MEET: Sam Nkirote McKenzie of Maridadi.co

You just know when someone is doing great work from a genuine place. Their diligence is born of a sincere passion and curiosity; their will to lift others has no limit. MiKe admires such people. Sam Nkirote McKenzie, the founder of Maridadi.co has been inspiring and impressing us for a while now. Sam calls Maridadi.co an online design magazine, and it is. But, it is also much more. It is something of a design movement. A manifesto.

We are super proud and honored to say… meet Sam Nkirote McKenzie, a sublime ambassador of Kenyan design.

Sam Nkirote McKenzie. Photograph by Zachary Saitoti.

Sam Nkirote McKenzie. Photograph by Zachary Saitoti.

How would you describe yourself to someone who does not know anything about you?
SNM: Umm, I don’t know. An introverted extrovert who loves coffee!

How would you describe Maridadi.co? And what was your vision when you started it?
SNM: Maridadi.co is an online magazine featuring Kenyan design. This is a bit different from when I started out, the plan then was to have the site in three different sections: MEET, EXPLORE, SHOP. Where you would meet a designer, read about their design and if you liked it, you could buy it and have it delivered to your door the next day (provided you lived in Nairobi).

What are you passionate about?
SNM: I really love great design and in particular Kenyan designers making beautiful products at a really high-quality. I studied law, then have slowly moved into media where I worked for several years before leaving full-time employment in 2014 because I really wanted to be more creative and write more. Maridadi.co is the result of these two passions.

The skirt is from Anyango Mpinga’s 2016 collection - Kondo Udo, It is made from non-violent mulberry silk, using a process ⎯ pioneered in India ⎯ where the silk is spun once the silkworms have naturally broken out of their cocoons. Photograph courtesy of Anyango Mpinga and by Abraham Ali. Model: Achiko Omulokoli.

A skirt from Anyango Mpinga’s 2016 collection – Kondo Udo, It is made from non-violent mulberry silk, using a process ⎯ pioneered in India ⎯ where the silk is spun once the silkworms have naturally broken out of their cocoons. Photograph courtesy of Anyango Mpinga and by Abraham Ali. Model: Achiko Omulokoli.

Is there a typical Maridadi.co client?
SNM: At this point I haven’t really thought of them as clients, maybe readers. I think that they are people like me. Interested in learning more about what is happening in Nairobi and reading what goes into making really high-quality products with a lot of thought and care.

How would you describe your personal style?
SNM: I pretty much only wear grey, black, dark blue and silver jewellery. I also LOVE grey hoodies. Does that even amount to style?

(MiKe says: Yes! )

Why is design important?
SNM: I am a minimalist so I don’t own a huge amount of stuff, so what I do own needs to work well for me day to day so having really well-designed products is really important to me. From my backpack to my desk.

What is good design? And how can we see that something is of high quality?
SNM: I think bad design is easier to identify, it just makes your life harder. In terms of high quality, one place you can see it right away is with really well-worn leather products. When a leather bag is of high quality it will evolve with time and wear and have great character. A great example of a brand that creates really high-quality leather bags is Sandstorm Kenya. I love that people own their bags for years and even bring them in to get refurbished.

What role does design play in your daily life?
SNM: It is in everything. It comes back to making my life simpler and better. Great design for me equals a better quality of life.

“Great design for me equals a better quality of life.”

How important is storytelling to a design brand?
SNM: I think it is really important. Especially at the moment in Kenya where there is such great craftsmanship and there are so many young brands doing really amazing things. However, it is also really hard “to make things” and figuring out production consumes a lot of a designer’s time and effort. I hope that I can play a part in bridging the storytelling gap. At the end of the day, these brands are businesses and they need to get the story out so that people can buy their products and they can stay in business and grow.

Designer Muqaddam Latif made this one-of-a-kind tote out of an old sweater he had purchased at a flea market in Berlin. Photograph by Maridadi.co.

Designer Muqaddam Latif made this one-of-a-kind tote out of an old sweater he had purchased at a flea market in Berlin. Photograph by Maridadi.co.

Which are the most interesting Kenyan fashion brands to look for and why?
SNM: I love brands that are constantly innovating and playing with materials. A great example is Anyango Mpinga. Last year she rebranded from Kipusa and part of her 2016 collection is made from non-violent digitally printed mulberry silk made in India.

I also find brands like Lalesso really interesting as they have been around for a number of years now and have helped play a part in setting up eco-factories like Soko Kenya and Wildlife Works where other brands can now produce from. For example, ENZI made some beautiful T-shirts from organic cotton at Wildlife Works.

In terms of jewellery brands, Ami Doshi Shah of the brand I AM I is doing incredible things. She is constantly experimenting with materials and coming up with the most striking and innovative designs.

A sketch of the ‘Moving Mountains Bangle’ by designer Ami Doshi Shah of I AM I. This bangle is part of her ‘Elements Contained’ collection. The element in this bangle is black tourmaline, mined in Kenya, set in brass tube.

A sketch of the ‘Moving Mountains Bangle’ by designer Ami Doshi Shah of I AM I. This bangle is part of her ‘Elements Contained’ collection. The element in this bangle is black tourmaline, mined in Kenya, set in brass tube.

How do you choose who/what to feature on Maridadi.co?
SNM: It is a mix of different things. I go to all the fairs I can and take photos of products I like; I spend some time on social media seeing what is out there and what designers are working on; and I occasionally stop random people I don’t know and ask them who made their t-shirt? Or bag? Or necklace? Or bracelet?

Is there such a thing as something “typically Kenyan” when it comes to design? Material, values, perspective or other…
SNM: No, I really don’t think so. The only common denominator is that they are Kenyan, live in Kenya or are inspired by Kenya.

Best dressed Kenyan man or woman according to you?
SNM: Diana Opoti. I think she is doing great things with her 100 Days of African Fashion Campaign. It is incredible how the campaign has grown in one year from predominantly featuring Kenyan brands in 2014 to going continental in her 2015/6 campaign.

The Paulina is leather bowler bag from the Kenyan brand Bush Princess. Fashion and brand consultant Diana Opoti paired this pale pink bag with what she termed “the perfect cocktail dress” on the fourth day of her second 100 Days of African Fashion campaign. Photograph courtesy of Diana Opoti.

The Paulina is leather bowler bag from the Kenyan brand Bush Princess. Fashion and brand consultant Diana Opoti paired this pale pink bag with what she termed “the perfect cocktail dress” on the fourth day of her second 100 Days of African Fashion campaign. Photograph courtesy of Diana Opoti.

Why do you think Kenyan and African fashion is fairly unknown among non-Africans outside of Africa?
SNM: I can’t really speak about African fashion as a whole but I think it really just comes down to resources. It is really hard for Kenyan fashion brands to get investment. A lot of brands get stuck at the production phase. It took established designers like Kepha Maina almost ten years to figure this out. A designer once told me that it is easier for a Mama Mboga to get a loan from a bank than it is for a designer. That said, new initiative’s like the HEVA Fund have realised this and are now offering loans and training to designers and others in the creative industry.

Kenyan brands also need the resources to pay for marketing on a local level but also to get out there on an international level. Sure, social media helps but designers need to be able to travel and go to international fairs and fashion events so that international buyers can see their collections and they can be stocked internationally and have access to a bigger market.

What gives you confidence?
SNM: I just like to feel comfortable and good in my own skin. Sounds a bit boring, but isn’t the most beautiful girl in the room the one who looks at home in her own skin having a great laugh!?!

When do you feel the most excited about your work?
SNM: Getting Maridadi.co going has been a real labour of love. It took me a long time to find a rhythm and routine and figure out simple things like how often I would post a story for example. I wanted to do every day but it just wasn’t feasible, so now a new story goes up on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (except for last week and this week – life!)

I am only just at the point that I can approach advertisers for my weekly newsletter and hopefully as my readership grows sell advertising on the site.

Now I just get really excited when I bump into people, who are not my friends or related to me, that have read the site and gone to check out designs I have featured. Or when I get new subscribers to the weekly newsletter!

I also get super excited when I discover something new. Like when I first came across the Suäve Kenya bags, I just couldn’t believe how cool (and affordable) they were.

Photograph by Joseph Baraza and courtesy of Suäve Kenya. Models: Aloys Kamau and Brian Onyango. Styled by Bryan Emry.

Photograph by Joseph Baraza and courtesy of Suäve Kenya. Models: Aloys Kamau and Brian Onyango. Styled by Bryan Emry.

Where do you personally look for inspiration? Which are your main sources of influence and inspiration?
SNM: I listen to a lot of podcasts. And I also spend a lot of time on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. Reading, saving photos and seeing what other people are doing creatively.

What is your plan for the future of Maridadi.co? Any dream projects that you can share?
SNM: I hope to bring in an e-commerce component so you can shop some of the designs you see on the site, probably in partnership with retailers or other e-commerce sites. And I am working my butt off to launch ‘M by Maridadi.co’ which will feature hand-crafted minimalist collections in partnership with select brands.

How does being based in Nairobi influence you creatively?
SNM: I haven’t lived anywhere else so it is hard to say, but I feel really lucky in that I have become friends with so many of the designers I have met through Maridadi.co. I find them so inspiring, in terms of how hard they work and how open they are to sharing their experiences and introducing me to other designers.

What is your best general advice?
SNM: I think it is really hard to make a living doing something creative in Nairobi. You often feel (well I do) like giving up and “getting a real job”. For that reason it is just as important to think about the business side as well as the creative side of your brand/business and give some serious thought and time to creating and refining your business model.

What do you wish more people knew about Kenya?
SNM: Sometimes living and working in Kenya can be hard. A friend of mine, the filmmaker Philippa Wacera Ndisi-Herrmann, articulated it much better in this letter she wrote a few years ago when it felt particularly hard to be optimistic. It sounds cliché but I wish people truly understood how resilient we are as Kenyans, and how much we are able to create, sometimes in spite of our circumstances.

Thank you so much, Sam, for sharing your thoughts, passion and creativity with us. We look forward to learning more about Kenyan design and designers with you.

All photos from Maridadi.co

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