She talks showcasing at Cannes Film Festival and what it takes to make it in Kenya as a fashion designer
Young people want to nurture their creative side and express themselves. Still, it’s not always a cakewalk to take the less travelled road. Fashion and design is one of the careers that millennials are leaning towards. Is it as easy as it sounds? We spoke to Aulgah Nato, award-winning designer extraordinaire and the brains behind Nato Designs - a household name in Kenya and Africa at large, to shed light on her career and what it takes to make it in Kenya as a fashion designer.
Pulse Live: So, who is Aulgah?
Aulgah: Aulgah is a fifth born in a family of 6 - last born girl, a PR practitioner, a fashion designer and an image consultant.
Pulse Live: How would you describe your style?
Aulgah: I’m edgy. I like to mix vintage and modern styles.
Pulse Live: So, I know a little bit about you and know that you didn’t have prior background in fashion. How did you start out? Some like to call it jumping into the deep end.
Aulgah: My passion for fashion started when I was 9 years old, when we lost our mother. We were only two sisters and my mother left behind so many clothes. My sister and I started adjusting the clothes so that they could fit, because, you know, my father having been left alone, it was hard for him to dress us and all. My love for clothes and adjusting the outfits to fit and look great, pretty much started from there. A decade later, after campus, I worked in a company abroad and the clothes there were either very low quality or very high-end and expensive – designer, high-tailored outfits. I remember during one of the end of year parties, I bought one dress; I still keep it to date as it was KSh 45,000/-. At the time, I was only buying clothes worth KSh 200 - 500/- at most so for me to have gotten that far, it opened my eyes. There was a gap that needed to be filled. There are people who want to dress up but are not willing to spend so much money.
Pulse Live: Aha! Light-bulb moment. What happened next?
Aulgah: At the time, I had friends back here at home who were practicing fashion and design. I contacted them and told them that I needed a few outfits. With the help of my sister, I got 5 outfits shipped to me and I sold two and remained with three. But, my intention was not even to sell them. When I wore them to the office, my colleagues really loved them. At that point, I had also began exhausting my wardrobe and I started working with what I had. I turned to the internet to get inspiration on how one can alter different looks, pairing different outfits and what not. I realized when living there that the two things that bothered me mainly were hair and clothes. I promised myself that when I came back home, I would enroll in a beauty school and learn how to do hair and tailoring since it was a lucrative business where I was - doing my hair alone would cost almost around KSh 25,000/-. But when I told my brother that I want to enroll in a beauty school, he refused. Beauty is not considered one of the top careers especially in Africa. When he refused, he killed my dream and I looked at tailoring. Again, he said no. He could not fathom how one would study till college then settle for tailoring – tailoring is deemed as a career for people with a low level of education. I insisted that that was what I wanted to do but that fell on deaf ears.
Pulse Live: A blow for you…What was your next move?
Aulgah: I decided, like everyone else at the time to take on skilled labor. I enrolled in school and studied graphics and design, well, my brother said yes to that *laughs*. While studying, I was looking for jobs elsewhere as school consumed just a few hours of my day and luckily, I got a job at a PR firm and I was very glad. But even while working at the PR firm, my love for fashion kept growing and I had so many sketches that I had put aside. After working at the PR firm for close to two years, I decided that it was time to follow my dreams and I got one tailor, shared my vision with him, and that’s how we started!
Pulse Live: Talk about taking the bull by its horns! Did you have some capital?
Aulgah: Very little savings! It was a leap of faith, albeit, I also started from the house so I didn’t have so many expenses. But yes, my family was very concerned and wondered why I would quit my job to do something that I wasn’t sure would pay. However, there was no turning back for me.
Pulse Live: How would you say your brand has evolved from then to now?
Aulgah: It’s been quite a journey! One thing I can say is that I have never been afraid of taking risks. I have always pushed myself to get what I want have never shied away from opportunities that I felt would take me further. I started with a bit of exposure from Kenya Fashion Awards - I had a small exhibition at Nairobi Fashion Market and it was during this time that I met one of the Nairobi Fashion Awards representatives and they advised me to register with them and showcase since they thought my designs were quite unique. I went ahead and showcased and people were quite impressed with my designs. That was the first time I appeared on the papers, went on ‘The Trend’, other people abroad got to know about me and I started getting invites to showcase.
Pulse Live: Which are some of your most memorable shows?
Aulgah: I have done so many shows, both locally and internationally – Aberdeen Fashion Week in the UK, several times, Africa Fashion Week, Mercedes Fashion Week in Ghana, a number of shows in Kenya, and the most recent and magical one being the Cannes Film Festival.
Pulse Live: Speaking of Cannes, allow me to ask; how did you get into that? That’s like the cream of the crop!
Aulgah: Through connections and lots or networking while showcasing. I met a lady in the UK, she got to see some of my designs and thought I was quite talented and she wanted to promote a young fashion designer from Africa and was willing to give me a chance to showcase at the Cannes film festival 2018. I thought she was bluffing, then she said that the registration cost is KSh 1 million.
Pulse Live: What?!
Aulgah: Yeah, I thought that was crazy too. How do you mention such a lump sum?! I didn’t think I could afford it. I didn’t talk about it till around two months to the show but then, I told myself that I can do it and I have come so far. I tried to negotiate with them and luckily, they lowered the amount slightly. I then went back to my family and convinced them that it was something I had to do. They supported me, I also gathered some of my savings, and I showcased at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival 2018. See, I didn’t feel the pinch. At the Cannes, it’s only the chosen ones - very exquisite.
Pulse Live: Brilliant! Just, brilliant. In this business, how do you get to make enough money to survive, without relying on a side job?
Aulgah: You have to be very open minded. Don’t be greedy. I for example work with fashion stylists to dress celebrities and get my brand out there. It’s not certain that if a certain celebrity wears your brand, it will lead to conversion, in terms of sales. But at least, it gets you some brand awareness, and sometimes, you can get some sales from that or even people making inquiries and what not. However, you have to weigh your options and see if this person is influential enough and worth breaking your neck for, for mutual benefit. That’s one way. Secondly, you need to be your own biggest cheerleader - wear your own brands. That way, if you come across people that like what you’re wearing, fish out your business card and let them know that you made it and that you can make it for them too! Lastly, build networks with as many people as you can especially those in the industry as these networks can take you and your career far.
Pulse Live: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Aulgah: When I was starting, I was mostly inspired by mother and did a lot of research on what people used to dress like, back in the 80s, 70s, 90s plus what is happening now, then merge the two. I also get inspiration from old fashion books as I have a thing for vintage fashion. Travelling also refreshes my mind and gives me exposure.
Pulse Live: What are some of the challenges you face as a fashion designer?
Aulgah: Lots! Clients with attitude for instance. We always want the client to be the king but sometimes, they come in and ruin your day. Secondly, it’s very hard to find a tailor who understands your vision and wants to do things your way. They’re very rigid and stuck in their way of doing things or some just don’t have an eye for detail. Another challenge is getting proper fabric. Fabric here can be quite pricey or you’re not able to use it and you resort to shipping from Dubai and China for example.
Pulse Live: I see, and what’s the best part about being a fashion designer?
Aulgah: I do something different everyday. I never get bored. Also, seeing someone smile after a fitting makes me feel happy as I’m sure they will be back.
Pulse Live: Biggest lesson you have learned in life?
Aulgah: To be kind and humble. Life in itself humbles you.
Pulse Live: If you could dress one personality or celebrity, who would it be?
Aulgah: I have dressed a number of people, but I would be very honored to see a designer wearing my design! I do not dwell on male fashion a lot but I love this Filipino designer called Michael Cinco – we have interacted before and I adore him! It would be a dream come true for me to dress him!
Pulse Live: What are three things that every woman needs in her closet?
Aulgah: That one look that you’re always confident in - a little black dress is very important. You also need to have a comfortable jacket that you can pair with different outfits to achieve different looks and as a woman, you need to have a good perfume!
Pulse Live: Any word of advice to young and up-coming designers?
Aulgah: It’s not an easy job! Getting into fashion and design thinking that you’re going to make a lot of money is a false impression. When you decide to do something, give it your all. When you do something the right way, you will reap what you sow. Also, you need to be all rounded – gain exposure by interning with a reputable fashion house for instance, to gain more knowledge on all aspects of fashion and design.
Pulse Live: What's next for Nato designs?
Aulgah: I have my ready-to-wear collection and I want to have a shop in Europe so that’s what I’m currently working on.
Pulse Live: I have a problem with the red carpet fashion in Kenya. We are nowhere near South Africa and Nigeria. Could you weigh in on that?
Aulgah: Let’s be honest, there are very few highly influential Kenyan celebrities who will bring about conversion. I will not sell out simply because so and so has worn my dress. I will probably only dress the celebrity to get my name out there. As a designer, I want to use the least amount of money so as not to run at a loss. Secondly, these celebrities do not take time to learn their bodies; simply because Beyonce wore it and looked great, doesn’t mean that it will look great on you too. I have seen instances where the fitting was wrong, wrong choice of fabric etc. If you want to look good, you have to spend. Celebrities need to spend money to look good, by supporting local designers and working with people who create good stuff.
Pulse Live: Speaking of money, what are your price ranges?
Aulgah: We have different categories. My ready-to-wear collection ranges from KSh 5,000-10,000. My gowns, are KSh 35,000 and above and bridal wear is from KSh 15,000.
Pulse Live: Where can our readers find you?
Aulgah: We are at Hurlingham Plaza ground floor door 19A and on social media, Instagram @Aulgah_Nato and on Facebook, Nato Design House. We are always available if anyone has a query, so feel free to reach out to us.