Kenya’s star has been rising internationally over the years – and outside of sports circles. People like Lupita Nyong’o and Edi Gathegi are boosting the country’s profile, and away from the silver screen, so is fashion designer Zeddie Lukoye, 27.
Zeddie owns a luxury brand, Narok NYC that’s based in New York, USA. The company’s name was inspired by the county that’s home to the world-famous wildebeest migration. As has been Zeddie’s dream since the inception of the company, Narok NYC has finally come home to Kenya. He tells Hustle how a boy born and raised in Eldoret ended up designing custom-made suits and jeans for CEOs and celebrities all over the world.
Growing up, there was a flea market right outside my school that I’d pass every day. Sometimes I stopped by the different stalls. My mother had many friends who sold secondhand clothes, and it occurred to me that I could also make money selling clothes to my fellow students. I started buying clothes and reselling them. I was in Standard 6. Making my own money was very exciting.
So you’d say fashion has always been in your blood?
Yes and no. Despite making money from selling clothes, I was more interested in rugby, but fashion seemed to follow me everywhere I went. Like this one time, my rugby team needed stencils for uniforms, you know, for the numbers at the back? I offered to make them. I think this was my very first attempt at design. Even then, I was just helping out. I didn’t take it seriously.
What made you take it seriously?
When I moved to Nairobi from Eldoret, I met this group of young guys from Kinoo who were making jeans and selling them. I thought that was pretty cool. I joined their team and they taught me how to tailor jeans. Soon, I got the idea to start my own shop in Kenyatta Market. I partnered with a friend and we started our business. We called it Black Bird Jeans.
It cost about Sh200,000 to set up, and were blessed to get an investor who put up the money.
Was it successful?
Absolutely. It was 2008 and not many young people were going into business, but we lived off of ours. A pair of jeans would go for Sh500 when we started. Over time, as our brand grew, we increased our prices to Sh2,000, depending on who we were dressing. We dressed news anchors, musicians, public figures; we were known.
How does one go from a stall in Kenyatta Market to New York?
We exhibited our jeans at an event, Blankets and Wine, in 2011. One of the celebrities we had dressed introduced us to a fashion buyer from New York. She asked us to make something unique for her.
We made a special pair of jeans intended more for a runway than every-day wear. She was very impressed. A couple of weeks later, she called to ask me if I had a passport. I did. She told me she wanted me to attend New York Fashion week. I kept waiting for someone to wake me up from the dream. I couldn’t believe it.
What was that like?
Mesmerizing. I mean, it was the real deal. We had professional models wearing our brand, walking down the runway, photographers snapping pictures. The moment I was introduced and accompanied the models into the audience, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to just design good clothes, I wanted to design clothes for people who believed in a good lifestyle.
So the New York Fashion Week changed your career?
That’s an understatement. Not just because it opened my eyes, but because of the contacts I made while I was there. In 2012, I went back to New York for more shows. I ended up being offered an internship at one of America’s leading brands, Alexander Nash. They employed me when my internship was done.
What made you decide to go your own way?
After three years at Alexander Nash and a year at another leading brand, 3X1, I felt I had grown enough to venture out on my own. I believe that if you stay in one place for too long without forward motion, you’re at great risk of falling backwards. Narok NYC was started in 2013 but became a fully fledged luxury fashion brand in 2016
How different is it working on your own?
The pressure is higher, of course, because everything starts and ends with you. But I’d saved up a chunk of the start-up capital I needed, I had made the right contacts and I had a loyal clientele already. Things fell into place. It wasn’t easy though, but I was determined to make it work.
What makes Narok NYC unique?
We don’t just dress our clients, we teach them the art of fashion. We take them through what to wear for different occasions, how to dress an outfit up or down, which colours work best at night versus during the day. There is a lot. Most people don’t realise that a sense of fashion can be as unique to a person as a fingerprint. No two people wear a suit or jeans the same way. If you can figure out how to make your style uniquely yours, you inadvertently become a brand.
Do you only dress men?
Predominantly, yes. But every so often, a lady will walk in, ask us to make a suit and we’ll do it. But it’s not our core business.
What’s the vision for Narok NYC?
We’d like to successfully break into the Kenyan market. We have been operating in Kenya since August last year and will be launching our flagship show at the end of this month. That’s our main focus right now.
Do you plan to open a shop in Kenya?
Not yet. Currently, all our suits are tailored in America, and we would like to keep it that way so that the brand is authentic and the quality uniform. Eventually, we hope to stock our products in luxury stores all over the world.
What would you say to people who think your products are too expensive for the Kenyan market?
At approximately Sh200,000 a suit? Sure, that’s not cheap, but it’s the target market we are looking at. It’s not a large one in Kenya or anywhere else in the world really.
Narok NYC is about dressing people who want a certain lifestyle, and can afford it. I don’t apologise for that. That’s my brand. That’s what we stand for.