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Young Kenya designer basks in a New York spotlight

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NEW YORK—Katungulu Mwendwa knew she wanted to be a fashion designer ever since the day she took the scissors to her mother’s wardrobe.

“I think I did that to her wedding evening dress,” said the 24-year-old from Nairobi, recalling her childhood. “I’m not sure she was very happy about that one—but here I am in New York, so she can’t complain.”

In a career breakthrough, Mwendwa was the lone African invited to join the GenArt Fresh Faces in Fashion showcase for up-and-coming designers during the recent New York fashion week.

In its 14 years, the event has been a springboard for the likes of Zac Posen, Phillip Lim, and Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy—and Mwendwa is no less ambitious.

She brought to New York a capsule collection of 10 outfits with light flowing silhouettes and generous cowl necks inspired by the Tuareg desert nomads of north Africa.

“Showing in New York was something adventurous,” she told AFP before flying back home to Nairobi, where she is hard at work establishing her own label. “It was a learning experience.”

It was her first time in North America’s fashion capital, and she fitted right in, sporting one of her own tailored oversized T-shirts with a billowing scarf, silver bangles and a pendant styled from a Kenyan tribal smoking pipe.

Mwendwa’s first steps in fashion came in 2007 when, not long out of high school, she entered “Catwalk Kenya,” a reality TV design competition, and surprised herself.

“I actually won, competing against other people who had (university) degrees,” she said. “That was nerve-wracking and scary.”

She went on to appear on the “Idols East Africa” talent show, then headed to the University for the Creative Arts in southeast England for three years to hone her design skills.

Returning to Kenya with a bachelor’s degree, she spent three months at Lalesso, the ethical fashion label launched by expat entrepreneurs Olivia Kennaway and Alice Heusser.

“Of course I remember Katungulu. She was an absolute pleasure to have as a part of the team,” Kennaway told AFP by email, praising her “enthusiasm and natural flair for fashion.”

From there, Mwendwa struck out on her own — and won another contest.

That was a GenArt event for local designers that she only heard about the night before. Luckily, she had just finished her latest collection, and while there was no time to panic, there was a sense of deja vu.

“I think I was the least experienced designer there, and also the youngest,” she said. “That was scary because they (the other contestants) were so organized, they had whole teams, and I was just by myself.”

“The event showcased seven emerging designers in Kenya,” said Jenna Duncalf, who oversees GenArt’s fashion programs. “It was an amazing experience that we would love to continue in the future.”

Mwendwa still feels as if she’s flying solo. Finding skilled garment workers in Kenya is tough, for instance, so Mwendwa often finds herself sitting at the sewing machine herself, on top of designing and marketing chores.

“Trying to get people to believe in you, to want to work with you, it’s kind of difficult” for a designer who is both young and female, she said.

But she’s making headway: conventional and online boutiques in Kenya are taking on her creations. And in her first month back in Nairobi she has had a lot more requests for her work, she reported in an email.

She’s also busy researching her next collection and preparing for a Fashion and Music Without Boundaries festival that will bring talent from across Africa to the Kenyan beach town of Diani in December.


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