Tandi Fashion: The Brand That Celebrates All Women and Allows Them to Wear Their Emotions
Though born in London, Thandi’s upbringing had a strong Somali influence. Her mother, who was Somali, spent most of her life in Kenya and moved to London when she was twenty-five years old. She would wear a dirac around the house, a typical, light-weight Somali fabric, and accessorized it with Kangas, another typical East African fabric. “My upbringing was definitely heavily influenced by Eastern African culture; from the food we ate – maraq (Somali for sauce) and rice – through to the music and smells in my home. My mother instilled in us – my brother and sister – how lucky we are to be African. When I moved to Kenya it was an extended version of my household in London. Kenya has a huge Somali community and the mixture of food and chi tea was everything I grew up eating and drinking,” Thandi told Fashionomics Africa.
Thandi’s mother did not just instil this African pride in her, she also inspired her flair for fashion and, ultimately, the Tandi Fashion brand. “My mother spent her childhood in Kenya. Her style was influenced by East African colours and traditions; however, she wore it in her own individual western way. She brought the popular, colourful fabrics from East Africa to London. The kanga forms the basis for my designs. The kanga is made solely for women and is a common versatile cloth. When I was a child, my mother used to lay it on the floor and I would play or eat sitting on it. Growing up as a teenager we used to wear them as wraps around the house. A kanga is lightweight and made of 100% cotton, therefore it is soft and cooling to wear. The colours are happy and joyful and because they remind me of my mother, they inspire an additional loving feeling. My mum always filled the air with her perfume and growing up around a confident, beautiful and proud African woman was important for me to see as a child and somehow a kanga reminds me of all of this.”
Thandi, who spent many years in Kenya as well, is completely taken by its local fashion scene. “East African fabrics are so unique and so different to other parts of Africa. Swahili women, who often walk in groups, are like a sea of colour approaching in their brightly coloured kangas. Massais’ have inspired many global fashion brands such as Fendi and Etro, to name just a few. The colourful, handmade beaded jewellery and belts can be seen throughout the continent and the rest of the world. Fashion is defined as the prevailing style of dress or behaviour at any given time; I find Kenyan fashion bright, joyful, and strong. Laughter is captured in the Kangas’ colour and proverbs printed at the base,” she gushes.
In East Africa, it is common knowledge that, women wear these kangas to express a specific message or feeling through fabric, thus, enabling them to wear their emotions. Not only does Tandi Fashion use prints inspired by East African Kanga designs, they also keep the messages within the fabric, allowing wearers to communicate a little piece of history through the fabric.
“The Swahili saying printed on the fabric is positioned at the bottom of each of our dresses; the disposable tag attached inside the dress has the English translation enabling women to speak to everyone through their clothing without uttering a single word – and that is a powerful and empowering gesture. Fashion has been so Eurocentric, and West Africa has done a great job in getting their fabric recognized outside of the continent. I think sometimes people forget that Africa is a continent and East African fabrics are so unique. I am so excited for the crossover my brand brings. It is raising the economic potential of East African fashion, as it’s bringing East African fabric into the west, which has been left behind. A kanga dates back 100’s of years. The West African Kenta has been discovered and I feel East Africa fabric has been left behind. A Kanga is a hidden treasure.”
Empowerment is about confidence and fashion is an amazing tool to display self-confidence. Tandi dresses allow women to wear their emotions at any given moment. “The sayings printed in Swahili read, for example ‘look but don’t touch’. Another, ‘Don’t set sail using someone else’s star’ – in other words believe in yourself and trust your path. In simple words it’s a vehicle of communication,” Thandi explains. The brand does not follow fashion seasons, instead, each garment is treated like a numbered print of art. When a certain print sells out, it’s gone, and a new print is introduced. This approach contributes to a reduction in waste, whilst allowing Thandi to focus on unique prints and limited editions. Having recently launched the Lesso II collection, Thandi is excited to show off the versatility of Tandi dresses.
“Kangas are popular gifts especially for birthdays and weddings. If you are a guest at somebody’s house then they may present you with your own kanga, which is a sign of friendship. They say that every woman should own a thousand kangas! They are incredibly versatile and are often worn as traditional East African clothing but also to sleep in, wear around the house when cooking and cleaning and for carrying babies in. They can also be used as curtains, towels, aprons, tablecloths and are really handy to take to the beach. A kanga reminds me of true women –powerful, strong, resilient, soft and beautiful. My collection is for all women – if you want to breastfeed your child unbutton your dress and feed your child; if you are of a certain religion it allows you to stay covered; if you are going through menopause my dresses are cool; if you want to power dress for work they are strong yet corporate; if you want to travel in style my dresses are comfortable with deep pockets, and if you want to stand out my dresses are bold – the Lesso ll collection is for women, all women - any age or race, my brand does not discriminate. The Lesso ll collection is a celebration of women, all women, one dress that is for all, just like the Kanga – one cloth but for all uses.”
This celebration of women through collections such as Lesso II, goes beyond fashion. Tandi Fashion also offers paid internships to women within the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) group, who are keen to gain experience in fashion but continue to be overlooked and underrepresented within the industry. Thandi aims to turn this around by educating, empowering and supporting these women. “Lift-up is key. Offering paid internships to the BAME group has made me realise that more needs to be done to help. I offer feedback to all candidates that were unsuccessful at interview stage. However, I am in talks with a London Fashion College, to form a partnership and offer internships in their manufacturing unit. This would mean tripling the number of placements we can offer. We also want to employ African women in Tanzania, where we purchase our fabric, providing them with an extra stream of revenue and teaching them how to trade internationally”, Thandi explains.
As part of the global efforts set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Tandi Fashion contributes to goal number three, namely, to end the epidemic of Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. “Tandi Fashion contributes towards reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Africa. We have partnered with mothers2mothers, and a percentage of our profits go towards this charity. Additionally, HIV disproportionately affects black African men and women living in the UK. This group is most likely to be diagnosed late, with serious implications for health and life expectancy. We help raise awareness and support local charities. It is important that we continue to host events and support our partners. The failure of the NHS to implement UK guidance on HIV testing profoundly harms black African communities in the UK and must be addressed urgently. We formed a partnership with Four Seasons Private Members Club in 2019 to help raise awareness and host events.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on uncertainties for Tandi Fashion, its business model – which is based on not following fashion seasons – has allowed the brand to stay afloat. Sales may be down, but there is no redundant stock to be dealt with. “The disruption of trade and income has meant that my sales were unable to be met. I started trading just over a year ago and have been working full time on it, 2020 was going to be our year to leave our mark. It is imperative that we keep true to the brands ethos, continue to offer paid internships to women from the BAME group and form partnerships with educational institutions to aid this incentive, continue to raise awareness on how to reduce the transmission of HIV within the black community and support HIV positive women in Africa.”
The current, global crisis has not stopped Thandi from setting goals for this taxing and continuously surreal year. She is determined to soldier on and hopes to spend 2020 improving the brand’s digital marketing efforts, penetrating international markets, and staying true to her brand’s ethos by supporting and empowering women. Follow Tandi Fashion on Instagram to keep up with the brand’s journey!