“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel
When no less an authority on fashion than Coco Chanel herself speaks, the fashion universe has no option but to listen. And to listen attentively. The parameters of fashion have too long been restricted to the confines of what hangs in one’s closet.
By broadening the definition of fashion, Coco Chanel opened a gate of perspective for countless budding designers. Inspiration was to be sought from anything that gave them the hint of beauty. Design concepts were set free from the jail of narrow interpretation.
The local fashion industry still lags someway behind those of our neighbours, with creatively of design and quality of the finishing still in need of work. However, there are many who continue to push forward the boundaries of what we thought fashion in Zambia could be.
In Lusaka’s Kabulonga suburb lies Dulce’ by Jessie, a fine dining multi-cuisine restaurant. As we awaited our interviewee it was easy to tell why he had opted for this venue. Much like his designs, Dulce’ had an elegant appeal that identified with its clientele’s desire for both global quality and home comforts.
I had taken the liberty of ordering a rack of ribs for the both of us. The potato wedges were grilled to perfection. A favourite of corporate Lusakans Dulce’ is known for its menu range, inspired by a global palate and delivered with a local touch. As I waited I flicked through the images of designs I had been sent prior to our meeting. The parallels were evident.
Kabaso Yorum Nkandu was an unlikely candidate to make an imprint in the Zambian fashion scene. Born and raised in Mwansabombwe district in Luapula Province, fashion was far from his first, second or even third choice.
“I did my primary education in Kazembe at Kafumbe Basic School and then moved to Lusaka and did my basic education in grade 8 and 9 at Chawama Basic School. I later moved to Chongwe High School, where I did my grade 10 to 12. A year after, I went to Mulungushi University and graduated with a Bachelors degree in Environmental Studies.”
Growing up Kabaso wasn’t necessarily inclined towards fashion. Far from a pop career in his hometown he didn’t spend much of his childhood sketching designs or sewing clothes.
“When I was growing up, I was most interested in swimming and dancing. When I was a child the career I wanted to pursue was medicine. That’s because I wanted to be of great help to my mother who had high blood pressure before her passing on.”
However, despite his intention to pursue a career in medicine and eventual pursuit of another science, Kabaso had developed an interest in fashion during his high school days.
“It is just something that grew in me. I loved to see people around me well dressed. I remember in my university days I would talk to course mates, especially girls, on matters of fashion. Especially things like colour combinations.
“My interest in fashion had begun to grow when I finished High school. In fact I had even started working towards starting something. However I was admitted into university and had to choose whether I should go to University or stay and follow my passion.
“However, I had to choose school, because I still wasn’t sure if this was really my thing. While in university I shared my passion with friends and I found two ladies who had the same passion as I did. We teamed up and we have been working together since last year.”
As we tried Dulce’s famed red velvet cake, the topic turned to where the various designs came from. Inspiration for Nkandu’s brand, Nkanda Yatu came from a strong identity.
“Our brand name is what guides our work. With Nkanda Yatu we wanted to have a name that our customer could connect with. And this name was just prefect because each day people do what it takes to take care of their skin. Nkanda yatu means our skin, just like our skin is used as an identity of who we are as Africans. This name gives us our identity and always reminds us of our cultural background. Our aim as a brand is to embrace culture through fashion and style.”
Yet despite a strong afrocentric philosophy behind the brand, Kabaso has not allowed Nkanda Yatu’s style to become one dimensional. Despite a definite preference for chitenge and African print material, Kabaso has shown himself that he can adapt to working with all manner of textiles. His designs routinely incorporate more western designs, yet with a hint of local flavour.
“We try not to repeat the same designs over and over. So we have to get our inspiration from wherever we can. Our ideas are mostly from the daily environment we live in, the current changes in style in the fashion world and our cultural background.”
While even Kabaso would not claim to have scaled the heights of Coco Chanel it is obvious that his outlook of fashion is clearly in the same school of thought.
However, sharing an ethos does not necessarily lead to shared fortunes. The obstacles common to many Zambian designers are a particular pain point of Kabaso’s.
“Finances are sometimes our lowest point. This is because when growing a brand it requires a lot of investing. And it takes time and patience before you see any kind of significant returns. At the moment most resources that come in are invested in shows and building the brand.”
This is in contrast to the upturn in fortunes in other parts of the continent.
“Fashion outside is one of the best happening careers and even brings in revenue for the Government. It’s one of the fastest growing industries in a number of African countries like South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria. We hope we can reach that level where people will be willing to invest in such talent. So many growing brands have been able to grow because they have been built through good support and dedication.”
Being from a large family, Kabaso considers their support very important to his career. However, their support was not always forthcoming. He cast a glance at the children playing by the pool as he reflected on how his initial decision not to pursue a career in line with his qualifications was not met with universal approval.
“At first they were not for the idea, and I understood were they were coming from. They just wanted to make sure fashion would be able to sustain me and the family in the near future. But since then they have understood this is what I love doing. Not to mention I still run other things apart from begin a designer. They are very supportive and very concerned, and if I have a big show I often ask for their opinion.
Among those big shows have been appearances at this year’s Zambia Fashion Week. His second in a row.
“The experience [of the 2016 Zambia Fashion Week] was overwhelming because it was a learning curve for me. Apart from the fact that we were showcasing it was our first show and it happened a month after we fully went into fashion. So it was something amazing. It was from that show that we were able to find who we were as Nkanda Yatu. And from this show we began to operate independently, owning our own ideas, being a self-sufficient brand and bringing uniqueness to our clients.”
Among the highlights of Nkanda Yatu so far in Kabaso’s perspective have been nominations for designer of the year and designer to look out for in the 2017 Zambia Fashion and Models Awards, with Kabaso winning the latter. In the 2017 Zambia Fashion Week Kabaso won second prize in the Super Java Challenge.
With a wide selection of muses to draw upon it is unlikely that neither Kabaso nor his brand will disappear from the local fashion scene.
Nkandu Yatu can be reached on +260955014014/+260968724918 and [email protected] as well their Facebook page facebook.com/NkandaYatu