AFRICAN-COUTURE DESIGNER MICHELLE WATIKI DISCUSSES PROVIDING UNDERPRIVILEGED GIRLS WITH OPPORTUNITIES INTO FASHION.
Julani Mwafrika – formally known as Jelani is a contemporary online African clothing line by Michelle Watiki – a young, driven and sophisticated designer from Kenya. Fueled by her roots, she branded her clothing line with the Swahilian words ‘Julani Mwafrika’ that translate as ‘The Mighty African‘ – adding a real meaning to the brand.
As a current a full time student studying Maths, physics, chemistry and further maths, Michelle’s ultimate dream is to become an Engineer with Jelani as her side hustle. Although Michelle herself lives in England, she runs her clothing line by working with tailors abroad who manufacture her designs. We sat down with Michelle to find out the ins and outs of creating her own online store, and to hear about the lesson she’s learnt along the way:
How did the Jelani clothing idea come about? Did you always know that this was what you wanted to do?
“Fashion is something I’ve always been interested in, even as a little girl but I never imagined having my own clothing line. It never crossed my mind, until one day when I spontaneously decided to turn my love for fashion into something tangible. I remember the first person I told was my mum, and although I expected her to laugh at the idea, she surprisingly was the person to have persuaded me to go ahead with it and build the brand.”
How long was the process from it just being an idea, to it becoming real – where you started selling your products?
“It took me roughly about 8 months I’d say. I officially launched the initial clothing store in May 2014, but before that I did tons and tons of research. I spent months speaking to various clothing manufacturers in Africa, fishing out the best companies for me to manufacture my clothing from.The first launch of Jelani was an online trial store – an experiment to see what my target market liked and how well the line would do in the market as a whole. Although it was only temporary, I managed to pick up on the things I needed to move Jelani forward.”
What would you say is the hardest thing about running Jelani? How do you overcome it?
“The hardest thing for me has to be dealing with overseas transactions and shipping. Communicating with people from different time zones can be very difficult, and it’s always hard not being able to see your products until they’ve actually been made and sent to you. Sometimes there are delays to the transactions between me and my manufacturers, and that can cause setbacks. My only way of overcoming these problems is through literally being on job 24/7 and making sure I’m doing everything I can on my part.”
Although Michelle works single handily, she aims to build a team of people who will help work for Jelani in different areas such as: promotion, social media and design and manufacturing. She currently not only manages Jelani’s different social outlets herself; but is also preparing for the new launch of Jelani’s official store – scheduled for this fall.
What was it about African couture that made you decide to also delve into it?
“I’ve always been a big fan of African embroidered prints, sequins and beads – particularly because of their uniqueness. So when I decided to create my own line, it was no question that African inspired clothing was also the route I was going to go in.”
What can people expect from the new launch of Jelani’s official store?
“People can definitely expect a lot more clutch bags, bow-ties and printed high-heels. I’m also adding Maasai twists to my designs and accessories, so people can also look out for those. Everything else is a surprise and under wraps, you have to wait and see.”
Has there ever been times where you felt like giving up? What made you keep going?
“Yes. I can’t count the number of times where I’ve literally had to ask myself, ‘What in God’s name am I doing?!’I’m a big believer in putting your education first, so there was a time where I wanted to put Jelani on hold. Running a company whilst studying for your A-levels isn’t an easy thing to do and can sometimes be stressful. Although I prioritise my education above Jelani, I’ve realised that any progress is better than no progress, and that’s why I’ve stuck by my company. My faith in God is what has helped me continue on this journey – regardless of the many setbacks I’ve faced. I don’t know what God has in store for me and my company, but I pray that I’ll be able to make a difference and give back, even if it’s in the smallest of ways.”
Working to provide underprivileged girls with opportunities to further their education, and delve into the fashion industry is something dear to Michelle’s heart. She wants to be remembered as someone who helped provide females with doors for greater opportunities, to do what they love to do, equipping them with the skills they need to achieve their best. From providing books and stationary to actually paying educational fees, she wants to do it all.
When you look back on who you were growing up in your younger years, what would you say is the biggest change?
“The biggest change I’d say has to be the growth in my confidence. I’ve done a lot of growing up over the years and I’m definitely not the same girl I used to be.God has done so many wonders in my life. Growing up I lacked a lot of confidence and if I was to pinpoint something significant that he’s helped me with, it would be that. He gave me my self-confidence and through that I’ve found a voice.
Growing up as a dark skinned black girl was very difficult and that was the root of my lack of confidence. Back then, unless you were a light shade of brown, no one paid you any mind. I was always the dark skinned girl amoungst mixed race or white females, and whilst everyone was going through the “boy-craze-phase”, I was left trying to understand why guys wouldn’t even want to talk to me. The sad thing was that because of that, I began to grow a fear of black males – the fear of their judgement because I wasn’t light enough or ‘pretty’ enough.”
Did you ever tell anyone about this when you were dealing with it?
“No. It was tough but I never let it show. “I’m a very closed person when it comes to personal things, so smiled through the heartache and through the racial comments. It became a skill I perfected.”
Now that you’ve overcome the lack of confidence, what advice would you give to your younger-self or another girl going through the same experience you went through, struggling to fit in and battling racial comments?
“I would tell her to keep her head held high and keep it moving. You are beautiful and your beauty is in your self-worth. Once you realise and begin to believe that, your beauty will literally begin to glow from you. There are some situations where you have to mature enough to understand. Everything will be okay with time. I know that I didn’t speak out to anyone when I was dealing with it, but it’s good to find someone you can talk to.”
It surely takes confidence to start up a company and Michelle believes that there wouldn’t be a Jelani otherwise. It takes a lot to be able to come up with an idea and market it to others. Whether it’s investors or your parents, it’s crucial that they see your vision exactly how you do and it takes a lot of confidence to do so. It’s even harder starting a company at 16/17 like Michelle, where people still see you as a kid.
What in your opinion is your greatest achievement so far?
“Aside from my academical achievements and my company Jelani, my biggest personal achievement is my blog: Pretentiousperceptions.wordpress.com which has already reached over 2,000 views. I like knowing that I’m inspiring people somehow and somewhere.”
What’s your advice to an upcoming fashion designer with a brand idea like yours?
“If it’s something you’re doing just for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason. It’s not easy, you have to have a passion and a love for fashion or else you’ll be quick to give up. You’ve got to be able to stick through regardless of the circumstances you face, and even when you feel like letting go, hold on because it’s all worth it in the end. Give it your all and come back after every single setback.”
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
“In 5 years I hope that my brand has grown and become recognised. I also want a few pop up shops along the way.”
If would like to be part of Jelani in any way and like more information on the brand, feel free to contact Michelle via her email. Michelle.firstname.lastname@example.org