Chepkemboi Mang’ira has always had a passion for fashion. Even as a young child growing up in Kenya, she knew that fashion would somehow play a role in whatever career she chose. “When I was ten, my parents brought home a book on ancient Egypt. I was mesmerized by it and swore I’d become an archeologist — but of course a very fashionable one,” she laughs. While she no longer plans to become a Fashionable Archeologist, she has found a way to marry her fascination of ancient cultures and artifacts with her love of fashion. And, in most respects, fashion has indeed influenced every choice she’s made.
After high school, Chepkemboi and some of her friends signed on with a modeling agency, which seemed like the most glamorous avenue to fashion, but she was told she was not light-skinned enough to get much work. Undeterred, she vowed to find another way. Later that year, “after much pressure from my parents,” she applied at the University of Nairobi to study media, which she surmised might be useful in the fashion industry. About halfway through her Media and Journalism Studies degree, which she completed in 2013, she began writing a fashion blog called Miss Vavavum.
“I began Miss Vavavum just for fun really, but soon I was getting actual payment offers for different services through it. So I took it a step further and decided to register the blog and turn it into a business.”
The services she provides include fashion styling, fashion research, and fashion writing, among other things. “I work with brands to ensure that their fashion sense in is line with the overall vision they want to achieve. I’m able to create strategies for my clients, as well as link them to key individuals in the fashion industry through my own contact list that I’ve built over the years.” Her clients have included a Kenyan musician, a skin care company, fashion magazines, event planners, TV production houses, and publicists. As she worked to build the audience and client list for Miss Vavavum, she also continued to be employed in a wide variety of different capacities, determined to learn as much as she could before striking out completely on her own.
It was this momentum, along with her long-ago interest in archeology and ancient cultures, that lead her to her next big endeavor, #OwnYourCulture, which she started in 2015. #OwnYourCulture is an online movement that aims to discover, preserve, and promote traditional Kenyan jewelry and wearable artifacts. When Chepkemboi first got the idea for the movement, she did some research, including going to museums and cultural centers to study jewelry from Kenyan tribes. She discovered over 40 distinct types of intricately designed traditional jewelry, which she believed could still be relevant to today’s fashion. She also found that relatively few artisans are still creating these pieces today.
“#OwnYourCulture seeks to restructure what fashion is to African people and go beyond the more familiar prints and fabrics to look at our ornaments, which are equally timeless and equally spectacular. I have different artisans across East Africa that I am working with to bring back these pieces.”
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Story by Elaine Pirozzi