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Hip Hop Fridays: Young Designer Hopes to Be Kenya's Giorgio Armani by Philip Mwaniki

When Kevin Ombija graduated from college, his parents had great hopes that he would be admitted to the bar and that he would be their source of pride.

The parents had every right to see their son traversing the corridors of justice, but Kevin had his sights elsewhere - in the unchartered waters of hip-hop street wear.

After studying law and Italian, he turned his back on a seemingly successful career and shocked relatives and friends when he decided to pursue his childhood dream fashion design. He then dedicated his life to fashion and hip-hop.

"As a little boy I sketched designs on paper trying to convince my mother to make her dresses in my designs," he recalls. "She never really took me seriously. I didn't even know I would spend my life pursuing a fashion career.

"Some people find it shocking that a lawyer could turn to be a designer, but if you know the history of fashion, then such stories are not unique.

"For example, celebrated Italian designer Giorgio Armani studied medicine for a few years before dropping out to pursue a fashion career, and look how successful he is."

Kevin, the man behind the fast-rising and popular clothing line, Mau Mau University Clothing Company, says he is a student of life, hip-hop music and culture.

Of course, he doesn't claim to be the supreme authority on this music genre; he says it's only natural, considering that it touched him most profoundly during the Puff Daddy-led pop influence of the mid-1990s.

But he is not just into pop music; he religiously follows the entrepreneurial spirit that is in the music genre and how many people have turned into moguls away from the microphone, such as Jay Z, Diddy, Russel Simmons and Damon Dash.

Kevin says confidently that in he is a Russell Simmons' reincarnate. Simmons is the founder of popular clothing brand Phat Farm and is also credited with having jumpstarted many of today's biggest rap artistes.

"Call it cocky, arrogant or whatever you want to call it, but I'm a man who knows his destiny and is at peace with the great responsibility my destiny bears," he says. "I was born to be great, and I will be just that."

His vehicle for greatness? Kevin says without hesitation: "Mau Mau University Clothing Company." He adds:

"I moved from one university to another and in this one, I'm not graduating; I will grow old with it."

Started almost two years ago, Mau Mau University Clothing is a new and unique way of ushering in the "new era of hip-hop-inspired Kenyan street wear."

And in a country in which the local fashion targets the rich, the new wear has proved to be a popular brand among its target audience - the youth - and the future can only be brighter.

"Ever since I first read about the Mau Mau rebellion while in primary school, I have always found it a moving and deeply stirring story," Kevin says.

"The fact that a few Kenyans could band together and fight the mighty British empire and win inspired my whole life."

He adds that he decided to add university to Mau Mau to represent higher learning and as an ode to hip-hop music and culture which is a constant inspiration and influence to him.

He incorporated the hip-hop entrepreneurship and the Mau Mau "never stop till the job is done" mentality to try to inspire the youth to be more of what they want to be if they put their minds to it. This is how Mau Mau University Clothing Co was born.

Initially there were brands such as Fundi Frank which has been around since the birth of the contemporary Kenyan music, but the way the market accepted the new trend showed people needed a new idea.

"Of all the other brands, it's Mau Mau which got Nairobi going crazy. By its innovative designs, smart marketing and especially distribution, the Mau Mau University line became the first Kenyan-owned clothing brand to be sold at Nairobi's arguably exclusive clothing stores such as Abdulla Fazal and Little Red."

Kevin's plan was simple - to follow in the footsteps of world-famous hip-hop-inspired street wear label FUBU, which was started in a New York backstreet and has now grown into a multi-million-dollar clothing empire.

Though still far from his lofty ambitions, the story of Mau Mau University Clothing is special and has a fire in it that seems destined to burn for a long time if Kevin has his way.

"I started with two T-shirts," the designer recalls.

"I gave one to my younger brother who was in college, and I wore the other and walked around town in it.

"The response was mostly positive, though some thought it was disrespectful to the Mau Mau, while others thought it was cheeky.

So the next thing I did was to make a dozen T-shirts which I gave to a select group of people for free and people kept coming back for more, and I decided to go ahead with it.

"When this happened I knew I was on to something. I knew that somehow, someway I could sell the T-shirts, and I had less than Sh10,000 to lose and everything to gain.

"I decided take the risk and prayed to God to save me from a bad fall although back in my mind, I had this feel that it would be a success."

Mau Mau University had a small but critical debut when in 2005, during a hip-hop concert in Nairobi, Kevin got Senegalese rapper and United Nation's goodwill ambassador Awadi and his crew to wear his T-shirts during their performance.

"I also got Kenya's leading and pioneer hip-hop group Kalamashaka to wear my 'Tees' and also got an opportunity to sell several of what I had, and they sold out in two hours," he says.

"I got several other channels to sell my work and they did well, and I even managed to get a store to retail them."

Having made a dream debut, he held a promotional event for his merchandise and also used the opportunity to help other upcoming artistes.

He says he wants to keep doing so.

"My biggest challenge is the unscrupulous people who have pirated Mau Mau T-shirts with no respect that Mau Mau University is a registered and trade-marked brand and name," he rues.

A long way to go

"The other challenge is funds to run the company since I want to turn my idea into a multi-million-shilling brand. I still have a long way to go.

"But, after all success, is not built on success, it's built on failure, it's built on frustration and sometimes even a catastrophe."

Kevin says he is currently working on some new designs which will be launched soon, and that the future of Mau Mau University is about being a brand synonymous with Kenya and Africa.

He is already coming up with new ideas, all built around hip-hop.

"I'm excited about the Experiential Marketing and Event company I have launched, that will help corporate organisations to reach the youth market using hip-hop music and culture," Kevin says with smug satisfaction.

"Most importantly, I look forward to making history. Maybe I'm the future Jay Z and Russell Simmons combined."

This article appears in The Daily Nation

Philip Mwaniki

Saturday, April 21, 2007

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