Jimmy co-founded the company with his elder brother Allistar in 2016. Their clothing line recently went viral locally after a video of Jimmy showcasing their Luo Collection did the rounds.
KOY Clothing has collections inspired by the Luo, Maasai, Gusii and Kamba ethnic groups. The firm gives back to these Kenyan communities that inspire their brand by donating five per cent of sales towards projects that improve their lives.
What gave you the idea to start a clothing line?
On my 21st birthday, my brother Allistar got me a jacket made from kikoy fabric to wear at my party.
Being young, we thought it would be a hoot to play this game where, if anyone managed to beat me at downing a shot of alcohol, they’d get to wear the jacket.
It became the prized item that night and our friends were asking where to get one. We had 40 jackets made, mostly for friends and family, and sold each at £80 (Sh10,400).
There was a hitch though. I wore one of the jackets to an event and got caught in the rain. It turned out the jackets shrunk and bled colour when wet. I had to adjust it on the way to the function so I wouldn’t look like an idiot. It’s funny now, but I was horrified when it happened.
You’ve since fixed that problem?
Oh, yes. We realised that we needed to have the material pre-shrunk and pre-treated before it was stitched into a jacket. You’d think that was basic, right? Well, we were learning on the job.
The KOY concept wasn’t just about fashion, it was about celebrating our Kenyan heritage; the technical stuff came later.
You’ve got some criticism for using a Kenyan fabric as your brand.
Yes, I’ve been called a ‘culture thief’. It’s upsetting to hear that when the whole point of KOY is to promote the very culture of the country we called home as children.
My father has been in Kenya for 45 years; he and my mother retired here. My brother and I grew up in Karen. Even though I went to a boarding school in the UK aged nine, all our holidays were spent in Kenya. I’d love to start and raise a family in Kenya. My ideal situation would be live half the year in the UK and half in Kenya.
Kenya is part of who we are and that’s why we incorporated the kikoy into our line and company name.
What makes KOY different from the many other international brands that use African fabrics in their designs?
What I know makes us unique is our commitment to give back to the community. I don’t say this as some PR gimmick; it’s the cornerstone of our business.
Five per cent of the revenue from our sales goes towards implementing a long-term, life-altering project in the different communities of Kenya.
We align the community we support with our product that season. Earlier last year, we launched the Gusii Collection and followed that with a project in Kisii. This year, our project will be targeted towards the Luo community.
How often are you in Kenya?
With the growth of KOY, I’ll likely be here at least three months out of the year. I’m here now to launch the project for the Luo Collection.
We’ve partnered with David Waters, the programme director of the East African Character Development Trust. The organisation uses sport, in this case, cricket, and education to enhance the lives of disadvantaged children. More than 4,000 kids participate in this programme every week.
When we visited Kawangware, I saw first-hand how these kids came alive when they pitched against a retired cricket player from England’s national team who’d accompanied us for the day. In fact, one of the teenagers, a former school dropout, will be trying out for Kenya’s under-19 national team.
David explained that many professional cricket players in Kenya are from the Luo community, so we thought it was apt to take the programme to Kisumu. We’ll be raising £30,000 (Sh3.9 million) this year to make it possible.
Let’s talk more numbers. What was your start-up capital?
We started with £9,000 (Sh1.2 million), which my brother and I put together from our savings. It wasn’t nearly enough, but at least it got the idea off the ground.
Our biggest break was being a part of a CNBC show aimed at building entrepreneurs in the UK. After successfully pitching, we were trained and given seed money. The judges invested at least £15,000 (Sh2 million) in KOY.
In December 2016, the show was televised to more than 17 million people in 120 countries. From this publicity, we were approached by a hedge fund that wanted to invest in us. That was a game changer.
We’ve grown continuously since then. We’re stocked in 11 stores around the UK and offer free delivery within Europe, the US and Kenya.
How much do your clothes cost?
We sell the suits at between £250 (Sh33,000) and £280 (Sh38,000), and the shirts from £85 (Sh11,000) to £89 (Sh11,600).
KOY is undoubtedly a luxury brand aimed at customers who want something different for high-end events, like the Royal Ascot or a Polo festival. Think of it as a Kenyan Hugo Boss.
And there’s demand for it. Recently, we shipped out 8,000 metres of kikoy to our production locations. We’re making women’s kikoy jackets and shirts in Italy, men’s shirts in Turkey, men’s blazers and chino shorts in Tunisia, and polos in China.
What would you say to people who have the perception that your journey has been easy?
It annoys me because it’s so far from the truth. My brother and I have worked hard to get to where we are.
We’ve had serious doubts along the way. I woke up one morning, called Allistar and asked him, ‘Are we seriously making stripped suits as our contribution to the world?’
Allistar has had his moments too, where his pragmatic, logical mind couldn’t make sense of what we were doing. It doesn’t matter where you’re from when you’re an entrepreneur – any start-up business is hard. That’s as true in Nairobi as in London.
Your recent video promoting KOY’s Luo Collection has gone viral in Kenya. What are your thoughts on this?
I never imagined the video would go viral in Kenya. Had I known that, I would have done it differently, tailored it more to a Kenyan audience with Kenyan nuances.
I feel I need to say that to answer some of the questions Kenyans have been asking in response to the video.
For instance, there’s no real significance between the kikoy and the Luo.
Though the kikoy is a quintessential Kenyan fabric, it’s not so much the kikoy that highlights the Luo Collection, as it is the blue and green hues that pay homage to the people of the lake.
It would take too long to explain that to a British audience not conversant with Kenyan culture when you have to do it in under one minute.
You’re in and out of Kenya often. What strikes you the most about it?
As a kid, it was always fun to tell our friends in the UK stories, like the one time my brother got bitten by a monkey because it stole his toy car and he chased after it.
The monkey turned and attacked him. This actually happened, but we’d tell them fibs, like claiming to ride rhinos to school to see if they’d believe us. Sometimes they did.
As an adult, what strikes me is the people, how friendly and open they are, even those who have close to nothing. The kids we played with in Kawangware had such infectious happiness and joy, far more than I’ve seen in many children in London.
I think the Western world has failed to portray that about Kenya, Africa; how happy the people are, despite the challenges.
I also love the fact that I can be in Nairobi traffic, drive for less than an hour and be standing at the cusp of some of the world’s most beautiful scenery in the Rift Valley.
I consider myself blessed that I get to experience two distinct cultures and call both my own, my home.
What’s the ultimate dream for KOY?
To take our African journey beyond the boundaries of Kenya.
Africa is so colourful, we want to incorporate the Nigerian ankara, the Ghanaian kente and the seshoeshoe from Lesotho. The fabrics are endless.
We want to be a part of the team that promotes African culture and people. You see these campaigns everywhere, ‘Save the Rhino’, ‘Save the Elephant’, and people spend millions on these projects, which is great. But how about we save the people?