Deepa Dosaja, founder and CEO of Deepa Dosaja Ltd., is one of Kenya’s leading designers and has established a strong brand, not just in Kenya but across the globe. From showcasing her “My Flowers” couture collection on New York Fashion Week’s coveted runway in 2017, to participating in the inaugural Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at the Buckingham Palace in London earlier this year, Deepa is unstoppable.  Deepa Dosaja Ltd. is one of ten companies that recently concluded a six month coaching programme with Creative Metier for small and growing businesses (SGBs) in Kenya. We caught up with Deepa to talk about her vision for the business.

What led you to setting up Deepa Dosaja?

I am passionate about creating beautiful things and fashion has always been a passion. I started cutting and making things from the age of 13, so it has always been my life. Through the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange I have realised that my passion is to work with artisanal women in Kenya to train them to do hand embroidery and applique work for our collections. We would like to set up a permanent women’s group to work on the clothes. One of the biggest challenges in Kenya is to find trained cutters so this would be a good way of creating employment. We love to hire local cutters and tailors; this way the business is more sustainable.

Where do you see your business in the next five years?

We are working on going online so we can reach an international market. We have a lot of contacts who have left the country. We will be doing a lot more online in the next five years. With the economic turmoil of the last year I am realising that bricks and mortar maybe a thing of the past. I am not sure that we have a sales culture in Kenya. We will be going online with just a small atelier close to the workshop, for the couture fashion. People are so busy that they want to order online now and that is the way things are going.

What about in ten years?

Hopefully the online business will go well so we will be able to set up small boutiques all over the world for the collections where people can see the clothes.

What are some of the challenges you face in the Kenyan context running your business?

 There are challenges concerning quality. Unlike the Italians and the French, we do not have a culture of couture. At Deepa Dosaja we use expensive fabrics so when there is a mistake there is a huge loss. I have been coaching my staff but this last year has been very tough. It’s especially tough for staff who have not had raises and who fear for their roles. This is affecting morale. We don’t work late for example because it not so safe for them to travel at night.

We import all of our fabrics and we have challenges finding the zippers, buttons, pins etc. So with our new collections we are trying to avoid anything that is not sustainably produced so we are not using zippers or buttons. For the gown for Buckingham Palace we used Kenyan silk. We are hoping that other suppliers will come into the market as we would love to source in Kenya. We are now sourcing fabrics that comply with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), but we have to bring the fabric in from Italy and this is very expensive. I am hoping that my business and website will use completely GOTS compliant organic fabrics in the very near future.

You’ve mentioned before that your main clientele were expats who come and go and that you were trying to build your local clientele base as it is more sustainable. How has this changed?

If I want to scale up business I can’t do an exclusive design for each client. Nairobi is small market so clients want something unique. We need to go global to be sustainable. My clothes have global appeal and we need to go global. The She Trades business development programme is talking a lot about export markets and how to break into them.

You’ve been traveling a lot and participating in international fashion shows and meetings. What does this mean for your business? How is it helping to position Deepa Dosaja internationally?

The international context is invaluable and to meet people face to face is invaluable but it is going to pay off because we are getting known internationally and there is more pride in the label locally. We are doing a lot of publicity for Kenya fashion which is great. We are doing a look book for New York about sustaining the business.

What have you found to work best in keeping your business afloat and profitable?

We take clients own fabric which we never used to; we do a few more alterations and have developed the more affordable line Kayaja. It was my regular clients that kept the business afloat but staff morale has suffered. It is hard to convince people that things are getting better when the cost of basics is going up all the time.

How would you describe the culture of your team?

The team are producing beautifully and on their own. We have stock systems in the shop so we know exactly what’s there. We have a manual system for fabrics stocks because the staff are not computer literate. Patterns are standardised. We coach and talk to staff.

How do you balance designing your garments and coming up with new ideas and running the business?

I am not balancing it very well. I take Mondays at home to design. Tuesday and Wednesday in the Studio and the Thursday to Saturday I am in sales. We are looking at how to separate out design, production and finance so that each are independent. We need to do more standardised garments and online and less made to measure which takes a huge amount of time. We are hiring more tailors for the online who will be separate from the couture tailors.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

Making the dress for Buckingham Palace and having Kate Middleton, Anna Wintour and Colin Firth looking at it! I am changing the perception of Kenyan fashion.  The other thing is that our Production Manager has been transformed through the coaching we gained on the Creative Metier Programme. She has really taken on her role. It is great to have someone that I can really trust and rely on to manage such a critical part of the business.

What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur and running a business?

The freedom to design or go to the shop if I need to. The freedom and flexibility that it gives is really important.

I have been running the business ethically for 27 years, but I hadn’t realised that fashion is the second biggest polluter in the world.  I have understood what this means at a whole new level through the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. They have 12 principles; it goes right down to the farm and the farmer. They put us in touch with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). In Milan we were able to see the fabric produced in an ethical way. Our unique selling proposition is now: “We give love and beauty form”.

In the olden days we used to think of Fred Flintstone fashion when we thought of ethical fashion but we want to show that it can be beautiful fashion. Livia Firth, founder of Eco Age Ltd, uses the phrase “Ethics, not at the expense of aesthetics”. It was so inspiring to see the clothes at Buckingham Palace made by leading designers. Even my kids have given up buying things in plastic jars! Something big is changing.

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange has changed everything about our company.

We are creating awareness of high fashion ethically made. I am now trying to support and work with Kenyan fashion students and designers to make them aware of these issues.

When we first started the Creative Metier programme we were talking about creating employment I can see now that we can create huge employment in Kenya. This will come with an economic class – designers and workers with sustainable fashion. We have survived and sometimes these lessons are good for the soul.

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