Russian Expat Cashes In On Cashmere Clothing Business In Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya — Elena Kuoni, 49, a Russian-born German citizen, always imagined Africa to be a continent of endless sunshine when she first arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1994, before moving to Conakry, Guinea.

So she mistakenly believed that she wouldn’t need warm clothing on her maiden-trip to Kenya in July 2005.

“Shock on me!” she told Zenger News.

“I arrived in July in the middle of the cold season, and I wasn’t prepared at all. I needed to buy warm clothes for myself. I mean sweaters, scarves, cardigans, and shawls. I moved around Nairobi in search of good-quality clothes. Although I found a few, they were not 100 percent cashmere.”

As she concentrated on her job, Kuoni, a mother of two, designed a business plan for a high-end clothes business but put it on the back burner.

That chilly experience has translated into a thriving high-end cashmere clothing business in Nairobi, KSHMR by Kuoni, a boutique based at the Village Market in Nairobi.

Kuoni initially worked with her husband on school projects funded by the German government in Kenya as a finance manager with Kuoni Architects but always had her luxury clothes business at the back of her mind.

Elena Kuoni’s boutique, KSHMR by Kuoni, at the Village Market in Nairobi. (Elizabeth Okwach)

She took a break from work in 2015 just as the school projects ended to reflect on what to do next. She remembered someone she had met from Mauritius who owned a linen factory who helped her actualize her fashion dreams.

She then started importing clothes and selling them at bazaars to close friends and colleagues until she quit her job in 2016 to concentrate on her business.

In 2017, inspired by her love for fashion and Nairobi’s chilly July weather, Kuoni ventured into the fashion business, selling products made from 100 percent cashmere.

“Our selling point is luxury,” she told Zenger News.

“Our products include sweaters, ponchos, scarfs, gloves, baby blankets, cashmere dresses, caps, shawls, and other warm apparel. The prices range between $175.59 and $231.05.”

Kuoni said the Village Market, strategically located between the diplomatic missions and the middle-class residential areas, gives her a solid customer base of expatriates and high net-worth individuals.

“My yarn is produced in Scotland because I am sure that it is certified. When you order products from China, you are not sure that you are getting 100 percent cashmere. It is possible to get cashmere silk or cashmere wool mixture, making the product less expensive. Since I want to have the best quality product, I need to have a factory that processes only cashmere products, and I found it in Mauritius.”

Sylvia Omina Otsieno, founder of Omina Otsieno, showing her sustainable apparel accessories at her boutique in Nairobi, Kenya. She says Kenya’s fashion industry has experienced tremendous change, but the niche market like Elena Kuoni is doing is the way to go. (Elizabeth Okwach)

Kuoni said business looked promising at the beginning of 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the world. However, the business has picked up again, even though she was reluctant to reveal the turnover information.

She retails online, mainly on Instagram.

“I ventured into online marketing, but it is not yet as strong in Kenya as in Europe,” she told Zenger News.

Kenya was ranked 56th globally and second in the continent after Mauritius in the ease of doing business report by the World Bank.

Kenya generated $0.5billion in luxury apparel, ranking second in the continent below South Africa, according to Africa Wealth Report 2017.

Isaac Wasamba, a lecturer at the Faculty of Business and Management Sciences at the University of Nairobi, said Kenya’s growing middle-class offers a ready market for luxury goods.

“We have high consumption marked by heavy spending on high-end luxury goods including top-of-the-range cars, clothes, and whiskeys which has taken root in Kenya,” he told Zenger News.

“In addition, the country’s geopolitical positioning in East and Central Africa makes it ideal for luxurious items. When a luxurious brand becomes successful in Kenya, expanding into the region is very easy.”

Jamil Walji (center), Kenyan designer and founder of Jamil Walji Couture, says people create shopping trips for high-end clothing, forgetting that Kenya, too, produces luxury items. (Jamil Walji Couture, @jamilwaljicouture/Facebook)

Nairobi is East Africa’s economic hub and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, according to the Africa Wealth Report 2021 by New World Wealth.

The report said Kenya is showing significant growth in wealth totaling $47 billion, with 6,000 high net worth individuals and 250 multimillionaires, ranking fourth in the continent after South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria.

However, Jamil Walji, 36, couturier designer for Jamil Walji Couture and former lecturer of fashion and retail design in Lomkokwing University, Malaysia, said Kenya’s luxury clothing market is minimal.

“Kenyan shoppers need to first support the ready-to-wear designers before going for luxury brands,” he told Zenger News.

“The market lacks the eye for fashion, and some believe wearing international designer clothes is better than Kenyan-made products. People create shopping trips for high-end clothing, forgetting that Kenya, too, produces luxury items. These are handmade goods, which gives them a personal touch. Shoppers often disregard little things like these.”

He said online marketing for luxury products proves that Kenya has a lot to offer in the luxury brands segment.

“Besides luxury clothes, Kenya also has growing textile and leather industries. The country has a great potential to serve the global, domestic, and regional markets with its pool of designers who makes luxurious items.”

(Edited by Kipchumba Some and Anindita Ghosh)

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