From frequenting Kenya’s high-fashion runways, interior designing and owning her own hair extensions brand, professional model and entrepreneur, Sandra Awino Odino, tells us about her journey to becoming the power house that she is.
Tell us about your journey in the modelling industry. When did you decide you want to be a model and how did you manage to break into the industry?
I started modelling when i was in high school and after high school i got scouted, trained and signed to a modelling agency. Afterwards, I went for A LOT of auditions and finally booked my first runway show which was an international show and the rest is history.
What do you enjoy most about being a model?
I enjoy dressing up, taking pictures, walking down different runways, traveling, meeting new people and bringing a designer’s idea to life.
What are the highlights of your career? What big events have you taken part in and which designers in Kenya have you worked with?
I got to work for African Fashion Fair , Swahili Fashion Week, The AngelsHair Show, Kenya Fashion Week, The Wedding Fair by Kempinski, Afro Hair Show, and The Blue Economy Fashion Show, where I got to meet the President of Kenya and other dignitaries from around the world. I have worked with some of the best designers such as Chela Seurei, Sally Karago, Lucy Rao, Peggy Onyango, Shenu Hooda, Sharon Wendo of Epica Jewellery, Neema Nkatha, Idah Aluoch, Aisha Rotich, and Loise Adhiambo, just to name a few.
What are the challenges faced in the modelling industry in Kenya and what do you think can/should be done to improve on those?
Some of the challenges I face in the modelling industry are that the pay is not so good, or sometimes we don’t get paid at all, scarcity of the jobs etc. I think the modelling agencies should protect models by getting them legitimate jobs which would extremely help the models to become financially independent. Agencies should also stand up for models and fight for their rights.
I also wish that international agencies would do more recruitment of Kenyan models, because the talent here is abundant. Most of us want to go international, but breaking through that glass ceiling is very tough. It would be really great if more international agencies came to scout in Kenya.
You also work as an interior designer. Tell us more about that. When and how did you get into that industry? What kind of services/products do you provide?
Yes I work also as an interior designer and it has always been my passion to beautify spaces and transform houses into homes. I studied interior Design at El Interior Designers and afterwards I started practicing it. The services i provide are soft furnishings, consulting, wallpaper installation and upholstery.
Apart from being a model and interior designer, you also own your own brand of hair extensions. Can you tell us how that came to be and what inspired your decision to start selling your own hair extensions? Do you produce them or do you have a supplier? Who is your target market?
Yes my hair extension line is called Rubellite Extensions and I have had the idea for almost a year now. I decided to take a leap of faith and I did it. What inspired the idea of my hairline is that I wanted women to look great. Hence, if you are called for an impromptu event, you can simply lay your hair clip-on of my extension and you are good to go. I have a supplier who provides me with the extensions and my target market is ladies who are 18-60 years old.
In April this year you embarked on an extraordinary project which was photographically documenting how black women are normally not used by big companies in Kenya when advertising cosmetics. Can you tell us more about that project and did it achieve the desired results?
For some time I noticed that various companies in Kenya were using only white models on their billboards, and so I called some of my friends and we came up with a mood board. We then did a photoshoot which we wanted people of colour to relate to, and the outcome was OUTSTANDING. Unfortunately we did not get the results we were hoping for because soon after, the pandemic had hit the country hard and there was a total lockdown. So we have had such a hard time pitching our idea to the targeted companies. It was an exciting experience though, and I learnt so much from it.
You are an enterprising woman. What drives you and motivates you to be so entrepreneurial and how do you balance your business ventures and your personal life?
My drive and motivation comes from my mother; she is an amazing role model and she inspires and encourages me to not stop until I achieve all my dreams. My family is very supportive of what I do so it makes it easier for me to balance my business and personal life.
What are your parting words for the young African upcoming model and entrepreneur?
Put God first! If you can’t stop talking about it, don’t stop working for it. Believe in yourself and NEVER give up.
Follow Sandra on IG @lasandrah254 and @rubellite_extensions
👗: @afrovazidesignhouse; 📷 @afrikanfilmstudio, jkiragu; Jewellery 💍: @Frankartscreations; 💄: Mutisya H, Sharon Atieno, mdeizimakeup; Hair: @rickykish
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
AKEWA – A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra
A chat with Gabonese/French fashion powerhouse Francois Aveyra who apprenticed for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others.
Having been an apprentice for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Cor Raniero Gattinoni, you would think that founder of prêt-à-porter brand AKEWA, Francois Aveyra, is one very tough and proud individual. Reserved but always smiling, Francois is quite the opposite. A happy soul who enjoys life, loves nature, and is not pretentious, his friends and family describe him as a confident and trustworthy person who brings sunshine and good vibes into their lives. A bit of a loner sometimes, Francois loves people who are as reserved as he is, and maybe the quiet time is what gives this creative genius all the inspiration and motivation he needs to churn out exotic and colourful designs which celebrate contemporary African creativity.
Says Francois, “I love making clothes, bags and accessories which represent my story. My products represent who I am… a mixture of different cultures.”
When he was a young stylist in the 80s, Francois made a name for himself working at Parisian events which were attended by the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Serge, Gainsbourg, Andy Warhol, and Claude Montana, among many other stars.
Based in Marrakech, Morocco, the yoga-loving design guru took some time to tell us his life story and about his exceptional achievements in the fashion industry.
You were born to a Gabonese father and a French mother. Can you briefly tell us about your childhood, and life lived between the two countries?
I grew up in France, and I would travel to Gabon, Central Africa, over the summer holidays. Flying between those two worlds brought me a lot of exposure, compared to my friends. By that time, most of my friends had never been on an aeroplane. I loved travelling and I felt so privileged. My father was a very traditional man, and through visiting his side of the family, I was introduced to Gabonese music, dance and spiritual traditions, all of which intrigued me greatly. From my childhood, I attended and assisted my father in many spiritual ceremonies; I loved it, and I felt so powerful with him.
How and when did you decide that fashion was what you wanted to do as a career?
I was close to the beach with a friend one day, and we were talking about fashion. She was supposed to start work as an assistant to Guy Laroche, a great haute couture designer in France. Suddenly, I had a revelation, and I decided right there that I wanted to attend Fashion School in France. My father refused at the beginning, but after a few months of fighting, he accepted the idea. I had always felt so attracted to dance, music or acting, and I would have probably chosen a career in the arts, but life and destiny brought me to fashion.
Before that, I had actually started law school, and after doing just one part of my studies in Bordeaux, France, I stopped because I realised that becoming a lawyer wasn’t meant for me, and I went to Design School in Paris.
My mother is a hairstylist and I spent most of my early years behind the hair salon doing hair on some dolls (laughs). My grandfather was a painter, and so from seeing him work, I started to draw at a very early age. I spent most of my time with my grandma who was very elegant and smart. She was a great influence to me. She played violin so well, and we would watch black and white movies together. I believe I got most of my artistic and creative influence from my entire immediate family.
As your career progressed, you decided to leave Paris. Which country did you go to first, and what did you do when you got there? Which other countries did you eventually work in as well, and what did you do there?
When I completed Fashion School, I started working for small brands like Naf Naf, but my dream was to work in Italy, because I was so impressed by Armani and Versace designs. I was able to realise my dream, and in Italy I worked for Cor Raniero Gattinoni in Rome, who had clients like Ingrid Bergman, Anita Ekberg, etc. Her mother, Fernanda Gattinoni, was very famous in the 60s during the ciné cita period. A lot of American productions were produced in Italy at the time.
After a while I moved back to Paris, and then London, because I wanted to discover the world and to feed my spirit of creativity. I eventually settled in Morocco in 2016, where I’m based now. By the way, soon after I was done with Fashion School, I founded my first brand in Gabon, LEAMONO, in association with Albertine, who was the daughter of the president at that time, and her cousin Ursula.
As the years went by, you managed to grow in your career and you became the owner of an artistic agency. Can you tell us more about the agency and the work you did, and what motivated you to start that business?
Having worked in different sections of the fashion industry, I learnt so much over time. Among other things, I worked as a Booker in various modelling agencies, I was once a stylist for advertising and magazine agencies, I worked as a Casting Director, and I also worked as a Press RP in English. Armed with all this experience, my global vision of fashion, and sheer curiosity, I then decided to create my own agency representing talent which included fashion photographers, stylists, hairstylists, makeup artists, illustrators and directors.
I am naturally someone who loves to take care of others, and if someone is feeling bad, I will do my best and exert all my energy to make that person feel better, and achieving that goal gives me a lot of satisfaction. Hence I created the agency because to me it was only logical, seeing as my job was concentrated on looking after others. I enjoyed being the ‘orchestra chief’ or ‘conductor’ of the whole operation.
I totally loved my job, being everywhere, doing production, and applying the vast knowledge I had gained over the years. Choosing talent, mixing them up, and developing them with an artistic vision of their career was the highlight of my vocation.
Your business grew from strength to strength, and as you mentioned earlier, you were privileged to work as a Model Booker and Stylist for some of the most prestigious agencies and influential people in the world’s largest fashion capitals such as Rome, Paris, New York, and London. How did it feel to have made a name for yourself and be recognised, reflecting on how far you had come from when you were a young man in Libreville, Gabon with big dreams?
To me, whether one comes from Africa, China, the countryside, or a small city, if you have big dreams, the feeling will be the same. When you do things with heart and passion, everything comes naturally, step by step, because obviously one does not wake up with a crown on their head overnight.
My dream was not really to be recognised, but to do what I wanted to do passionately and to meet with people and share my knowledge, as well as learn new things. Above all, I wanted to do what makes me happy, and that was the most important thing to me.
Can you tell us about the birth of the brand AKEWA? How and when was it born, and why did you choose that name? What does it mean and what is its significance?
AKEWA was born in Marrakech. Initially, I was just supposed to help a Moroccan designer and disappear (big laugh), but I started working for a friend in decor for 6 months before I then decided to create shoes and bags which I sold to friends. Soon after, I was now selling the products online, and when I realised it was going well, I decided after a year to open a physical store and that was when the brand explosion happened (smiles).
AKEWA is an expression of gratitude. It means ‘thank you’ in my Gabonese language which is called Mpongwe. The context is “thank you to life, and thank you to freedom”. I feel very attached to the notion of freedom, because for me, it signals a rebirth.
Did working with big brands and big names such as Mick Jagger, Carla Bruni, Madonna and Grace Jones have an influence on your decision to start your own fashion brand?
As I mentioned earlier, my biggest goal from a young age was to discover the world; I was so attracted to the fashion and creative industries, and I wanted to be part of that. I arrived in London at the young age of 17, and I was at Kings Road with the unconventional hub of young and fashionable creatives during the punk era. The stars did feed my curiosity, and yes they definitely influenced me – they were a light to my path.
Everybody was very simple at the time, we all shared the same feelings and moods. Life was also very simple back then – there were no iPhones or other similar gadgets to capture and expose you in a bad situation. Everyone was very cool and we all minded our own business.
I had my own type of ‘swag’, confidence and personality, and even though I wasn’t famous, that worked for me because the doorman would always let me in at events (laughs).
Where do you see the brand AKEWA in the next 5 years?
Well, Covid-19 has been quite a hindrance, but I hope that it will soon pass and everything will be going well again in a couple of months, because what I want is to see AKEWA all over the world.
I’m working on a perfume right now, and I’m also preparing the “Who’s Next – Paris” ready-to-wear international exhibition for January 2022. I trust God that all will go well.
You are also into philanthropic work. Can you tell us about your involvement with Refugees Got Talent? What is your role there and what inspired your decision to become part of it?
When I first arrived in Marrakech, I shared my flat with a friend who runs a refugees association called Global Migrants Africa. I immediately felt a lot of concern for the people he was working to assist, and I lobbied my network of friends and colleagues to support the initiative.
The organisation supports a lot of artists and sculptors by lobbying an African market for the products, and I decided to invite potential customers to purchase the products. I also collaborated with another association to find ways in which they can provide dance classes for young children. We even got the likes of Léonore Baulac, a French ballet dancer who is an étoile (star) at the Opéra National de Paris Ambassador of Associations, to come and assist.
Also, most of the members of my teams at my atelier (design workshop) and shop are actually migrants from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Cameroun.
What words of advice would you give to a young African who has dreams of making it big in the fashion industry just as you did?
That is very simple; NEVER GIVE UP, AND FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!!
To see more of Francois’ alluring designs, follow @akewa_african_lifestyle on Instagram, and @AKEWA.STYLE on Facebook.
Interviewed By Tholakele Dlamini
Fashion By Flamingo – Connecting Cultures Through Fashion
Using fashion as a platform that can give another approach to African culture, more than academic studies and
news reports can.
Ever wondered how studying Psychology and a love for Fashion Design mix? Pia Martin, a German national now residing in Kenya, decided to blend her studies with her love for African fashion, and through her startup, Fashion By Flamingo, has been working to empower African designers in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. Read on to find out just how she has been doing this.
What inspired you to study Psychology, and since moving to Kenya, how have you been able to merge your studies in Social & Intercultural Psychology with your quest to collaborate with African designers?
I think studying Psychology means studying life. The knowledge I’m getting is not only preparing me for a specific job, but it helps to reflect on who I am, as well as helping me get to know the world around me.
Since moving to Kenya, I noticed that many organisations try to help local disadvantaged people with money, and that indirectly keeps the image alive that staying poor is a necessary condition for one to receive support. I think that to motivate people to achieve growth, foreigners should not be perceived as sponsors, but as business partners, opening doors for opportunities to show one’s talent. That would unveil mentorship opportunities for people, and help them realise that the better the quality of their work gets, the more value it has. The driving factor would therefore be motivation and the message would be that “effort makes a difference”.
How did you get into fashion and what made you so interested in showing off Africa’s rich culture to the European market through fashion?
Since I was a teenager, I loved the creative process of tailoring an outfit, or styling what I had in my wardrobe to express my personality. In the context of my brand, the idea is to use fashion as a medium – a platform that can give another approach to African culture, more than academic studies and news reports can.
Someone who is seeing or wearing something from one of my collections is already exposed to a piece of African culture; the colorful Ankara prints, Maasai beadworks, the shaping of a dress, or just the natural local materials – all that is not a verbal approach of explaining a culture, but a beautiful reminder of the story behind each unique piece of fashion in my shop.
What products are synonymous with your brand?
More than having one specific product, our signature is to come up with designs that are unique statement pieces with a touch of African culture, that might be the materials, colours, or the design.
One of the main goals of your startup is to empower talented African designers. What or who inspired that decision?
As a brand that stands for African designs and myself having been raised in Germany, it was clear to me that I can’t be authentic if I do all the designs by myself, but that I have to be open for collaborations with local designers, tailors and other brands to create something truly authentic.
I might have the advantage of understanding what my customers are looking for in an outfit, the need of a good quality product and how to style it, and I’m also profiting from feedback that I get from my European family, friends and customers, but at the same time, I don’t have all the knowledge of the best local materials, the traditional designs, and the creative influence of African cultures. That is why my approach is to collaborate and come up with a collection that can connect cultures, African-inspired but made for the international market.
You are passionate about the fashion industry using natural materials that are created in environments which do not violate ethics codes. What can you tell other designers to encourage them to follow the same guidelines, and what needs to be done to not overlook this topic in the fashion industry?
I had a meeting with a Kenyan lady who does great beadwork, and when it came to agreeing on a payment, I asked myself, from what she usually earns, how can she be able to pay school-fees for her children and still pay all her other bills? So it made me reflect that it should not be the goal to take advantage of artist’s skills by getting them to do a job done and underpaying them, but rather, artists should communicate and explain to customers why their products are more expensive than others, because they were produced in fair conditions.
Interestingly, most European clients would understand that and even appreciate knowing that they are buying a product that has neither exploited the environment nor the people who created it. In fact, it’s often not out of bad will at all, it is simply very transparent for a client to know the history of an outfit throughout the production chain until it’s being sold.
What I would tell other designers who might fear that they can’t make any gain if they improve production and material standards is that it matters to communicate and explain to customers why the selling price is higher. It also depends on the client’s target market. Not all clients are actually able to buy expensive clothes, but those who have money mostly need to see and understand why it’s worth paying more, and that there is an ethical reason for the price range, and not just a greedy salesperson.
What would you like to have achieved through this startup in the next five to ten years?
Although fashion trends are always changing, there are still things I’m learning with time. I would love to connect with designers from more countries (currently we only have collaborations with Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya). I would also love to work with the same teams for a longer time and keep improving the designs and quality, and try to control the process from where the materials are made to make the final product better over time.
Besides the marvelous and enchanting fashion, what else draws you to the continent of Africa?
Connecting cultures became more than an academic interest to me; it’s the consequence of the lifestyle I have chosen when love led me to settle in Kenya. Now, some years later, my man and I are expecting our firstborn child. As an interracial couple, we both bring our cultural backgrounds together and try to take the best from both sides as we build our own family.
How can people connect with you or support your startup?
They can view our products and DM us via our Instagram page, @fashion_by_flamingo.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Miss Eloquent – Zimbabwean Beauty Taking Africa By Storm
Miss Eloquent Africa is a Beauty Pageant that seeks to empower African women to embrace their beauty, and be proud of being African.
What do you think of when you hear the word, eloquent? Confident, well-spoken, talented or maybe star-power? Well, all those can be used to describe Ellain Qhawelihle Ncube, aka Cocoa. The Zimbabwean beauty is a finalist in the Miss Eloquent Africa pageant, a fairly new pageant that is empowering young women and celebrating culture across Africa through what has been dubbed ‘Africa’s Biggest Night of Beauty’. The 20yr old former Miss Curvy Varsities, actress, model and writer is no stranger to the spotlight.
Cocoa has won two awards thus far in her career; one Best Supporting Actress award from the Nash Drama Competitions and another from Isiphiwo Sami Drama Competition. Cocoa’s career has grown under the watchful eye of Fingers Modelling Academy, being groomed by Ma’am Sarah Mpofu Sibanda. Cocoa’s talent has landed her a scholarship to study Physical Theatre at the Zimbabwe Theatre Academy, under Mr. Lloyd Nyikadzino.
We sat down with the Bulawayo beauty to talk about her success so far in her fight for the 2021 Miss Eloquent Africa title, and everything in between.
Where were you when you got the news you were one of the two finalists to represent Zimbabwe at the Miss Eloquent pageant? Walk us through the moment.
Right; now this was the most exciting moment of my life because it came when I had lost all hope of making it through. I was on my way to a photoshoot with @AndilePhotography, and it was the last day of voting, of which I had not been checking my profile because I knew I had the lowest votes.
I then decided to just check them that afternoon before the shoot, and wooow…. I had the second-highest votes, which was a huge shock to me. I couldn’t believe it until that evening when the organiser Mr Stanley announced the finalists, and my name was right there. Given the opportunity, I would relive that moment, because it’s the best thing that has happened to me in 2021.
Tell me, how does it feel to be representing your country in such a huge way?
It’s really amazing because I have not only been given an opportunity to represent my country, but also my city Bulawayo, my family, and also the curvy beautiful women out there in Zimbabwe and in Africa as a whole. So, I am so excited and also looking forward to representing my country with confidence, dignity, pride and hope that one day Zimbabwe will be a pioneer in the arts sector.
Was pageantry ever a part of the life plan for Cocoa?
Yes, my modelling career began when I was doing my A’ Levels. I have always been inspired by beauty queens such as Ashely Morgan, Sipho Mazibuko, Catriona Gray, Zozibini Tunzi, who dedicate their time and skills to creating a peaceful, safe, and healthy environment for everyone, thereby making the world a better place for everyone.
Can you summarise for me what Miss Eloquent basically is?
Miss Eloquent Africa is a Beauty Pageant that seeks to empower African women to embrace their beauty, and be proud of being African. This year’s theme is “Our Africa, Our Pride”. The theme is to promote Africa’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and ultimately promote tourism through pageantry.
You are the pageant’s local license holder for next year, what does that mean?
It means that next year I and my fellow queen Nicole Mandimutsa will be responsible for organising Miss Eloquent Zimbabwe.
The Miss Eloquent pageant aims at empowering young African women, promoting African cultures and uniting Africans. How do you plan on taking these aims a step further if you win the title?
Many African women succumb to the fact that they can’t do things because of what society says, and also in many cases, images of Africa are always negative and focused on war, corruption, poverty, to mention a few, and yet there’s more to Africa than all that negativity. Therefore, If I’m to be crowned Miss Eloquent Africa I will dedicate my time, skill and energy to changing that mentality through my 2021 project “Action of Hope.” I will do this by educating young boys and girls of the beautiful African traditions, cultures and beliefs, and help them explore their talents without judgement. Hopefully, through this project, we will see more beautiful images of African children and adults embracing their cultures, because we need the world to see how beautiful Africa is.
I also want to use the Miss Eloquent Africa platform to advocate for mental health, my work with Ingutsheni Central Hospital, the mental health referral institution in Zimbabwe, has opened my eyes to this serious issue. According to the WHO, mental illness could be a deadly pandemic by the year 2030. In my opinion, it’s better to raise awareness and be safe than sorry.
Pageantry essentially is putting yourself out there, and with increased use of the internet, cyberbulling is definitely a thing. Has this yet to become something you have gone through?
Fortunately for me, I have not yet experienced cyberbullying, but it is something I am very well aware of.
On that note what advice would you give other women out there on how to handle cyber bullying?
I am not going to pretend to have all the answers, but from the things I have seen and heard, it looks like a horrific experience. My advice to women is, “Don’t take online chatter so seriously, don’t put your worth in the hands of strangers. Not everyone will like you, some people are just broken, and need to bring you down to feel better about themselves.”
The matter of colourism is one many in Africa are starting to talk about and become aware of. What is your take on it as a woman in pageantry?
First and foremost, every skin colour is beautiful! l personally don’t care about skin colour, because the truth is beneath every skin colour, you bleed red, and we are all human beings. However, we can’t avoid the fact that there is discrimination among African people based on skin colour, which is very disheartening. I always ask people, “How do you expect to fight against racism and win, when you are busy promoting colourism, tribalism and all that?”
In order to fight against related issues like racism, Africans should unite! We should embrace our beauty, our cultures, and be confident enough to show the world how beautiful and amazing all shades of our melanin skin are. An African proverb says, ‘In order to fight an Alien and an oppressive culture, you must first embrace your own.’ We need women to rise, take up space, and accept their unique and beautiful skin colour.
It definitely is a time of development and change within the pageantry world; the Miss SA pageant announced this year that the competition would be open to transsexual participants. What’s your take on such change and what it means for the industry?
First of all, instead of calling it change, I think I would prefer to call it progress, because really when we look at South Africa’s modelling industry, it has been developing quite well. From acknowledging that curvy women are also women who deserve a shot at being Miss SA, to crowning a queen with short natural hair who has inspired thousands of African women around the globe to feel secure about having natural short hair, and now also accepting transsexual individuals… that is a whole lot of progress.
I think it is great that they are using pageantry to promote equality, unity and peace in Africa, because for a long time and up till now, the LGBTQ community struggles to fight against societal discrimination, and it is because people are too ignorant. Just because someone is different from you doesn’t make them any less human. I applaud South Africa for taking a stand against discrimination.
Where can we go to show our love and support of you as you vye for the Miss Eloquent crown?
Those who would like to know more and be a part of my projects can reach out on those platforms, also for sponsorship. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
We are rooting for you Cocoa!
Interviewed by Hazel Lifa
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