In the spotlight
Before graduation Angela Wanjiku Murigi did not plan to start a blind-inclusive fashion line. Being a short-term planner, all she was focusing on was to graduate splendidly and then go back home to Thika. She thought she would find her way forward and use her skills and passion back in her community- but the exact way was unexpected. In recent years brand clothing, and cheaper alternatives, have been rising with more focus on those who are completely, or partially, visually impaired. However, in Kenya, Wanjiku is a rarity- a designer catering to this niche through her brand “Hisi Studio”.
The brand focuses on using fashionable solutions to broaden the clothing experience for those with visual impairments, thus enabling them to clothe and shop by themselves without the taste bias of their caretakers, or overall aid, to dress. Textured fabric and braille are used so clients are aware of the designs of what they are buying. This is why the business name is “hisi” from the verb “kuhisi” which means “to feel”. Wanjiku aims to establish a clothing line that works with empathy in the design process and empower those who are often excluded in the artistic society.
Hisi Studio started selling bags this year in June during the Nairobi Innovation Week and the business is working on reaching societies and organizations for support and business collaborations. At present, Wanjiku has one contract with a design production company but otherwise works by herself with technical and informational support from University of Nairobi’s innovation and brainstorming hub Makers Space.
Origins: “OͶO”, her Undergraduate Pin-Up Project
In 2018, at University of Nairobi’s School of the Arts and Design, Wanjiku had her end-of-year graduation project. For the project, a idea was to be proposed to their respective project supervisors, and then made according to the proposal, for public grading before a panel in the so-called “Pin Up”. The name of her project was “ONO” from the word “maono,” meaning “vision or perspective”.
Her graduation project had stirred a special interest in her and, while her supervisor exuberantly lauded her- buying one of her bags on the spot- the feeling she received was not as wholesome as she had expected. It wasn’t until she went back to the Society for the Blind, where many supported her as test subjects of the prototypes, that she found her sense of fulfillment. John, one of the ICT Managers, had been the one to see her works and his reaction at reading the braille and trying the bags touched Wanjiku. This was what she wanted to see. It hooked her in and ever since it became a driving force to continue innovating accessories and clothes.
When she was asked in her interview by Signs TV about what motivated her to be so sensitized to the visually impaired, she spoke of frequent interactions with visually impaired persons at church, and of a certain event in Thika. The Salvation Army had opened a Primary and High School for the blind. It was the first for the area and a positive change, however, she noted that they were kept away from the rest of the town- sectioned from everyone else- and she questioned society’s perception of persons with disabilities, and how the blind perceived themselves as a consequence of such casual isolation. At the end of her musings, the question which struck her was what they thought of fashion.
Research for her project yielded very little being done to enrich the fashion angle of living among the visually impaired in Kenya and it showed that the blind hardly knew what fashion was. There was a noticeable gap in the business-fashion niche for the visually impaired along with a pile of challenges found for them. Besides the incapability, to various extents, in seeing the print of clothing, the visually impaired would need aid in shopping, dressing, and the like, and in navigating through town and protecting their belongings from theft. Hence, Wanjiku decided to make an inclusive fashion line that is pleasant to the eye, is what they want to buy- and are able to- and which is easy to wear independently.
As a person passionate about fashion and design, Wanjiku was naturally more sensitized to this lacking aspect of blind lifestyle. She felt responsible seeing such inequality, or lack of kindness, in other people’s lives and a person with the capacity to help, went ahead to change things. ONO was just the beginning.
Establishing Hisi Studio at Nairobi
Another chance happening which brought Wanjiku to Hisi was a job. One of her friends was given a job in preparing for a fashion show by the board of the Special Education Professionals in their Fashion Incubator Program. Knowing Wanjiku would love the idea, she invited her to join her. The Program focused on making “adaptive clothing” for children with different needs clothing-wise due to a physical difference such as having limbs in an uncommon angle due to cerebral palsy. These designs would make it easier to wear and manage clothing by both the client and their caretakers. The result would be an increased sense of independence and freedom by the children.
Empowering through fashion did appeal to Wanjiku so she joined the team and the fashion show that was a success. This experience was one of the encounters which drew Wanjiku to working for and with persons with disabilities. She registered to be a member of the Incubation Program, became a mentee in the circle of fashion business persons and designers, and took the baby steps in starting Hisi and registering the business.
Consequently, after deciding to take ONO further and start Hisi, Wanjiku approached Makers Space at University of Nairobi, Upper Kabete, for expertise technological aid, innovation support, and networking. She went with her ideas from the Pin Up project ONO and opened herself to the following months of prototype failures, testing with support from a focus group of blind Bachelor students of Kenyatta University, and tight schedules of supplying resources for her bags which are selling well. Many things are being considered for the larger sales in August, like claps versus zips, embroidery versus protruding textiles, dye versus mesh fabric, cheaper fabric and accessory for more affordable product pricing, different African print designs, inserted chips versus QR codes for scanning and dissemination of visual and pricing information of the clothes to the client, different accessories and their designs, and much, much more.
The fact is that Kenya has a large visually handicapped population and other considerations aside from health should be considered for the sake of full socio-cultural integration of PWDs in society and in respect of their persons. And actualizing this Vision, Studio Hisi is to be based in Thika and aims to be renowned as a business that empathizes. In the future, Wanjiku wants to empower persons with disabilities through employment opportunities in the business from the production line to the shops and through training. Presently, she is planning to resume studies in late 2019 in Masters in Fashion Innovation so she is prioritizing on getting the business’ system groundwork down while working on fixing the kinks on client-product feasibility; refining her products more before she starts selling on a small scale around August. These preparations are also for the Fashion Incubation Program’s Exhibit in October where Wanjiku plans to maximize on the public exposure to boost her sales and spread Studio Hisi’s name.
Wanjiku’s business profile is “StudioHisi” on Instagram and Twitter, and as “Hisi Studio” on Facebook. The Website for Studio Hisi is still in the works but should be up by October in time for the Fashion Incubator’s October Collection Exhibition. Wanjiku’s personal social platform is Wanjiku Murigi on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
By : Ann Yebei