LILABARE is the first sustainable brand that uses a natural hand-dyeing in East Africa. We had the pleasure to talk to the inspiring, knowledgeable and passionate Ms. Ria Ana Sejpal who is the founder and Creative director of LILABARE.
What inspired you to establish your fashion design Brand
When I was young I did not have a lot of shopping opportunities outside of mitumba(Second hand clothes). I would take already existing clothes to my local tailor and change the designs of the outfits. This got me thinking about how we use clothes and the lifespan of garments. I started quantifying that thought process through my research at the University; I studied the social and ethical impacts of what I do at lilabare. Besides, I also acquired some work experience at the EPZ and various fashion houses and factories. Through this experience, I had the chance to understand how the whole industry operates and I found it to be incredibly wasteful. As such, I went back to my theses and asked everybody who I had ever worked for if they thought it is possible to pay people well at every level of production while making a positive impact on the environment and still receiving profits. They all said no. Therefore, I accepted that as a challenge. I thus decided to create a brand that not only empowers makers but also, impacts the wearers of the clothes. Therefore, the designs I make are inherently sustainable and adjustable in size.
How long have you been in the Fashion Industry?
When I was living in India, just after my University, I had a friend whose sister was getting married. She had a very minimal style, and as such, she asked me to design her something as she could not find anything in the market. That is how I ended up designing the first style, the signature cape, under the LILABARE brand.
I also wanted to come back to Kenya to translate all of the things that I had learned from India and apply it to artisanal groups here. Therefore, once I got back in 2016, I participated in a local fair; by then, I only had two designs, the signature cape and the kimono. The event went incredibly well that it gave me the confidence to start developing my design aesthetics in garments and fashion in early 2017. That is how LILABARE was born.
Can you explain the design process?
We hand-dye all our pieces and make them from scratch. Moreover, I am always trying to learn and so, my research often leads me to Japanese craft. Therefore, I started with this process of shibori dyeing; it is a folding and dyeing process where you use the inverse and pleats to create a print on a piece of fabric.
I was also curious about using non-chemical dyes, and so, I started to research the possibility of using agricultural products. Kenya is so abundant in natural resources and it would have been silly for me not to start from there. As such, we create the print by using a mixture of folding and resist techniques all created by hand. I do most of them and I am actually training someone from my team to do this practice. Once we complete that, we extract some pigments from natural indigenous plants so for example we used tea and coffee before. That was our first collection of print design from scratch so we actually make the dye as well as create the print simultaneously.
Last year, we collaborated with refushe (A group of artisanal women who use tie-dye techniques to create small accessories) to teach a workshop on how to use plants to create the dye instead of the regular chemical dyes. Thereafter, as a practice, we collaborated in creating the pieces from scratch with the women so they were learning a skill at the same time they were supplying us with extra hands to create the first vegetable dyeing process. I have not seen anything from Africa other than a couple of brands that do hand-dyeing but not natural dyeing. Therefore, I think we are the first ones in Africa and I know for sure that we are the first ones in East Africa to do it at this scale. So it’s a really exciting journey.
Where do you source your fabric from?
The process of sourcing fabric is complex. Essentially, I have taken it upon myself to actively pursue suppliers of fabric who are doing things that are eco-friendly and sustainable based on LILABARE’s standards. At the moment, we have a range of fabrics from East Africa and India.
When it comes to the local fabrics, I am pleased to announce that we have increased the localization of our supply chain from 10% to 40%. Besides, I continuously work to find new weavers, farmers and Spinners of yarn. I must admit that it is a really exciting time.
Moreover, I work with several different artisanal groups and manufacturing units who interact with us at different capacities. One of them is the Cotton Made in Africa Initiative which supports the rights of East African farmers and ensures that they are earning a decent living wage. They also make sure that all of the Cotton is Rainfed and organic.
I have also worked with a local unit for my current season and that is the first time I actually designed textile from scratch with Weavers. As for the fabrics that come from India, I work with a woman-owned and run Boutique manufacturing unit that specialize in handcraft and artisanal production. In their units, any fabric that is ordered by a designer is produced 110% of that order so the 10% is usually to account for errors and more often than not will end up in landfills. I decided to contact this unit and ask them what they do with their leftovers and they did not have an answer. This actually made them audit their factory and found like 6, 000 meters of undocumented fabric and to put that into context a meter of fabric makes a T-shirt so that’s about 6000 t-shirts worth of textile going to waste. Therefore I curate some of these fabrics from their waste.
You mentioned that the Wanja hoodie design helps to save 10,000 liters of water. That is interesting. Can you elaborate further?
We calculate the liters of water saved by the fashion Revolution calculation of 2,700 liters of water equals one t-shirt. The Fashion Revolution is a global movement that started in 2001 after the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh which killed 1,000 workers for poor working conditions. We use that as a baseline for calculations based on the weight of your average t-shirt, factoring in the amount of cotton or fabric. For example, the Wanja hoodie saved 10,000 liters of water because 10,000 liter of water was enough cotton to create the Wanja hoodie.
You have so much knowledge about the dyes, the fabric and upcycling. Where do you learn from?
It’s a combination of experience and a desire to learn as well as a great network of mentors and supporters who are well-informed. As I stated, I studied the Social impact side of what I do which allowed me to have a starting point for research on how to make a positive impact on fashion. Moreover, you never stop researching new technologies that are available keeping in mind what is happening to the world with regards to researching ancient practices and old ways of doing things and seeing how we can transfer that into a modern context. There is also a lot of experimentation involved I would say about 2 months of the year I’m solely experimenting with the fabrics. I also feel like it’s one thing to say you’re sustainable and ethical but it’s another thing to really know what you’re talking about because the only way you can make such an impact is if you know what you are doing and also the effects that you have by taking certain causes of action.
How do you distinguish yourself as a designer, not a fancy tailor
I used to have a problem with asserting my value on my products, but with time and the wonderfulness of the internet, I am able to have a voice for free. This has allowed me to build a rapport with enough people who don’t question it anymore. Sustainable fashion is a new subcategory of fashion that has slowly emerged over the past 20 years.
There are plenty of people in this country and this world who see the value of hard work, originality and authenticity that comes with creating a product with so much intention so I don’t feel like I have to reassert myself or explain myself anymore.
I have spent the last few years talking about it consistently to my Instagram audience, my website viewers and customers that I meet at fairs and pop ups. I have seen that shift slowly over the years from, okay you are just a glorified tailor to you have a big sustainable brand. There is a very big difference between people who just copy what’s trendy and what’s on the catwalk and people who are actually making something new and original and have a voice in the narrative of fashion as a trendsetter and not a trend follower
We also have a problem in the African continent where we have this perception that if something comes from Africa it has less value than the one that comes from the West. Unfortunately, the narrative is inbuilt with us because we grew in a place that glorifies and puts on a pedestal anything that comes from outside of our home as opposed to the other way around. I think it’s my job as a Kenyan fashion designer to flip that narrative and consistently work in a way that shows people that there is so much value in the designs that I create.
We have noticed that your clothes have Kiswahili names like the mkubwa shirt and the wanja hoodie, what has inspired that?
The names of the products come from my association with the feeling of the garment. For example, with the mkubwa shirt, you are supposed to feel like a boss. It is supposed to make you feel like you own the room. I put a lot of intention into the way the shoulders are cut so that you feel strong and powerful when you wear it. There are also the pumzika pants which are like your ultimate chill and relaxing outfit that you can wear for Sunday brunch or you can go out and then come home and take a nap in them. I like to have names that are purposeful and will give you a clue of what you would feel like if you wore it
The wanja hoodie is inspired by wanja wahoro who is such an incredible musician. She was one of the Muses for the shoot that we did when we dropped the wanja hoodie. It was very exciting to have wanja in the wanja hoodie (Laughs)
Does each of your designs use upcycled fabric or do you mix them with original fabrics?
We use a combination. As I mentioned, we upcycle fabrics from different places that are hand-spun and hand-crafted in a particular way or I create a fabric that is grown and loomed.
There is actually a project that I’m doing in partnership with African collect textiles where we upcycle second-hand jeans that were not selling to create denim fabric. We have just received the first batch where we upcycled 50 pairs of jeans to create meters of this new kind of textile. Therefore, I designed a patchwork kind of print using different colored jeans. We also create our original fabric in conjunction with local artisans as well.
Is the denim fabric for commercial use or you intend to use it for your designs
I will be using it for my own designs. I’m excited about creating denim; we have never done denim at LILABARE. We will be launching it in early 2021. I will not be doing jeans per se but, I guess you have to see the fabric then you will get the idea of what it is. I don’t know of any denim manufacturers here in Kenya. We take it for granted because it exists everywhere but in the real sense, they are unique fabrics that come from central parts across the world
You are photoshoot specific (the majority of them are in the Savanna region) what draws you to choose such scenarios?
I am emotionally connected to the savanna planes. I am fortunate enough to have grown up here and seen it my whole life. The feeling that I get at the Savanna Plains is very much the feeling that I want to invoke in my clothing design. I always try and choose a location that pairs well with the designs itself. The savanna helps us celebrate the fact that we are a Kenyan brand and that this is my home; a place that inspires me. It also speaks to a sense of space, fluidity and freedom and that is what the LILABARE brand is all about.
Tell us about your latest collection
The latest collection by LILABARE is kupona which means to heal in Swahili. The inspiration started early this year after quarantine and COVID happened and I found a lot of solace and comfort in things that exist in my home and every Kenyan home. For example, the kikapu and kiondo are incredibly well-designed, durable, natural, and organic handcrafted things that we just have in our house.
Therefore I got a lot of inspiration from it and so I started thinking about the process of healing and how those kind of objects can assist with the healing process simply by being around you.
For example, our mashujaa kimono is made with hand-woven textiles and the maker was inspired by the mkeka. This is our first unisex range within the collection. We have done several kimonos where I partnered with the endo sisters who did the limited series of kimonos. We also had vegetable dyeing using aloe vera hand block printed cotton. The Aloe Vera flower itself is a very healing plant.
Therefore, I took points of inspiration that were accessible to me, even though I was quarantining at home, and translated it into a collection that is relevant for today and right now.
One piece that everyone should own
Everyone should own a pair of LILABARE joggers which are my take on sweatpants. I wanted to make a pair of trousers or pants that are soft, airy, light and durable that you can wear to yoga or the gym.
I wanted to create something that would translate and resonate with people whose style is not inherently that airy fluid kimono. I wanted it to be the absolute essence of versatility.
What is your price range and where can people buy your outfits
Our pricing varies from season to season for example this season we have a bralette that’s KES 4,500. We also have a showpiece which is the fashion statement piece that is called the makuti jacket and that’s at KES 87,000 but our average price range is about KES 6,500 to KES 18,000.
You can shop for all our products through our website and Instagram Page. You can also follow us on our social media platforms. That is where we will update the events and pop-ups we will be attending.
I’m excited to announce that we’ve just opened our studio Boutique at lower Kabete. When you visit you get to see how we work, you meet our team you get to see fabrics that we have not photographed or teased on Instagram. We always have a lot of cool interesting pieces as well as original samples. We take appointments throughout the week.
Where have you showcased your work in the previous years
Last year was a very exciting year for us so we did the coaster in New York which was a trade show. We also showcased at Paris Fashion Week in conjunction with Lagos Fashion Week who had selected about 14 African designers to appear in a showroom at Paris Fashion Week.
There was the Slow Fashion Movement Pop up where sustainable fashion designers from across the world were showcasing collections in Covent Garden in London. We have also done pop-ups at local restaurants, cafes, and gardens so the next one will likely be at our cottage studio in our garden.
Advice for upcoming designers
Keep your blinders on and keep your focus rock solid. There are a lot of limitations that happen in Kenya which is one of the occupational hazards of any fashion designer. It is easy to get upset and hurt when somebody reaps you off of the original design that you worked so hard to do but at the end of the day you are the person who’s coming up with those ideas and you are the one with the Vision. Therefore stick to that vision, keep going to stay fresh and stay focused.