse, that’s my quirk. But I’m friendly, I find it very easy to talk to people and socialise, but I can spend a lot of time on my own without thinking there’s anything wrong with it, or without being affected by not being around a lot of people.
What kind of relationship do you have with silence?
I love silence. Silence is peace. There’s a lot of freedom in silence. I’m very comfortable with silence. It’s a sense of freedom in itself.
What are you most insecure about currently?
Not being financially where I’d like to be. That comes with running a business by myself, without solid financial backing.
The running joke is that to be in fashion you have to come from a rich family or marry into wealth. It’s either-or. Because there’s a lot of money you need to spend before you start making it.
Do you think you have made it as a designer or are you making it?
I am doing great. This is why I pat myself on the back. When I look back at how far I’ve come and what I’ve been able to achieve, I’m doing fantastic. There’s nothing anybody can tell me to put me down because I know the challenges I’ve had to overcome, and still overcoming.
But they’re not constant. The only constant thing is change. It’s like winning a Grammy Award, you win a Grammy today, and then tomorrow you win like 10 Grammy’s. That’s like another level of making it. So yeah, I feel I’m doing well.
Who in your family is a sharp dresser? Your dad or your mom?
Mother for sure. My mom was a travel agent, she is long retired now. My grandfather had a curios shop and so she and my aunties would buy stuff and then go sell it in the US or Germany. I remember her telling me her stories about travelling in Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. It wasn’t easy because everybody was like three black women! What are they doing here? What are selling things to us?
What’s your creative process like; do you prowl around the room mumbling to yourself looking for ideas?
Yeah! Most of the time, I have group meetings with myself and my alter ego. [Laughs]. Sometimes it helps when you can speak your ideas out loud. When you hear yourself speak, you can hear how ridiculous something is, or how much something is going to work.
But when designing, I look at the world and the themes. I look at old photos of places that I visited.
For instance, last year I was designing the latest collection called The Pupil. I was designing racism. In terms of the prints, I looked at photos that I had taken in Lamu, thinking of Swahili architecture as a source of inspiration for the prints.
Is there pressure to leave the house because you’re Anyango Mpinga, a renowned fashion designer? Because people will judge how you are dressed.
No. It was different back in Nairobi because a lot more people would recognise me, even going to the shops would just be different. But being in the UK is a totally different dynamic because I’m in a new neighbourhood. I’m not as recognisable as I would be in Kenya, and quite frankly I value my comfort.
I am not married.
What would you wear to your wedding?
I would probably wear a shirt. [Chuckles] And brogues. A white shirt dress, even if it was one of those quirky ones with buttons coming out of the waist. So it would take a very special kind of man who is not tied to traditional dresses to be like ‘I can see that, I can roll with that.’
On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you right now?
Definitely an 8. (Chuckles)