This week I want to introduce you to Ria Sejpal, founder of Lilabare and a leading Kenyan designer bringing ethics into African fashion. Speaking with her, I realized pretty quickly that she’s not the kind of person that’s content living inside the confines of a label. She’s the kind of person who asks questions, challenges the status quo and doesn’t know how not to care when people, nature and cultures are not getting the respect they deserve. She was up cycling before it was a thing, calling out cultural appropriation before it was on trend, and more importantly built two ethical fashion brands because well, that’s the obvious thing to do. But ethical is not the end of her vision. Lilabare clothes are designed to fit anyone, anytime, anywhere. They’re versatile, feminine, chic and serve your body, no matter what size or shape you are.
Lilabare is one of the first and few Kenyan-made brands with a forward-looking take on sustainability. The industry is new in the country and the customer base not yet as wide as it can be in Europe or the US. In spite of being the fastest growing economies in Africa, social inequalities remain quite sharp in the country and there’s lots to be done to narrow the gap. On the other hand, Kenya is already a leader in the fight for environmental preservation with every other billboard inviting people to invest in reforestation, severe laws protecting wildlife and a ban on plastic bags effective since 2015. It’s against this backdrop that Ria founded Lilabare.
Now, on to the interview!
Tell me about your background. How did you get into fashion?
I used to dream to shop at fancy stores but that wasn’t available here. So when I got tired of my clothes, which was often, I would look at an old skirt for instance and think ‘ok if I cut this into three panels, it’s enough fabric to make a dress’. So I would go to a tailor with my drawings and ask them to make it for me. I spent all of my pocket money remaking my clothes and that was before up cycling was a term but that was exactly what I was doing and I quickly got obsessed by it. That’s what got me interested in the whole fashion thing, not having new clothes to buy and wanting to make my own.
Since I wanted to see how clothes were made, I took my first internship when I was 16, and worked in a factory on the outskirts of Nairobi for the summer. They were producing for Ralph Lauren and Old Navy and I realized that people actually relied on Kenyan factories, that the manufacturing industry here is pretty big. After that I started working with a seamstress to understand cutting and sewing, and then I just continued to educate myself on the different aspects of fashion. Finally I worked for a design house to understand how designers actually work and that was actually the most exciting thing for me but only because I had seen everything else. So I never actually studied design.
I finished my last stint of education in India, after I graduated university in the UK where I tailored my dissertation around ethical fashion. I did an internship in Mumbai. I was backstage at the fashion week and I remember during the finally that I cried. I cried because I knew I never wanted to be at a fashion show if it wasn’t my stuff going down the runway. I knew I wanted to be a designer. I just wanted to be in my studio and drawing and making clothes.
When you were doing all these internships, was there anything that moved you? Anything you knew you would make differently if it were your company?
When I was doing my internship in London there was a bag, you know Kikapus? They’re straw woven bags that people traditionally use here, especially now that we don’t have plastic bags. The design house were mass producing kikapus, and they were like ‘no, this is a Moroccan handbag’. And it was Moroccan because they had ‘Moroccan’ fabric that they had made themselves. I thought that was strange, and the price was about £85. And every woman in Kenya carries one, you could buy it for 400 shillings (£3). It didn’t make sense to me that, for one they weren’t sourcing from the place where it came from and then that they didn’t know the bag originated from Africa and where it came from in Africa.
So the first thing that shocked you was this kind of cultural appropriation and the only reason it was labeled as moroccan was to give it that touch of exoticism…
Exactly, I felt like there was a lack of understanding of why the product even exists in the first place and its context.
But also, I always question how much garment workers earn, because they’re obviously at the bottom of the food chain, which doesn’t make sense. I mean without them what do you have? A pile of fabric and some buttons. That is something I always questioned. Which is why I never bargain with anyone. Of course I do my research and my homework but if someone gives me a price that I know is fair and is worth it, I don’t haggle.
When you wanted to start Lilabare you knew it had to be ethical?
There was no question about it.
What were things you didn’t expect in the process?
The fact that people aren’t doing this already. We know the history of mass production is fairly recent, considering clothes have been around since the beginning of existence and mass production since WW2 when they needed to produce standard uniforms at a large scale. I guess the pendulum went one way and now we’re trying to come back to a balance. But I don’t think as many people are interested in this kind of thing. Anything I can do to help this planet and the people on it, I’ll do that through Lilabare.
What projects are you working on?
Lasting Footprints is Lilabare’s latest range that is launching this week. I went into the conservancies within the Maasai Mara and casted moulds from natural phenomena I found in the area; mainly animal footprints. We then scaled these prints down and made them pendants for a necklace series, which donates one indigenous tree to the Mara conservancy for each piece bought.
The pieces are made entirely by hand from old brass locks, machinery and pipes too. We are seeking to move towards a holistically circular supply chain and this is the start of that which is exciting!
What kind of reactions do you get when you present your projects?
Every person I meet is aware of the importance of the environment and conserving it. We have a lot of tourism here and it’s because the nature we have in Kenya is not something western countries can offer, we have to protect it. It’s been quite easy to have that conversation.
But I guess with Lilabare, because it is environmentally friendly eco-fashion, I don’t know that it will be the customer’s first thought. When I talk about it, people will say it’s really nice. But ultimately, if they don’t like the fit of it or like something else that’s cheaper in the next shop then that’s what they’ll buy, it doesn’t make a difference. Eventually clothing is about looking good.
That’s why my inspiration is mainly the human form. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a child, the main thing I like to draw are human figures. When I design things I try to think of what it does for the body. The last thing the world needs is another eco-friendly brand that makes cotton sack dresses. The vision I have for Lilabare has never been to build another run of the mill eco-friendly brand. The ethos goes beyond the supply chain and focuses on being sexy, edgy, effortless chic.
So, what are you creating?
I’m creating clothes that could be your entire wardrobe, but without having as many pieces as you’d expect. Everyone wants the crazy Carry Bradshaw walk-in closet from Sex & the City. This doesn’t make any sense. What you should have, what’s functional, what makes sense for the world we live in today is to have several select pieces that are really good quality and that you can wear to work, to dinner, to a party, to Sunday brunch, when you’re hungover… You should be able to wear anything from your closet, anytime. So everything should be functional, versatile, chic, wearable and appropriate for different occasions.
I feel like your clothes are very liberating, it’s more about letting the body express itself…
I feel like clothes should adapt to your body and not the other way around. So the last thing you want is to feel like the dress you want to wear doesn’t look good because maybe you’ve put on a few pounds, you’re bloated, or whatever else. That’s why I use fewer sizing labels and instead create cuts that fit numerous body shapes.
I’ve also noticed you mainly use earthy colors
The earth theme is a huge part of my inspiration. I’m drawn to colors that I’ve seen in real life before, that I’ve seen in nature. I find that the colors that already exist in nature are the ones that suit the human body the most because we are also part of that color scheme. I also gravitate towards colors that can fit anyone, any skin tone.
Is there anything you are excited about in the ethical fashion industry?
There is something that’s come up: zero water dying technology. Airdye, Colorzen, there’s a couple of them. And in fact I tried to source some of the dies, but I can’t. And I just wish that that technology was available to everyone.