MEET: Designer, model, actor Emo Rugene

If you want to talk a walk in someone’s shoes we suggest you choose Emo Rugene’s Afroshoes. Actor, model, designer entrepreneur and change-maker Emo Rugene is hard to describe in few words because there is a lot going on in his mind and life. If we had to choose one word, it would be either inspiring or eclectic. Especially eclectic is what makes Emo a really good representative of the characteristics behind progress the Kenyan way. Maybe some of you have read the book “Running with the Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn. It’s the true story of runner and writer Adharanand, who goes to Kenya to find out what the secret trick is that makes Kenyans run so fast. The conclusion he reaches is that there is no one secret trick; it is a combination of things Kenyan from ugali to ambition and community spirit. When discovering Kenya, this is what most discoverers at some point realize; that to understand Kenya we must understand that it will never give us one simple answer about itself. This nation is essentially eclectic. There are so many ways to live a life in Kenya, so many different landscapes and so many histories. Maybe this is what makes Kenyans so tolerant and resolution-oriented. So to ask a person like Emo Rugene, which role or task he finds the most significant is pointless (you will see the evidence of that below). To talk to him about what he does and why, though, is super-inspiring. Join us as we go for an inspirational safari of the mind with this dynamic creative eclectic man. Meet Emo Rugene!

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Emo Rugene

Emo, you are a well-known face in Kenyan media because of your modeling career and successful shoe brand Afroshoes. But what would you say about yourself with a few sentences to someone who does not know anything about you?
ER: I am Emo Rugene, an extrovert and a lover of life. I think that I am a creative who is always bubbling with energy and looking on projects to work on. I am restless with ambition, which drives me to always do new things. I think I am someone worth knowing.

(MiKE says: yes. Knowing Emo is fun and unpredictable and interesting.)

You have several professional paths in your life; you are an actor, a model, a shoe designer and you recently returned from doing your Masters in Peace Development Security & International Conflict Transformation in Innsbruck. Is there one of these roles that feels like the main one? And how do the different paths inspire each other?
ER: I honestly think all this roles fit me well because somehow I find that they are interconnected and open up new avenues for me and for others. I do everything I do because I feel drawn to the ideas that come with them and the end result. For example, through my love for fashion I got into modeling, and through modeling I was able to land my acting gig in Veve. And through my love for fashion I started my shoe brand and now through this shoe brand I want to work with marginalized communities through apprenticeship programs; which I learnt how to do from my masters program. So somehow, I feel that I take up the roles because they just present themselves in my day-to-day life. I guess everything happens for a reason.

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You are the man behind Kenyan shoe sensation Afroshoes. How did this start? And why shoes and not something else?
ER: Yes, I am the man behind Afroshoes and it came to me as part of my styling projects where I realized that in Kenya we do not have a particular item of dressing that really expresses the color and vibrant nature of the people. That is why I started the shoe company – to give Kenyans an item that they could identify and be proud to wear. Why shoes? I would answer by why not shoes… everyone wears shoes and for a man shoes complete the outfit and for a woman… Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she can conquer the world.

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Tell me a little bit about the process behind one of your shoes. Where do the ideas come from and how are they made?
ER: At the moment the shoes are inspired by the market and by the need of the people. The weather is also a factor I put into consideration while coming up with a pair. As for the colors I use the inspirations and my experiences, how I feel and what patterns fit well with designs. I also make a point of letting the workmanship speak for the shoes. With good finishing and care in the production the customer feels more appreciated.

I try as much as possible to bring out the mood in the country that is mostly vibrant and energetic. Making a pair of shoes takes a lot of patience and insight because people are different and they have different preferences, so it takes a keen eye in the selection process when I go fabric shopping. I try reading a lot, either magazines, blogs, newspapers to get the vibe of the clientele. So when you see a pair of shoes it is not simply by chance the colors are the way they are it is a critically thought through process.

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Who mainly buys your shoes? How can someone outside of Kenya buy Afroshoes?
ER: My shoes are bought by people of all classes in Kenya, because the price is just right for all. Someone outside Kenya who wants shoes can visit the website, then get in touch with us to facilitate the delivery of the shoes.

What is the next step in the development of Afroshoes?
ER: The next step currently is to come up with new designs that are more durable and comfortable.

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You have several years of experience as a model. How are you inspired by your experiences of modeling and what you see on the runway in your work as a designer? Any particular sources of influence and inspiration?
ER: As a model I think that I am humbled to be able to display other peoples pieces of work and give them character. So as a designer I think that I come up with designs that people can relate to and want in their closets. I am inspired by the people of Kenya, and with the weather it helps me really bring out character in the shoes.

What characterizes you as a model? When are you the right one to book? And what kind of jobs do you look forward to doing most in the future?
ER: As a model I think that designers book me because they know I have the ability to bring out the character of their outfits and I have a more “African look” than most. I am looking forward to doing more international shows now because I have done all that needs to be done in terms of modeling in Kenya.

As a model you need to stay in great shape, is this also a personal interest? And with your intense and irregular lifestyle, how do you organize it? For example now when you have been on the road for a month, how do you keep the routines?
ER: I love working out, and to me it is something that comes as second nature. I played football for most of my life and I just actually stopped seriously playing in 2011. So I don’t find staying fit a challenge, rather it is a necessity. As a model one needs to be fit or look good all the time, cause you never know when the next show will be. I work out five times per week when I am in Kenya; three or four days’ gym work and one or two days boxing depending on how the week is. Now that I am on the road I do a lot of home workouts like push ups and ab exercises that help me to maintain my physic.

Oh, while speaking physical appearances. We need to address the signature hair. What inspired your dope current hairstyle and who does your hair?
ER: As for the hairstyle I think it has just evolved with my barber… I have had the dreadlocks for almost seven years now, and I decided to shave on the side because every time I went to get them twisted it was painful. So that’s how I ended up with the style. So every time I go for a touch up the barber decides how we should shave it, hence my current look.

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You recently added a new challenge to your CV by starring in the brand new movie VEVE as one of the lead characters. As we speak the movie is premiering in Europe and getting great reviews. Can you tell me a bit about this movie, what is it about and what is the character you play like?
ER: VEVE is a multi-character movie set in Maua in Kenya. It is about the drug miraa (khat) and the intricacies around it. My character is called Kenzo, and he is a reserved guy who comes to seek revenge for his father’s death and things don’t end up as planned. It’s a movie I guarantee that you will enjoy.

Would you like to do more acting? What would be your dream project as an actor?
ER: Yes I would, I loved working on VEVE and especially learning from experienced actors on set. My dream project would be to work on a big international movie with lots of stars.

So, with all this happening… How will you use your new Masters Degree? (And how will you have time?)
ER: I’m actually in the process of writing my master thesis and I have already registered for the last term. So whether I like it or not I have to complete it because I have a set deadline. I am thinking of starting a sports for development project that would help create awareness for the Nubian community in Kenya. I think that with my education it is my responsibility to help the people around me and the people who do not have the same opportunities as me.

I chose to do something with the Nubian community because I spent so much time with them when I used to play football. I had Nubian teammates and still have Nubian friends, so I thought: why not do a sports program to try and bring out the issues facing this community. I found out about Nubians through sports, and now I think it is good if I started something sports related that would create awareness about what Nubians are going through.

We talked about the Kenyan creative climate when we connected the first time. How so much is going on all the time and the creative professionals in Nairobi are so supportive of each other. Tell us a bit more about this. What is it like for you to be in Nairobi, how does it boost your creativity? And why are people so supportive and not just competitive?
ER: Yes, there is something always going on and people are starting to appreciate artists in Kenya. Every week there are at least three events happening where you can see how creative Kenyans are becoming. I really think it is a good time to be an artist in Kenya, moreover it is a good time to tell our stories because the audience is there.

Something even greater happening is that the artists are cooperating and working together to help the industry grow rather than competing and hiding things from each other. It is rather friendly competition with shared spaces for ideas. People help each other by opening doors for counterparts.

The last two questions, the ones we ask every person we interview. Why do you love doing what you do? And what do you wish that people in the world knew about Kenya?
ER: I love doing what I do because I am my own boss and I do not need to account to anyone. About Kenya: that unlike all the bad press Kenya is actually a peaceful country and with amazing people.

Thank you so much Emo for taking the time to talk to MiKE. You inspire and we look forward to following you on your adventures! Ahsante sana.

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