Jeffrey Kimathi is the founder and owner of a collection of street clothing dubbed Jamhuri Wear. The clothing line is a popular brand in Harlem, New York and has been donned by some of the world’s biggest stars.
He founded the clothing line with the aim of putting Africa and its rich heritage and culture on the world map, a thing he noticed was lacking in the US despite the huge black population in cities such as New York.
The fashion designer saw his brand grow beyond a small Harlem store to the wardrobes of some of the elite celebrities in the world. Here is his story as narrated by WoK.
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Relocating to the US
Kimathi moved to the US after opportunities became scarce in Kenya. As an artist, he felt that the country did not offer enough to encourage his development and growth as an individual and professional. Therefore, he sought to move abroad.
“America seemed to have something more to offer. If you have a dream, you can chase it there,” he told Daily Nation during a past interview.
When he left Kenya in 1998, he was also chasing a girl whom he later caught up with and they lived together in Dallas for a few years. He worked several jobs, all of which were not related to fashion, a field he was so passionate about.
“But something told me I had to get to New York,” he recalled.
In 2001, he relocated to Big Apple shortly after the September 11, bomb attack that levelled the Twin Towers. He lived with a friend at an apartment in Harlem, Manhattan District, New York.
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After arriving in Harlem, Kimathi realised that despite the huge black population in the city, there was a huge disconnect between African-Americans and Africans. He also felt that Africa was not represented in the world map enough and he sought to make his contribution.
“I would be the one to tell that story to the world.”
Kimathi got a job moving boxes at Ecko Unlimited, a well-known fashion house in New York. After 6 months, he was promoted to the design department. He would later go on to work for MTV.
In 2005, he felt the need for a new challenge, and so he founded Jamhuri Wear. His first clothing was branded with images of freedom hero Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi.
When he started out, Kimathi sold Jamhuri Wear fits on the internet and in a chic Harlem store that he shared with his then-business partner, Ibrahim Doukoure, a designer from Guinea. Doukoure also had his clothing line, Bebenoir -French for black baby.
“Jamhuri “, translates to “Republic” or “Free State” in Swahili, describes the 54 African republic’s that the company proudly embodies.
By redefining everyday products inspired by African materials and Africa’s vibrant street youth culture, Jamhuri wear presents Africa in today’s context for a global market. Jamhuri Wear aims to create an intersection where culture, style, and authenticity converge. A true mash-up of global immigrant culture. Showcasing the Power of Culture, over the Culture of Power through contemporary African apparel.
Jamhuri Wear has been worn on major events by the likes of Jay-Z, Damian Marley, Tom Morello, Lupita Nyong’o, Akon, Jidena and K’naan among several other top celebrities.
Some of the t-shirts come branded with images of African heroes like Dedan Kimathi and Nelson Mandela, among others. Others come with writings of the Kenyan national anthem in swahili, and others bear flags of African states.
Relocating to Nairobi
Kimathi relocated to Nairobi in a bid to explore market opportunities in his motherland.
“I relocated back to Kenya to explore the progression of culture and to look at opening possibilities for Jamhuri Wear in the market. We were getting lots of request from our customers to open a retail operation but found that the idea was more complex than we thought.
“We thought we might be adding to the problems caused by fast fashion flooding into second-hand clothing markets. It seemed like a double-edged sword of sorts for us. So we looked at other creative options and that lead to our new venture,” Kimathi told True Africa.
He notes that relocating to Africa posed its own sets of challenges to his business and he had to make quick adjustments.
“I learned that it’s not necessarily true that what works in the rest of the world should work in Africa. Africa is different in terms of needs and in terms of what solutions will work on the ground. I had to re-learn business etiquette and really challenge myself on my view of life and of how my skills and talents could benefit Africa.
“Africa presented new challenges, like patchy infrastructure, but also presented us with new technologies to master. M-Pesa for example presented new ways to handle payments so we had to learn how the market operates when it comes to banking,” he said.
Kimathi advises aspiring fashion designers to make use of the available technology and exploit online platforms in growing their brands. He also notes that it is important to seek partners who complement each other in skill.