What’s most impressive about Wanjiku Nyoike-Mugo, of course apart from how smart she is (and I’m telling you she is smart), is how super organised and driven she is. In 2011, before starting her job at the UN, she had already written down the name of the store that she dreamed of owning. It’s now 2017 and she is the owner of The Designers Studio, a fashion store in the newly opened Two Rivers Mall situated in Nairobi’s upmarket Gigiri neighbourhood. The shop stocks a wide range of local designers including; Adele Dejak, Nawalika, Le Collane di Betta, Canvas and Kangas, Akinyi Odongo, Deepa Dosaja, Urban Artefacts, Penny Winters, Njema Helena, Ikojn, Kooroo and Drop of a Hat. She may have started out as a Kenyan blogger but the brick and mortar shop was always part of her plan.
“I felt that business would contribute more to the economy I would I feel that I would be doing more rather than just pushing paper in the UN and I had always wanted to start a shop where we sold Kenyan stuff!” she says.
Wanjiku who pursued higher education in South Africa says that one of her main inspirations was the South African fashion store, The Young Designers Emporium (YDE) which sold clothing made by emerging South African designers thus giving them a platform to sell their clothing to South Africans.
“When I would come back to Kenya you either went to Toi, Gikomba, Woolworths, Mr Price to buy clothes which didn’t make sense because then it’s like…but where do you buy ‘our’ clothes, what exactly are we doing for ourselves?”
She has always been pro Africa at heart and believes the continent has always gotten a bad rap, one that Africans themselves have been sold into hook, line and sinker.
“We have not really believed in ourselves as a continent because we just believe that out there is better and I’ve been out there, it’s not better, it’s actually a lot more difficult than people think”
Wanjiku quit her job in 2013 to pursue her dream of owning a fashion store representing Kenyan fashion and changing the perception of Africa not having good products.
Her to-do list: quit job, register business, get certificate of memorandum and articles of association stuff, get website and get business cards’ read like any entrepreneurs dream to get out of the rat race but she also had a solid plan
“From there it developed into everything else, get a pin certificate, get VAT, get registered in KABO (Kenya Association Of Business Owners)”.
However it was not all-smooth sailing, Wanjiku realised two things immediately. One, mall space was very difficult acquire and two, she did not really have thorough knowledge of local designers and neither did Kenyans. Realising this, Wanjiku decided to start off with a blog which was not only a way to educate herself but also the Kenyan market of what was right at their doorstep in terms of fashion and style.
“I started off with an excel sheet where I wrote down the name of the designer, the location, the telephone number and email and I just remember going through and ticking the people I wanted to interview,” she says.
It then grew from interviews with designers to photographers and to make up artists. She intentionally made sure to do in depth articles three to four pages long, which would then be cut down to three pages when posted. She wanted something akin to Vogue in terms of quality and depth so they could give the people working in the fashion industry their due respect.
So how did a young woman working in the UN, a dream job for many find herself running a fashion business? It all started or rather took root during her time at Wits (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Wanjiku studied Law at Wits in South Africa and though she enjoyed her classes was always a creative at heart.
“The way Wits was, you had West Campus, which was the white collar job people, commerce, law. And then you had East Campus which was the fun artsy one, I went to West campus to do classes but I hang out at East campus, I always had creative friends, my friends were like drama students, music students, I was in the choir as well, it was like having a day job and part time job…I was just between the two,” she says.
Wanjiku then did her masters in Human Rights and African democratisation in Africa. When it came to her thesis, she found herself focussing on the use of music as tool for human rights education, which combined all the things she was interested in — arts, human rights, law, education and creating awareness through arts.
“ I never actually studied law because I wanted to be in a court room although I enjoy watching shows like Boston Legal,” she laughs. She has no regrets though and would still do it again because she believes it is important to understand the law especially in business.
She came back to Kenya and begun working at the UN a job with great perks and then some. However the idea had taken hold and she knew deep inside she had to leave the cushy well paying job to start her own thing. It was not easy.
“I had money from the UN and I used part of it to buy a laptop. Eating? There was not much of it happening, it took a lot of faith for me to just get out and I prayed a lot, my faith kept me going, because when you come from the UN, it was comfortable,” she recalls.
She plugged in the money slowly and to save money she opted to build the website herself, learning as she went. She also had to cut out unnecessary costs from her life such as dinner with friends, opting to spend the Sh5, 000 at a pricy restaurant to pay for Internet for a month.
“ The sacrifice also meant that I couldn’t go and be as social as I used to be,” she says
“People think you are so weird and it’s hard to explain to people because they think ‘she is just a blogger, sitting at home, what could she possibly be doing?’ ”
What people don’t know is that she had a very clear plan of where she wanted to be and even as she blogged she was busy looking for a space that would house the shop she envisioned. She booked her retail space in January 2013, about three months after she had started.
“It’s not that I was just blogging, I was also working on the shop, I was working on what I needed for it, getting contacts, starting to draft the list of things you need for a shop and it meant a lot of sacrifice, a lot. There were many times I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’”
Navigating the cliquey Nairobi fashion scene as a newbie was a challenge onto itself, she would attend events but nobody would know what TDS was or what she was doing there. Luckily all the designers and people she met were always more than willing to share their stories and she says that this kept her going especially when friends and family would flippantly enquire about “her fashion thingy”. Most people could not understand how she would leave a well paying job to blog.
Wanjiku ignored the naysayers and kept going. From the very start she knew that she wanted TDS to stand as a business on its own instead of being about her. She opted for writers and kept the attention off herself so that people could absorb the content for what it was and not who she was.
“ I think people like bloggers because they look pretty and they take good photos, -— not that they are not good — but there is a big element of getting distracted by the person and then it takes away from the content” she says.
Initially, Wanjiku wanted to open a store at Garden City but when she came across a Two Rivers pamphlet at her lawyer’s office she felt her gut tell her that this was it. When she booked her space, the mall had not yet filled up and she went in hoping to get a good location.
“I always used to pray about it and I kid you not, I would say that I would like my shop to be next to Woolworths and all these other international brands so we can pull people to buy Kenya instead and also by being next to them we show Kenyans that we are just us good…and then that happened (her shop is right next to Swarovski) and I was just like…Guys! Guys!”
One of the ways she has been able to keep on track was by using a road map, something that her fiancé advised her to do.
“The road map actually shows all where you are starting and where you want to go,” says Wanjiku She would write down her goals for the year and put it in road map form. Her road map included, quitting her job starting the blog, registering the business, stationary all the way to opening an online shop, once she got there she then started another road map to involved opening the store in Two Rivers and ahead.
“The beauty of a road map is that you don’t get distracted along the way, it keeps you focussed, she also advises would be entrepreneurs to spend a lot of time building their brand, knowing what your brand is about do a lot of research and find out all you can about your industry.
“ I remember watching every fashion documentary there was, I have done online courses on fashion and design, manufacturing and production, while people were out having fun, I studied and did online exams and stuff like that”
The Designers Studio was not a fluke but rather the result of a series of well-planned steps executed to perfection. Today she is happy with how business is going and she has been pleasantly surprised by customers who come in and buy without even looking at the price tags and loves it when they mix up the different brands, which was what she always wanted. Even though she gets customers who will spend large amounts of money, she ploughs all the money back into the business and has learned to survive on a tight budget.
“It’s been fun. It’s been really cool, seeing how the shop has turned out, it had been a thought, a design and lists written and bills being paid, everything was on paper so to keep seeing the shop physically there every time is. really good. It just goes to show that you have to keep working at it because a shop like that does not appear out of thin air.”
This story first appeared on Kenya’s first natural hair magazine Hairpolitan.com Be sure to check out their latest issue, our mamas stories : http://hairpolitan.com/project/mamas-stories-vol-6-may-2017/
This article is part of our creative african women entrepreneur series, share it!