Ann McCreath has spent the last 25 years building her Kenya-based unisex label KikoRomeo into one of the most innovative fashion brands on the African continent. Born in Scotland, to a Scottish father and South African mother, McCreath grew up as a curious child who stood out to others. “I’ve always been an activist,” she tells Industrie Africa, even though her activism sometimes makes her a victim of criticism. In the early 90s while living in Barcelona, McCreath resigned as a designer at global retailer Mango after what she describes as an unethical task demanded of her by the company, requiring her to cancel orders and not pay for delivered stock. That experience and the socio-economic issues she saw while on a three-month assignment with Doctors Without Borders to Kenya in 1992 motivated her to launch her label as a way to create job opportunities for the local community. “I was frustrated with emergency aid because I realized that the real problem was underdevelopment,” she explains. “That is why I decided to set up my business and work with female artisans and pay them fairly.”
KikoRomeo SS’20. Photo: Courtesy of KikoRomeo
KikoRomeo SS’20. Photo: Courtesy of KikoRomeo
KikoRomeo SS’21. Photo: via @kikoromeo
For 59-year-old McCreath, the goal has always been to use fashion as a platform for economic and social development. Over the years, her label has built a proudly-Made-in-Kenya reputation and diverse following with its artsy hand-painted details, lush handwoven fabrics, impeccable tailoring, and the couture-like approach that informs her designs. Her solid technical abilities and high-level craftsmanship are skills she acquired from her fashion diploma studies at KOEFIA Fashion Academy in Italy and from decades of industry experience that began in Europe. “When I started, there were very few labels that made locally produced alternatives to the suit”, she points out. Back in 1996 when she launched, her label was one of a handful of retailers selling workwear made in traditional fabrics and inspired by Kenya.
McCreath attributes her longevity and success to her curious nature and youthful spirit. “I sense what’s coming next. A lot of it is intuition and I’m very young at heart,” she admits. “One of the blessings of working in fashion,” she says, “[is that] I’m constantly interacting with the youth and that enables me to stay connected with what younger people want.”
Ann McCreath at work. Photo: Courtesy of Ann McCreath
Her biggest lessons, she explains, include having a good accountant who’s knowledgeable about the fashion industry, paying particular attention to financial management, and taking the time to be present and involved in the day-to-today business activities. She speaks from a particular experience in which some of her employees embezzled company funds. Something her brand is still recovering from, she reveals.
Now working with her daughter Iona McCreath, who has taken the role of creative director, the brand is looking to expand its product range with a newer and more affordable line made from recycled clothing. “It’s long overdue”, McCreath insists. “Right now, we are looking at upcycling second-hand clothing.” The label's new collection, which will be unveiled at Lagos Fashion Week’s digital showcase, Woven Threads this week is crafted from repurposed linen curtains. “We plan to roll out something that can let a wider audience experience Kiko Romeo and that is conscious and sustainable from the point of reusing second hand clothing as a primary material. It’s something I encourage designers to do because it’s also very profitable,” she adds.
These days, McCreath splits her time between managing production at Kiko Romeo and teaching and mentoring up-and-coming female entrepreneurs and fashion designers via the International Trade Centre's She Trades and Mitreeki Fashion Incubator Program, two platforms aimed at educating and supporting women-led businesses and fashion designers on the continent.
Ann McCreath’s next steps are to propel her brand to new heights so it reaches its fullest potential. Her biggest and perhaps most ambitious goal yet is to expand her brand globally and to create a legacy that will live on long after she’s gone, and that means selling a stake in her company.
Below, Ann McCreath shares her four-step guide to creating a sustainable fashion business.
know your brand (DISCOVER WHO YOU ARE)
Discover your unique combination of experiences from childhood to where you are right now, combine that with the skills you’ve learned and the people you’ve met. Find out what you are good at and what you are passionate about. All these form the positioning and setting of a brand.
design a cohesive collection
Research a collection so that everything relates in some way to a theme. A lot of fashion schools in Africa have been established out of a tradition of custom-made clothing where everyone wants something different so they learn to sew and cut well but then the design is up to the individuals. There’s a lot of incredible designers but they fail to present their work as a cohesive collection. It’s important to do research and create a moodboard to work and unify a collection.
cost and price
Costing and pricing are critical. A lot of designers are afraid to charge what they are worth. Price everything including your time and cutting of patterns. I think designers get bullied into selling cheaper instead of telling our stories to justify the price.
We have to understand that fashion is a three business industry. Whether you’re a Pinterest designer who finds inspiration from the platform or someone who researches from scratch, both design processes have a price. That time needs to be valued and paid for.
Next is the manufacturing business which includes time used in processing raw materials, producing in different sizes, and the cost of fabric. This process also has its mark-ups. In my experience, the cost of the manufacturing process is multiplied by between 2 to 2.5 to get the wholesale price, and the wholesale price is multiplied by between 2 to 2.7 to arrive at a retail price. This allows the designer, factory, and retail shop to make their profit margins.
Most African countries don’t have a formal fashion structure so designers do everything including selling directly to the consumer. Designers often get pushed into selling their products at wholesale price, which is not sustainable as it doesn't take into account the cost of running and marketing a retail shop. If you’re a designer selling directly to the consumer you should be selling at a minimum of four times the cost of manufacturing, otherwise it’s not profitable. If you want to sell cheaper, bring your production costs down.
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