Fashion Brand KikoRomeo Stitches Together Sustainability, Style And Heritage

KikoRomeo is a transcendent fashion brand that combines sustainability, style and heritage to start conversations that broaden our humanity. Founded by mother Ann McCreath and later handed down to daughter Iona, the two have created a brand that strives to create longevity in each garment by using handmade and hand-dyed fabrics as well as hand-carved trims, sourced from the African continent. Their mission is to “bring different peoples together for humanity, using fashion and art as a medium” all while fostering a sense of community through their eponymous brand. Introducing this week’s Voice of Africa, Iona McCreath.

Iona’s latest collection debuted in December of 2020.

Iona’s latest collection debuted in December of 2020.

Reed Davis: Describe your most recent collection.
Iona McCreath: The inspiration for Eripoto came to me from the situations we have all been placed in this year. A commentary on our times, we’ve all been searching for protection through a year of feeling incredibly vulnerable. A vulnerability that has presented itself in a number of ways, whether it be the fragility of life and how fleeting it can be, to the vulnerability of loneliness that many have been faced through several months of lockdown and isolation.

We all experience fear in different ways and react to it differently. Yet this year, there has been a common source of fear, which in turn has built a sense of global community yet at the same time has forced many new divides and fear of the “other”.

Through this collection, I wanted to explore what it means to be vulnerable and how we present it on our exterior. You can be weak in your vulnerability, but you too can be strong. Vulnerability can give you strength and power in allowing you to be you and shine through.

This is illustrated in the collection through the use of opacity and transparency, the duality the two present accentuated with layering as well as the use of fluid and structured silhouettes to challenge our beliefs around dress and how we present ourselves to the world outside us. What’s deemed as acceptable and what’s not and how we subsequently react.

KikoRomeo romanticizes every garment they create with a sense of awe and a heaping cup of curiosity. Model: Faith Ugochukwu.

KikoRomeo romanticizes every garment they create with a sense of awe and a heaping cup of curiosity. Model: Faith Ugochukwu.

Reed: What was your inspiration for the designs and materiality used for Eripoto?
Iona: Earlier last year I helped conduct an art auction and one of the pieces submitted was a Maasai necklace that you give to someone for good luck/well wishes. This became my main source of inspiration for my textiles and cutouts within the collection. I find it intriguing to look at how our societies and cultures have morphed over generations and try to understand it more. The idea around the protection of self is something that is ever-present, we’ve always had different ways of protecting ourselves and shielding ourselves and there must be a reason for that. For it to transcend through so many different peoples. Yet, looking at our world now, we’ve lost touch with that side of ourselves, our ancestry, our connection to what is bigger than the individual. For some, it’s spiritual, others religious and others something different. But this lack of attachment and grounding I feel is what has caused so many rifts and negative shifts between us. Looking at a time like now, an object of protection could be said to be a phone, yet we’ve seen that it can in fact bring you as much bad as it can good. What do we have amongst us as an increasingly digitizing race that keeps us centered, grounded and shielded from harm?

The materials are everything and I cannot stress that enough. You could make the same item in two different fabrics and it will look completely different. The texture and the feel of the material are a vital part of the vision.

I think there needs to be more emphasis placed on communication around different types of materials and the emotions they evoke when you wear them. This is the same for the longevity of the garment, high quality materials last for generations if looked after properly. We really cannot still be in a world that consumes fast fashion guilt-free.

At KikoRomeo we use natural fibres and it’s my mission to contribute to the development of the sustainable textile industry in Kenya. Our potentials are endless, yet we lack the resources to get us to where we should be. I recently completed a piece of research for Fashion Revolution Kenya that looks into this.

Reed: Would you like to see more collaboration and connectivity amongst African designers on the continent? If so, why?
Iona: Collaboration within any industry is vital. We’re so often taught to see each other as competitors but this is hardly the case. As long as we’re working in our individual niches and striving to do what we are passionate about, we will always find a market within which to thrive. It’s important to collaborate and connect as a means of creating creative exchange that will in turn facilitate our personal growth as well as provide new prospects for our markets. Through this we can also mitigate many of the challenges we face, through learning to approach things in different ways and understand better from people who have already faced them. I personally feel so enriched every time I travel to different parts of our continent and meet other designers and creatives, when you surround yourself in the right kind of creative community, your growth is exponential.

[Furthermore], it’s incredibly important for me to tell the story of the entirety of the fashion value chain. Most often the fashion designer is looked at as the end-all, be-all. Yet, we are nothing without our teams. I like to use the analogy of music. A fashion designer is like a composer and conductor, you have the vision and the know-how of how to execute it yet you need a multiplicity or different instruments to bring your vision to life. You may be able to play some of those instruments but there’s no way you can compose, conduct and fill the place of a whole orchestra, all at the same time.

The people behind the face of the brand are equally as important as its face. We all need each other in order to function, right from the farmer to the end consumer.

I would like to be in an industry where someone has as great a passion to be a tailor as they do a designer and both professions looking at each other with the same amount of respect.

Being passionate about sustainability and natural fibers, these clothes were made from natural fibers, including handweaves from Kisumu-based Pendeza Weaving Project as well as cotton which has been stencil sprayed by Alfred Shikanga.

Being passionate about sustainability and natural fibers, these clothes were made from natural fibers, including handweaves from Kisumu-based Pendeza Weaving Project as well as cotton which has been stencil sprayed by Alfred Shikanga.

Reed: What traditional techniques do you employ in your work?
Iona: The brand was founded on values of being sustainable and handmade and these principles are still ever-present. It is vital for us to preserve vernacular knowledge through our work and ensure these skill sets are passed down through generations. Many of our fabrics are hand-woven in Kenya on manual looms. Other than these, we use traditional fabrics from across the continent, including Bogolan from Mali and Adiree from Nigeria which are both made using traditional vegetable dyes. We use a lot of appliques to make patterns from our scrap fabric as well as patchwork. Knitting and crochet are both common skills that we have turned into high fashion. Beadwork is also very prevalent amongst many communities in Kenya and we have used it on leather belts as well as cloth, abstracting patterns in our own unique designs, but still using the traditional skill. Ultimately, at the heart of all of this are the artists we work with to put together our pieces.

Reed: What is your fondest memory from childhood that inspired where you are today?
Iona: My earliest memories are filled with the beautiful chaos of the fashion world, whether it be the backstage madness at some of my mum’s biggest fashion shows in the early 2000s or the long road trips we used to take for fashion shoots down to Maasai land, to the coast of Kenya and everywhere in between. I was always there somewhere, incredibly shy so hardly saying a word but in awe of everyone moving around me. One of my fondest memories was a road trip we took from Nairobi to Tsavo and on to the Coast. It was for a fashion story where we had Patricia Amira playing the role of my mum, Ann McCreath, the founder of KikoRomeo and we traveled along doing photo shoots along the way. Lupita Nyong’o was one the models and writer Binyavanga Wainania was there to tell the story and make us laugh.

For this SS21 Collection, Master Weaver Mr. William Okello from the Pendeza Weaving Project, played a huge role in the process of creating the fabrics.

For this SS21 Collection, Master Weaver Mr. William Okello from the Pendeza Weaving Project, played a huge role in the process of creating the fabrics.

Reed: What is something you hope to see trending in design in the future?
Iona: In regard to fashion design, I hope to see the decline of fast fashion on a large scale, with people moving towards more conscious consumption and viewing fashion as an art form and not a mere avenue for mindless consumption. This shift is happening, however conscious consumption is still a very privileged position and so with time, I hope to see it become a democratized space.

Reed: When did you realize you wanted to be a designer/artist?
Iona: Having grown up in fashion I always knew that it would be something that I would do in some capacity throughout my life. After graduating from university, however, I got dragged into the allure of working in the world of consulting and finance. How I’m not quite sure, but it seemed like the best thing to do at that point. As I was on my way to an interview in Canary Warf one morning on a packed tube I quickly realized that there was no way that was how I could spend the rest of my life let alone a few years. From that point, all roads kept leading me back to the creative world and at a certain point, I decided to not be stubborn anymore and just follow that path.

Photography by Reed Davis.

About The Designer | Iona McCreath was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1996. She has a Foundation in Art and Design from UAL Central St Martin’s and a degree in Sociology from London School of Economics. Growing up as the daughter of renowned fashion designer Ann McCreath, Iona has apprenticed in the fashion industry from birth. She was born as her mother founded KikoRomeo and appeared on the runway with her mother as a baby. She has always been surrounded by highly skilled tailors and artisans, and even played dress-up with clothes in the shop after school. With time, she began to take a keener interest in her own role in fashion, exploring her talents and putting to practice the skills she had picked up along the way.

In 2013, aged 17, she refashioned KikoRomeo subsidiary Kikoti, taking charge of designing and positioning the line. Kikoti was an affordable fashion-forward line aimed at youth. Passionate about animals, she decided to use fast fashion, to highlight the plight of animals facing extinction from poaching.

Her journey as Creative Director at KikoRomeo has seen her design a series of collections, maintaining the brands aesthetic and artistic heritage. Through this time, she has also worked to redefine the brand’s representation and communication, bringing to the fore a lot of the social impact work that KikoRomeo has done over the years that many do not know about as well as highlighting the decades of artistry that is embedded in this work. A long project, much of this will be seen in greater detail in 2021-22, as the brand celebrates 25 years.

Click here to see more of the Voices of Africa series.

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