Street To Street

Why Kenya's Streetwear Scene Is Ahead Of The Curve

Studio 18, a design collective and concept store located in Kuona, a not-for-profit arts center in Nairobi, is a home for small, community-focused brands. It's just one of example of what Kenya has on the western fashion market.

By Isis Pinheiro

Photos by Matthew Matete


Street To Street is a monthly column on the globalization of Black American culture through fashion.

For decades, the fashion cycle has worked in intervals. Designers show collections six months ahead of the time they will be available to consumers. This is why Spring/Summer fashion week takes place in August and Fall/Winter fashion week shows in February. Fast fashion corporations use the gaps in this cycle to create what is essentially a seasonless non-cycle. Instead of producing collections twice a year, these stores stock new items constantly, sometimes as often as every week.

The speed at which fast fashion brands churn out items — a direct result of exploitative environmental and labor practices — allows them to satiate the instant gratification cravings that seem to be rising within all of us. These companies sell their own items while also creating replicas of ready-to-wear runway pieces (along with ripping off smaller designers, but that’s for another essay) months before the luxury brands send their clothes to market. Instead of waiting six months for the high-end trend of the season, consumers can head to their local H&M or Inditex subsidiary and get the look for a drastically cheaper price in as short as a few weeks.

This seasonless model has cornered luxury labels into showing Pre-Fall and Resort collections, which serve as supplements to the main collections and aim to steer revenue into the other conglomerate’s pockets. It has also resulted in unusual collaborations such as that of Mugler and H&M — it will make you wonder what the point of it all is anyway.

“The speed at which fast fashion brands churn out items — a direct result of exploitative environmental and labor practices — allows them to satiate the instant gratification cravings that seem to be rising within all of us.”

With luxury and fast fashion corporations both trimming margins and maximizing profits, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the abundance of options and the simultaneous decrease in quality. Somehow, despite the competition, the consumer loses. As those of us in the US try to navigate this inundation of choice, our Kenyan counterparts seem to be in a more promising situation. Choice is also abundant in Kenya, but not in the way you’d think.


Clothing from the Kenya-based label, Metamorphisized.

A two-month stint in the East African powerhouse exposed me to the landscape of Kenyan fashion. Lacking flagship stores, most people get their clothes from mitumbas. Literally meaning “bundles” in Kiswahili, mitumbas are the places where the worst of the clothes us Americans so generously donate end up, before eventually heading to landfills if they go unclaimed. The lack of retailers paired with the prevalence of secondhand shopping cultivates an environment in which people have no choice but to develop individual style. There’s no chance of dressing like a mannequin or being caught out in the same exact outfit as someone. Many people also utilize tailors. Kenyan style is refreshing in its individuality.

In addition to mitumbas and tailors, there has been a rise in small brands and creative collectives over the past decade, many of which got their start during the pandemic. Among these creatives are the self-proclaimed “cultural curators through streetwear” behind Studio 18, a design collective and concept store located in Kuona, a not-for-profit arts center in Nairobi founded in 1995. The center is visually humble: The two-and-a-half-acre plot is mostly outdoor space with one building at its center and artist studios lining its perimeter.

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Clothing from the Kenya-based label, Metamorphisized.

A visit to the studio requires a walk through Kuona, allowing one to behold the other artistry that takes place in the arts center. At first glance Kuona could be mistaken for a junkyard with its somewhat industrial feel and scraps everywhere. Upon closer look you’ll find that the yard is filled with canvases for painting, repurposed metal, and life size giraffe sculptures.

This sets the tone for arrival at Studio 18 which, despite its being housed in a shipping container, is rather jam packed. It features racks of clothing on one side, framed art on the other, a lounge area, and space for fittings. The collective consists of four brands: Metamorphisized, Akiba Studios, Nairobi Apparel District, and SMK.


Clothing from the Kenya-based label, Metamorphisized.

The group regularly hosts pop ups and raves featuring other local brands, music artists, and DJs in an effort to pioneer culture in what is still a young country. This community centered approach to marketing helps create a more consistent customer base and sustainable overall mission. This is reflected in the collective’s design and production tactics as well. While visiting the studio, I spoke with Daudi O., the founder of the space and the mind behind Metamorphisized. During our talk he clued me into his process.

When something trends in the West and makes its way into the Kenyan style lexicon, designers like Daudi are able to reimagine the garment and produce it within a couple months or sometimes even weeks thanks to in house tailors. I found this process strikingly similar to that of the fast fashion model only without the mass environmental waste. This access to tailoring allowed me to try on Metamorphisized’s take on the trendy cargo maxi skirt, decide I preferred a mini version, and have a tailor take my measurements for a custom skirt within a week.

Customization doesn’t only apply to fit. A brand like SMK relies heavily on upcycling garments and reinvigorating them with painted portraits and iconography. Similarly, Akiba Haiozi draws on his artistic experience with painting, collage, film, and photography to inspire his namesake label. Many of his collections use original artwork as motifs to make clean and bold pieces that reflect the vibrancy of Kenyan life.

While the Kenyan streetwear scene has a long way to go in terms of demand and global recognition, it is already impactful and full of life. Studio 18 is proof of that. The small batch production and the community-oriented nature of brands allows designers to transform practices used in the West that may typically have harmful overall impact into ones that are positive and enriching. All of this builds on the sense of creativity that is at the forefront of the fertile ground that is Kenyan culture and style. Leaving no room for the generic, Kenyan streetwear focuses on how individuality can benefit the community.

Photos and Credits:

Metamorphisized Kismat Collection:

Photo Creative Direction: Daudi O.

Assistant Creative Direction: Akiba Haiozi

Talent: Michaelo Marii and Kennedy Mirema

Styling: Kennedy Mirema

Photography: Matthew Matete

Akiba Studios MWENYEKITI Collection:

Creative Direction, Styling, and Talent: Jordan Mwaura

Photography and Creative Direction: Mūthamaki

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