Anyango Mpinga is a contempory sustainable fashion designer and social entrepreneur. I was introduced to Anyango through Clare Press when I asked her ‘who next’. Anyango’s navigation through fashion has taken guts and determination and demonstrates the power of going for it. She is a ‘cultural innovator championing intersectionality as a guiding principle in circular fashion’. Her work embraces her heritage, culture and traditions of Africa and Kenya. At the same time she is uplifting the voices of women and her upbringing gives us a unique view on equity. Anyango’s interest in fashion goes way beyond design, she set up Free as A Human in 2018 which raises awareness of human trafficking and forced labour in fashions supply chain. At the moment she is living and producing in London.
D: When did you start coming to London?
A: I started coming to London in 2017. My first major visit, I was for Pure London. At the time as doing a programme with the ITC and they were working with female entrepreneurs and I was one of the brands selected to come to Pure London. They covered the cost of everything and I brought my new collection. When I was there, I was approached a manufacturer who had seen the collection and sent an email though saying “we run a small studio in London and we really loved your work if you're ever in town let's discuss”. I looked at the email and thought yeah manufacturing in London as if. However as luck would have it, it was possible.
D: I like to start from your beginnings, what your influences are and all the influences that brought you together to be the person you are today. There is a beautiful Bahai quote that I have heard you mention, about two wings…..
A: On equality.
D: Yes on equality: “The world of humanity has two wings – one is women the other men. Not until both are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one remain weak, flight is impossible.”
It would be nice in the future to have the bird fly.
A: Exactly, exactly we want the wings to be functional always and to always be soaring. If we think about equity that way and if every leader thought about it that way we wouldn’t have injustice and wouldn't think about each other as other. Otherness is a constant occurrence in our society and it guides how we do everything. The most interesting thing is that we are all a reflection of each other.
A: Everything you do to someone you're doing to yourself. This is how connected we all are and I wish, I'm not perfect I make mistakes don't get me wrong, but I wish we actually woke up and thought about it that way because it would really guide our principles. It would guide how we conduct like ourselves and how we treat each other. Whether it's ideas around equality, justice, ethical manufacturing, paying fair wages, if you saw yourself in someone else then you would know that, you couldn’t you to live on $1 day so how can they?
This is how systems oppress people rather than elevate them.
D: Also the minimum wage is oppressive.
A: It’s an oppressive thing, because you're deciding for someone else how much they should live on rather than factoring in, how much do you live on?
D: The minimum wage means people are turning to food banks to eat which is crazy.
A: If I knew that any of the workers at the factories I work with in London, considering how much I pay for production, were not being paid fairly and were not able to survive with their families without having to resort to food banks I would be very very concerned. There's a reason I am willing to pay 80 or 100 pounds for producing one dress, that’s because I know a good chunk of it is going to the person who's making the dress. It's too easy to take shortcuts if you're not willing to be your own keeper. In the Bible it says you have to be your brother's keeper and it has so many meanings. You can say everybody should do ABC D but, what did you do? You can lead by example. You have to hold yourself accountable, before you start holding other people accountable. You have to hold yourself, learn from mistakes, and be willing to improve and be better. That's the only way we see transformation. It's not even about a quick change. When something transforms it becomes something else. It becomes something new and I feel we should all want our industry to transform.
D: What was what was it like growing up in Kenya?
A: My upbringing was pretty normal. My mom is a single parent and we lived a normal middle class life. Growing up was fun for me, because my two older siblings are 12 years older and as the baby of the family, I got away with a lot.
I loved playing with dolls, loved it. I loved it so much that I liked my dolls to have a change of clothes. I suppose that's how I started experimenting with knitting and stitching. We had a home science class in primary school and were taught how to knit and how to stitch by hand. Which meant I could sew dresses for my dolls. I also knew how to make small sweaters for them, because as they were teaching us they would give us patterns to follow and show us how to do different stitches. I learnt to crochet and knit and that was very interesting for me. I was also really good at art, so much so that I won the district art competition.
Art has always been with me since I was little, art and music. I wanted to learn everything. I think it’s that curiosity that has a lot to do with how I am today, because I can definitely see how it shaped my personality, I had a curiosity for everything creative and artistic. The kids around me weren't the same. Growing up Bahai, we had children's classes on Sundays, there were so many things that we did creatively that kept me going and kept inspiring me to dive to that world. At the Bahai centre I was surrounded by kids from all cultures, and all backgrounds so the interaction was different.
The influences where so diverse that, for me the question of inferiority from a cultural perspective never became an issue. I saw how some of my friends elevated different people or felt inferior around others. We are all informed by television and when you’re sitting watching TV you're seeing a completely different world and the messaging is showing you that the rest of the world is better than your own existence and that does make some people feel a bit inferior. Luckily I didn't have that because a my mom is one of those people who is such a go getter and travelled. She was of the few in the neighbourhood who did.
D: What does your mum do?
A: At the time mum was a travel agent. Then as a side-line during certain seasons she and my aunt would get together and buy handcrafts, carved animals and soapstone plates. Then together they would take them to Germany, London and the US. Her office had posters of different places one I'll never forget was Notre Dame, nice posters from different destinations, it was a colourful upbringing.
Of course the teachings coming from my Bahai background influenced me, because there was an understanding of the importance of education. We were taught from a young age from the Bahai principles that if a family had a son and a daughter and they could only educate one child it was preferred that they educated the girl and not the boy, because the woman carries the family and she carries humanity. Everywhere else the teaching is boys are better than girls and I'm like ‘no, no actually girls are way more superior.’ It made me curious, we were taught to investigate truth for ourselves, so I grew up with that mentality.
D: When you went to University your mum suggested you do any degree other than an arts degree.
A: She had one question, ‘so when you go to art school what are you going to specialise in?’
I didn't have an answer. So she said ‘why don't you do a degree that still has a creative aspect? then later on you can pursue something artistically. Get a degree where there are actual job openings. For me, because I idolised my dad, he's a journalist and his well known in East Africa, I thought okay, communications but instead of print journalism I will go into broadcast journalism. So I studied radio and TV and did a course called social communication and studied different aspects of communication which had sociology elements, psychology of communication, critical thinking and human rights, we touched on so many different topics that really informed my own understanding of the power of communication it was an eye opening experience for me.
So she said no to art, even when I became a designer she thought, you mean that you want to be a tailor, a tailor for clothes?
D: I'm sure that changed with all the amazing things you've done over the last few years.
A: When she saw the press coverage I was getting, she started saying ‘oh so this actually is this a job.’ as she realised it was serious and you can be successful. She was saying to me ‘ohh it's serious enough that the newspapers are talking about it. Being of that old school mentality, if it's on TV and if it's in the paper it's a very, very big deal.
The first time I had a Vogue interview I took a screenshot and I sent it to her. It clearly had my name on it, but also says Vogue. Mom writes back and says ‘wow Vogue whose work is that?’ This was so far from like her own realm of thinking.
D: When did you set up your fashion brand?
A: After University I got a job to work in advertising and moved to Ethiopia for that. I was working as an account manager and events manager. I enjoyed my job, so much, that fashion wasn't even on the radar. It was something I enjoyed, I enjoyed thrift shopping, I enjoyed styling my clothes and the first thing I did when I got to Ethiopia was look for a good tailor so he could adjust some of the things for me.
D: Was tailoring mostly done by men in Africa?
A: A lot of the time the tailoring was done by men. I remember even as a child the good tailors are mostly men. So it was normal. I went home to Kenya once a year for my vacation and would come back with Kangas style fabric which is very very Kenyan very East African. I would design something for myself and then wear it to events, my friends started asking me where did you get that dress from I want one. At first I didn’t take any notice, it was only until one of my friends actually forced me to make a dress for her and paid for it that it actually became a thing. At the end of my time in Ethiopia I helped organise the first ever Ethopian Fashion Week. We brought in speakers to talk about sustainable fashion and sustainable sourcing, touching on ethical manufacturing, sourcing and manufacturing in Africa, this is 2010. A lot of people came, it was a really successful Fashion Week. I remember saying to my friend ‘okay so maybe it's time I took this fashion thing a bit more seriously’. It was only at that point that I understood the kind of industry it is, versus fashion being about fun. It was the first time I saw fashion as an industry. From a communications point of view, my job was to make sure the event went smoothly. But thinking about the fashion industry itself, production, sourcing etc, that spark hadn't been lit until I listened to the workshops and the conversations that were happening around sustainability.
Back in Kenya I decided to explorie more. I knew I wanted to be as sustainable as possible even if I don't know as much as I would like to know about the industry. When I moved back to Kenya, I worked as a consultant then as an on air radio presenter. During that time I was experimenting, making samples, trying to figure out who to work with and friends were starting to get even more interested in what I was making. The first time I went to a music festival, someone from the newspaper stopped me and asked to take my picture and asked what are you wearing, what's the brand? I didn’t have a brand name yet so I gave him the first thing that came to my mind was the word Kipusa, it's Swahili and means beautiful young lady. The following Friday my mom sent me a photo saying ‘do you know you in the newspaper in the style section and they said your name is Kipusa. This was the start of my first brand which became really popular, much faster than I thought it would. It was popular because I was adventurous in the way I designed the clothes using local textiles and prints. The brand was so successful I was invited to represent Kenya at a show for African brands in Paris. Slowly things were growing and I was getting a lot more coverage in newspapers and magazines. I learnt a lot in those three years from 2012 to 2015. Then in 2015, I rebranded.
D: I read that people were stealing your brand name.
A: It was so popular that two things happened, firstly people were stealing the brand name and using it to sell their own product. Then people were using my photos on their platforms to sell a product that was mine, but selling it cheaper. Because I was using local fabrics it was easy to find the same print in the market, so even if my designs were different, people were still able to say ‘ohh yeah I can make that dress for you.’
I paused as I needed to change how I was sourcing my fabrics and time to develop my aesthetic. I was experimenting with construction and white shirts because that was the style I really loved and it still struck people when I made samples for myself, they were very different. It gave me time to develop my style. After that brief hiatus, it was time to relaunch and this time using my own name and to stop looking at myself as a simple Kenyan designer and look at myself as a global brand. Right before I rebranded, I entered a competition called African designers for tomorrow. Until that point I had always felt that there were so many designers who are better than me, who all had had a UK education. So I thought there's no way I'm going to be chosen but to my surprise I was one of the finalists. My work had the African element but was so modern with small accents of print here and there and were very intricate. I loved working with lace and satin and there's one particular dress that was black lace that I lined with one of the printed fabrics and the result was great. Everybody bugged me about that dress, so I made a limited run of nine dresses which sold out. To this day I still have customers who tell me ‘I still have my dress’.
D: I love how you use the white shirt as your blank canvas as your starting point when developing a new collection.
A: I start with a white shirt like a clean palette, so I can think about what structure, messaging and silhouettes I want to dictate this season. Someone taught me this and it has helped me really make sure my collection is cohesive. It helps me focus and maintain a aesthetic that is also size inclusive and has my signature. I realised producing even in small quantities that cohesiveness also saves you money. When you're producing and you have patterns that are similar it makes it more cost effective when you're grading and manufacturing.
So, 2015 is the answer to the beginning of my brand as it is today.
D: I like how you've always used your brand to represent all women. When you had your first catwalk you only had five professional models all the rest were women you knew.
A: This was my first proper runway show at Ethiopian Fashion Week. When they saw I was serious about fashion they invited me back to showcase. Of course I still had friends there and said to them let's have fun with this. I'm going have five models to start off the show and then I want ten of you to come in and takeover. People will not be expecting it if you come in, in the middle. That was a lot of fun. The first woman to walk was a friend of mine who’s African American, very vivacious, curves to the nines and busty so very, very sexy. I put her in a coat which she opened it up just a little so it was suggestive enough to get attention but not vulgar, when she walked out people lost it, it was like everybody ‘was woah what happened’. Even when I look back now, I know people liked the designs but the women took them by surprise. The fact that the pieces were very wearable meant that even after the show finished people were asking ‘where can we buy the collection?’ So we had an afternoon tea on the Sunday after the show and 30 women showed up, each one of them bought something or ordered multiple things. I think I had $10.00 left after all the sampling and putting on the show. But I left with deposits of about $3000 and for the first time I felt like I was in business.
The more I did it the more confident I got in my abilities, yes I had people who loved my designs and were wearing them. I loved how different my collections were. Yet there was always that part of me that was insecure about the fact that I hadn't had a formal education. I had asked people to mentor me or work with me and show me the ropes, but they kept rejecting me saying ‘we can't teach you anything because you haven't been to fashion school.’ That hung over my head for a while. It’s a very different industry in Kenya, it’s not like the UK where there's a lot of access to information and there are so many courses, even free online courses that you can tap into. However by the time I launched Anyango Mpingo the brand I felt ‘okay world this is who I am take it or leave it I'm unapologetic.’
D: I can see from your different collections that you are a storyteller. Telling the story of your country Kenya and of Africa. You design your own fabric which are your own take on Kenyan and African traditions. What is the inspiration behind your designs?
A: When I launched my brand the most important thing for me was to be able to communicate my heritage in colour and print in a way that everybody around the world would resonate. That meant that storytelling, researching and going back into history and looking at the history behind certain traditions then translating that into textile prints. I've also looked at architecture in African culture as inspiration too, a part of me always wants to stay true to my cultural heritage, but also to explore my own understanding of how humanity is progressing. Here are three examples:
I created a dragonfly print which represents freedom. When researching dragonfly's I came across this fact: female dragonfly's will fake their own death to avoid mating with a male. If a dragonfly can fake its’ own death and pretend to be dead to avoid assault, imagine if our society was even half as respectful of women. We have all heard of situations where women have passed out, or are incapacitated and taken advantage of, but when it comes to the male dragonfly he thinks OK she's not moving, so I'm going to leave her alone. Parallels from nature I tie into the stories those are things that inspire me.
The first time I started creating my own prints I took inspiration from the feather of the Kondo Udo. They are warriors and dancers and it is rare to see them now because it's a dying tradition and it has to be a very special event for you to even see them. The first time I saw them dancing it was amazing. It was incredible, when mom and I saw them, we stopped in our tracks. I loved the experience of being there and seeing them in action and really understanding, then redesigning the feather print.
I'm a big believer in revisiting prints that you've created before and using them again in different ways. As one source of inspiration can give you so many different paths to explore.
I had been really questioning ‘what is love?’ At the time I had been developing a print that was mainly text like a newsprint. I already had the text and newsprint with quotes on love, justice and compassion and from that I started to explore the different ways of capturing the words I love you. Initially I made recordings of the words ‘I love you’ on my phone and recorded about 25 different languages. Some of them feature languages from Kenyan tribes, we have 42 tribes I picked the main ones. Then there are others from places I have visited in Europe and Asia and places I lived that have been part of my journey in fashion. I then used the sound waves from the recordings to make the print for the fabric. This is my interpretation of the sound of love and what it looks like.
This is one of my favourite’s I know for a fact I'll bring it back in different colours for different seasons and explore it a bit more. If there's one thing I know it is that love is one of those things that is never going to go away. It is how the universe was created and our world was created, it was created from love so there's no escaping it. However we want to we want to look at life, whether it's love for nature, love for the environment, love for our family, it is always there.
D: What's your favourite fabric? What do you like to work in the most?
A: Silk because it feels so good on your skin. The first time I wore a silk dress it was a shirt dress I had bought from a thrift store beautiful, beautiful shirt dress, I'll never forget it. It was incredible and I promised myself I'd always work with silk. When you print on silk the colours are so vibrant the colours are so much more beautiful, so I love silk. Also broderie anglaise which is timeless. Recently I started using a fabric called Refibra by Tencel, which a combination of recycled materials including old scraps of materials that have been created into a new fabric with organic cotton, making it a very circular material.
D: I heard about a town in Italy recently that has been recycling fabric for generations.
A: When I've used deadstock a lot of it comes from Italy, there's a supplier in the UK who sells deadstock and when it's gone, it’s gone. With a lot of that at the end of the roll it says it comes from Italy. The amount of textiles you find in these warehouses are left over from when a big factory has cancelled an order, or left behind say 2 rolls. There are some gems to be found there.
D: I am guessing you have to have enough to be able to print your beautiful prints onto the fabric.
A: Yes, but if I want to make a nice coat which I've done in one or two seasons and I wanted to use wool for instance, the quality has to be really good so the best source for me is to go and get some deadstock. Because A. nobody is going to have that exact coat and B. I can do it in a limited quantity.
D: You only create one collection a year.
A: When you look at some of the biggest prizes in fashion the criteria for application is that you have to have created fall/winter and spring/summer collection’s and I question that. How are we going to move forward and be more sustainable if the system punishes brands who are being more sustainable? They still say yes, we support sustainability, but supporting sustainability through and through also means they should look at things within their own criteria and adjust. We really need to move away from the old system of doing things and embrace transforming the industry. If I have a solid collection that is clearly trans-seasonal that can be worn throughout the year, by layering it up, if I have created a collection that is timeless then there is absolutely no reason to do three or four collections. However if I'm doing a special capsule collection that I'm collaborating on with a store that's a completely different story. I have a surplus of sketches, designs and patterns that I haven't developed so it's not that I can't design consistently. Designing four collections a year crates a lot of waste: take prototyping for example, that alone, in the sampling stage creates so much waste and for what? to have five collections where maybe only six or seven pieces from the collection are bought and all the others are discarded. That doesn't make sense to me. If I'm working with the BFC for instance and am on their platform and am showcasing one collection per year they should not penalise me from ever having any support from them for doing that. It's a more sustainable way for me to work and for the planet. If you penalise me that means you are saying that we only want you if you produce more and more and more and keeps you on a treadmill which is unsustainable.
Also the cost is significant, by the time you've finished one collection and delivered it, it's time for you start a new collection, yet the chances are you haven't even recovered your money from the last one. It’s endless.
When I look at some of the brands that have been there for years, like DVF for example, she still makes her wrap dresses every season and nobody complains. She makes a long one, a short one, long sleeves, ¾ sleeves, there are a few things she'll introduce, but otherwise it's all wrap dresses. I’m all for that, that's how it should be. Now obviously she's established enough that she doesn't have to rely on York Fashion Week to sell products, but this is how it should be for everyone. Last year showed me how showing during a particular Fashion Week is overrated and is not sustainable. Honestly if you're buying product at a certain price point, if you like it, you like it.
It is so necessary to have a system overhaul and it needs to happen now.
D: For your latest collection The Pupil, it must have been refreshing to create the collection digitally.To know what people are liking the most and asking for the most, before you even start cutting the fabric.
A: It is, as technology is advancing, let's advance with it. I still have to make paper patterns for the pieces but then those paper patterns will be used for production. It was refreshing to understand the possibilities around 3D design. I got to experience it first in 2019 when I was invited to Helsinki Fashion Week. When I started my residency there I met the 3D artist that ended up collaborating with me for The Pupil. I was designing at a time when I was feeling beaten by life, I had been designing since the April and I was feeling defeated, we were a month into Covid and I suddenly found myself in a position where I was financially unstable. Yet there was this voice in my head that kept telling me, ‘you have to keep creating, you have to keep creating, you have to keep creating, don't stop creating, you need something to keep you inspired. Around us there was a lot of injustice, and talk of injustice on social media, as the months wore on the air was heavy in a way that I hadn't experienced in a long time. The pandemic, Black Lives Matter, looking at relationships around me and how they were changing because of Black Lives Matter. Also bringing up situations where I felt that there was a bit of injustice personally, that I had experienced, and I understood it was because of race, especially in our industry. Now maybe it's a bit different because a few people know my band name. I did an exercise where I'd have a friend who has a very European name, or English name, send an email on my behalf and would get an immediate response. If however I sent the email it was ignored but that's just one example. It is constant, if you are applying for jobs it happens, when you're looking for any opportunities it’s the same. Also coming from Africa, the attitude is, ‘but you guys are so backward’: you can’t make a judgement like that on an entire continent.
D: Africa is one of the richest continents on the planet.
A: Exactly, why do you think everybody is clamouring to get there. This whole time has brought up so many different experiences for me, how do I channel what I'm feeling and turn it into something positive? so that when I look back I can feel better about how I reacted to the situation. My first thought was what do we need and what can we do to improve our history and our society? The answer is to be more inclusive and to open up dialogue in a way that allows people to communicate. The communication won't always be loving for instance, but if it's something that I am directly involved in then I'm the one who gets to decide the tone. I can either calm the fire, or I can fan it.
D: It’s hard to be the person that people turn to for solutions because you don't always have the answer.
A: If you had the solution then everything would be solved and I would wake up and the ideals that I have or believe that we should all collectively aspire to would be easier to navigate. When thinking about the campaign for The Pupil, I wanted to make sure that while I interviewed women I would ask them to talk about inclusivity and to touch on social justice to get them to talk about their own experiences of navigating the industry and how that's reflected in society today. The point was not to fan the fire, the point was to say, this is how much has been achieved and this is how much more we have to do, this is how we can improve. I was so proud when reading all their responses, because everybody was so focused on, how we're moving ahead and the things that we need to do to move forward. Showing the clothes on the women I interviewed was important for me, it allowed me to showcase women of different sizes, because that's who I cater to. All black women aren't grouped into one little box, so it was important to show that black women exist in a diverse community and there's so much to learn from what everybody has experienced. Also we were in a pandemic, social distancing was a thing and asking women to send me photos of themselves in their swimsuits so that we could dress them virtually was an adventure in itself. They put a lot of trust in us. I'm so happy with the outcome, I love it. I'm really happy with it is and the media reaction was only the beginning because we still had a whole year to explore everything. It’s brought a lot of people and opportunities my way. Even as I make samples the opportunity is there for press coverage as people ask to use the images for features. It has definitely had the right attention, I love that people resonate with the message as they to get to know the collection and as they understand the story behind it they stay connected. That for me is me serving my purpose.
D: In 2018 you set up Free As A Human, so not only are you designing and creating in a sustainable way, you also have this not-for-profit side of you that is giving back.
A: I like to think of myself as a social entrepreneur. Even with giving back, I look at it as impact investing, because that money goes back into investing in the women's education and well being. I started it as an initiative, more to raise awareness and get people to know about the work my partners are doing in Kenya which is non-profit. As it evolved I registered it as a foundation and I realised that there was a big gap in terms of what happens for the women after they've been rescued. After they've been at the shelter for a few months they need to be reintegrated into society. If they are younger, chances are there's no money to send them back to school. If they are older, chances are that these women will be looking at ways to make a living, which is how they found themselves being trafficked in the first place. So we are developing a programme that takes care of that and invests in girls education and is purely exclusively for female survivors of trafficking. The average age’s are from 6 to 30. When they're in primary school it's identifying the girls that have gone through the programme and rehabilitation and then working side by side with Heart Kenya to send them back to school, paying the school fees, buying books and making sure their necessities are taken care of until they're ready to go to university.
Then exploring what opportunities are there for the women who are above 18 and that is skills training. Not limiting it to tailoring or only one specific thing. For example, maybe we find a girl who is really interested in photography, how do we develop that for her, how do we get her into working in photography and matching her with someone who she can shadow and learn from in a very holistic way that will make an impact. If they are girls who are really driven to go to university, it's getting scholarships to make that available for them. Then as an organisation partnering with companies that can give them jobs. Or for those who want to set up a business, it's giving them enough training to set up a business, getting them set up and giving that support. We have to consciously and intentionally invest in young girls and women. If my family hadn't invested in me I wouldn't even be speaking to you. You educate. There were times that if my mom was unwell and hadn't been working for a while, my sister stepped in and paid the school fees for university. The women in my life have invested in me, my mother and my sister. So the best way for me to pay it forward is to invest in other women.
D: That's so strong and so powerful, so good.
D: What’s next? How do you see the next 5 years?
A: The next five years, I definitely want to have developed my own textile, it's something that has been on my mind. I started research on it and then shelved it for a while. I was looking into developing textiles from invasive species’ like the water hyacinth. I picked the water hyacinth in particular because it's it grows in Lake Victoria which is the rural area I'm from. On my last visit I noticed it was still a problem. So I got into thinking. There are a lot of artisans who weave baskets from the water hyacinth and this got me curious. What would it be like to develop textiles from it? So I started some of my own research and eventually want to partner consciously with some labs to explore further. Apply for funding for the project, to really explore it and look at what materials and resources can be can be mixed with it to make it into a really soft textile. There could be so many different products you can make from it. We keep talking about how we need to use more sustainable fabrics and if we need to use more sustainable fabrics, then we need to create more sustainable fabrics. So that is my initial aim. If it is successful then the production can help the community. They will be able to harvest it and use it to their advantage, that’s if it can be harvested in a sustainable way it will give them jobs and mean more money goes back into the community.