When Kenyan born Jeffrey Kimathi started Jamhuri Wear in 2003, there were a lot of sceptics and few optimists. Today his brand has evolved into a global product worn by big names in the US entertainment industry such as Jay Z, Akon, Ludacris, K’Naan and Damien Marley among others.
We caught up with him for a one-on-one.
It has been 10 years since you were home? Any fresh impressions of Kenya 10 years on?
I came in October and the plan was to set a base at home. I have seen a lot of growth, population, traffic, and business. There is a lot of potential. The youth have found their voice. People like Jua Cali, Major, musicians are sustaining themselves through music.
How did you start?
Jamhuri was a hobby for a year or two. I moved to New York in 2001 from Dallas. I got an epiphany when I started reading about Dedan Kimathi and Ngugi wa Thiongo. I got this realisation that this is what I want to do. I love fashion. I sent my resumes to different design houses like Enyce, Roca Wear, Fubu among others looking for an internship. At that time, I was really into Ecko. Ecko called and asked me to come in for an interview. I met a woman there who told me they usually gave internships to fashion students, but she said there was something about me and she gave me the job. I was working for Budget Car Rent at the time, so I went and quit my job.
What happened then?
I went to work on the day I was to start at Ecko and found that the lady who had hired me had been fired. I told the people there, “I already quit my job. What’s going to happen?” The new lady who had replaced her decided to give me a chance. She gave me the worst jobs. She would say, “Move those magazines from here to there”. The next day she would be like “Move them back here I do not like them there”.
What did you do at Ecko?
I did a lot of public relations and marketing. I was working with the fashion line. I saw ideas created and executed. Ecko was a small company then. I realised a successful company does not have to be big. I was not earning anything so I was living on credit cards. I soaked up everything I learnt there like a sponge. Three months later, I left when the internship ended. Two weeks later, I got a call from Ecko. They were offering me a job.
That must have been exciting
Yea. I was there for three years. I worked with the best in the industry. I was part of the team that conceptualised G-Unit from the concept, to hiring the designers, to the final product. The company grew big. I saw how a brand grows. I strengthened my networks; I actually met Akon while working for Ecko.
Did you get to work with 50 Cent?
I did. At that time, he had never been to Africa. He used to ask, “How is it there?” and I was like “They love you out there.” He is very intelligent; he is business savvy and a perfectionist.
What happened after Ecko?
I decided it was time to focus on Jamhuri wear. There was a lot of scepticism from people. I was told there is no demographic; Africans do not buy clothes. At the time, I also got a call from MTV. They wanted me to do the styling for a show called Trailer Fabulous for them for a year. It was a reality makeover show. I was doing costumes and wardrobe. http://www.mtv.com/shows/trailer_fabulous/series.jhtml It exposed me to different angles. I learnt how quality is created. I learnt about film shooting.
Describe your brand, Jamhuri Wear, in three words.
Ambitious. Aspirational. Authentic. Jamhuri Wear is an African Sportswear brand. Jamhuri Wear is daring. Everyone was going in one direction and we took another. We are not doing Hip Hop for example we are doing African. It is a reawakening of Africa; we are celebrating ourselves as Africans. Jamhuri Wearwas started in 2003 December and I joined hands with Vicky Chege, my current business partner in 2005.
Is your pricing going to change for the local market?
Kenya is ready for Jamhuri Wear. Our pricing will remain the same about USD25 – USD125. The hoodies go for about USD125. The quality is good and value.
A number of international celebrities have worn your label. Are there any local celebrities who wear your brand?
Yea we have Suzanne Owiyo, Chameleon, DJ Pinye, Point Blank, Kalamashaka, Churchill, Bamboo and a lot more. We deal with customers from all over the world even in Japan. Definitely, we have had a lot of support.
What has Jamhuri Wear planned for 2010?
We are actually working on a new line called Heritage Rich. We wanted to release it summer 2009, but we felt we would not be true to the Kenyan market. I had not been home in 10 years. So I felt I needed to come home to re-bond with my roots.So look out for that.
(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America)