KikoRomeo’s Ann McCreath on Going with the Flow & Supporting the Creative Community
Ann McCreath, head designer and founder of Kenyan fashion brand, KikoRomeo believes you can make anything happen, as long as you put your mind and your full passion into whatever goal it is your pursuing. Her bio – which is almost worthy of its own paperback edition – is proof of her having stayed true to this philosophy throughout her whole life. And she’s not about to change her attitude now; on the contrary, she continues to push full steam ahead on this personal formula, and it’s working. From starting life on a dairy-farm in south-west Scotland, to gaining her TEFL certificate and studying Fashion Design at KOEFIA in Rome, to working as a freelance designer in major fashion cities such as Milan and Barcelona – Ann has done it all. Her main passion project, however, remains her brand, KikoRomeo, which is due to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.
Ann first came to Kenya via MSF (Doctors Without Borders), after fours years freelancing in Milan and Barcelona, and working with Estrella G. Fascinated by Kenya, she decided to stay on for three years as the Head of Mission, and learned a lot during her time working in the North Eastern province bordering Somalia, and assisting IDP’s from political clashes all over the Rift Valley. “I finally ended up getting fed up with grey situations and chronic emergencies and decided to do trade not aid. That’s how KikoRomeo came about,” Ann told Fashionomics Africa. “We initially started out as a menswear company in 1996. I wanted a name that was easy to pronounce in a multitude of languages, that’s how the brand’s name was born. It means Adam’s Apple in Kiswahili.” Though her focus had turned to trade, she did not turn her back on aid: through her brand she managed to create employment opportunities by working with community groups and leveraging better prices through exciting design and high quality. “So, basically an early start in ethical fashion, known as fair trade in those days,” she says.
When Ann first started navigating the world of Kenyan fashion, she was surprised by how few Kenyans actually wore anything vaguely African. “I think from missionaries to colonialism, Kenyans had been persuaded to leave behind their traditional dress of leather hides and beads and adopt somber, plain clothing. The fashion reference point was conservative British and during independence, although there were some designers doing striking, colourful work, it was considered out of place unless at a party,” she tells us. “Luckily, that has now changed, and we see so many more people wearing African-made fabrics. I’m just dreading that moment when we get inundated by Western cast-offs of African inspired fashion, which will sink so many of our businesses - please keep your clothes in the West and let us generate our own new ones!,” Ann insists.
KikoRomeo is now co-designed by mother-daughter duo Ann and Iona McCreath.
Empowering the local creative community through employment has always been the focal point in Ann’s work and the KikoRomeo brand. Her work goes beyond offering skills-training, improving both product production and sales; she involves the local creative community – including photographers, artists, MUAs, hair stylists, models, etc. – in KikoRomeo’s shoots and shows too. And as it turns out, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Ann’s daughter and co-designer, Iona McCreath, has recently launched the Art in the Time Of… auction initiative alongside David Avido. “They have managed to curate an outstanding collection of art, mainly from Kenya. The auction will be held throughout this week on Instagram, via the handle @artinthetimeof.” Ann has also been working with the same weavers since the nineties. “I was introduced to Pendeza Weaving Project by a friend at a craft fair, and I immediately fell in love with their fabrics. William Okello is a very talented and experimental weaver, so you always find something new.”
Suffice it to say, Ann was quick to set up two different mask initiatives in aid of the COVID-19 pandemic. “For every mask we sell we send money to tailors in the informal settlements and get them to make two to be distributed locally through a community based organisation (CBO) or human right defender (HRD). This gives the tailor a little business income to feed their family. We have done 100 masks in Mathare and 500 in Soweto (Kibra). We have now applied for increased funding for this project and hope to be scaling up in six areas of Nairobi in partnership with Uweza Kenya and the Tailors Association. We are also giving pieces of masks to washer women, who currently have no work, to hand embroider. This helps them get a little supplementary income for food.”
As for the KikoRomeo brand itself, it was quick to turn its attention to masks too. “We closed ahead of time and all the staff went to their rural homes and are still there due to the lockdown in Nairobi. We focused on masks early on in the pandemic, I cut them myself and then subcontract tailors around Nairobi. Meanwhile I am cleaning everything up - old stock, files, sifting through scrap fabrics so that we can make masks without buying fabric. I don't have any plans for 2020. I did, but to me it made no sense to stress to achieve a goal. We are going with the flow, cutting back, cleaning out and then, when things improve, we will set new goals and move on. This is the global crisis of the century, so no point in trying to do things as usual. Ultimately, I am an artist, so the reason for not setting goals in the upheaval is so that we can go with the flow, experience, and reflect on the moment. Luckily, we have minimal overheads, so we are able to do this.”