Nthenya Mwendwa: How the Oscars Changed the Life of a Kenyan Designer

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Kenyan fashion designer Nthenya Mwendwa is in Los Angeles with the aim of getting her luxury bags worn and photographed on the Oscars red carpet.

Mwendwa’s bags are available for celebrities to take from a so-called “gifting suite”. At these events, products are displayed in hotel rooms and stars are invited along to choose things for free.

The hope is they will endorse the brand or even wear items on the red carpet.

The 37-year-old’s luxury bags have been chosen before, but Mwendwa has never been in Hollywood to see all glitz and glamour for herself.

A partnership between the Kenyan government and an Oscars gifting suite company last year led to her creations being featured.

One of her designs was picked by award-winning US actress Viola Davis.

Viola Davis with one of Nthenya Mwendwa's cow hide bags
Image caption,This photo of Viola Davis with a cow hide bag at a pre-Oscars gifting suite helped sales

The minute that happened her sales went through the roof.

“They were like, man, we’d better buy a bag from her before she gets super expensive,” Mwendwa, whose bags can cost anything from $150 (£125) and $420 (£350), told the BBC.

‘Midnight screaming’

The global exposure provided a much-needed boost after the Covid pandemic and hugely increased Mwendwa’s sales in Africa.

“All of a sudden, Kenyans are really starting to take notice. They’re like, where’s this girl been hiding? She’s been doing all these big things.”

Then in February, one of Mwendwa’s bracelet handbags was featured in a gifting suite for the Grammy Awards, which was packed full of music’s biggest names.

The red fish leather wristlet purse carried on the red carpet by Blush - Grammy Awards 2023 - 5 February 2023
Image caption,Photographers at the Grammys focused in on Blush’s fish leather bracelet bag on the red carpet

She got lucky and her bag was picked up by Bianca Atterberry, a US singer-songwriter also known as Blush.

“It was a red fish leather wristlet. It’s just a little purse. You can basically just fit your lipstick, your credit card and your phone. It’s something really easy and casual to wear, but also very elegant,” Mwendwa said.

“That was such a big surprise. And then when it clicked that she was carrying it on the red carpet, oh my gosh.”

She was at home in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, when pictures of Blush wearing her bag were posted online. Her phone blew up, but as it was the middle of the night in Kenya she had no-one to celebrate with.

“I was basically screaming on my own because everybody was asleep… it was amazing.”

This has all pushed sales beyond the African continent, and Mwendwa says Beyoncé’s producer has even been in touch.

“It’s really nice now because people actually recognise me for my work.”

Preserving Maasai motifs

Her bags are made from sustainable materials like discarded fish leather and cow hide; they also feature intricate bead-work.

This is influenced by her mother, who is Maasai and originally comes from Kajiado County in the south-west of Kenya, where Mwendwa employs young Maasai women to do the bead-work for the bags.

Nthenya Mwendwa in Kajiado County in Kenya wearing Maasai beads
Image caption,Maasai culture is an important part of Nthenya Mwendwa’s heritage

The fashion entrepreneur says it makes her truly happy to work with the community and help ensure traditional Maasai bead-work is valued beyond being sold as tourist trinkets.

For different Maasai communities the bead-work represents different things – with their own patterns and colours.

“The bead-work from Tanzania is all white and then the beadwork from my mum’s hometown is different [from that in Narok County, which neighbours Kajiado].

“So I really wanted to preserve these stories because I felt like they were starting to disappear and people didn’t know that information, that it can tell you down to a clan just by looking at the beading motif.”

Working at a community level to do the leather and bead-work all chimes with her desire to build a business based on sustainability – and no bag her label makes is ever the same.

‘Mind-blowing invite’

Celebrity endorsements have also changed how Mwendwa, who studied at Arsutoria – a prestigious bag and shoe design school in the Italian city of Milan – works.

“It’s made me think a little bit differently now in terms of the international market.

Actor Steve Zahn with one of Nthenya Mwendwa's bags.
Image caption,Steve Zahn, who starred in HBO’s Emmy-winning series The White Lotus, is also a fan of the bags

“If one bag is seen on the red carpet, what’s the next line that I will design, or the next collection? You know, how will that look if it was on the red carpet?

“It’s changed my perspective in terms of how I design now.”

To be invited to the Oscars this year is “mind-blowing”, says Mwendwa, who was asked by the DPA Luxe Gift Suite as she now works directly with them.

She is hopeful that being there in person to promote her bags will lead to even bigger things.

It may initially set back her firm TheLabelSaba – giving away products away for free – but the fanfare should reap rewards for her and those who help create the bags.

“I am really grateful for this opportunity to shine a spotlight on my heritage and to be able to share our stories through the beautiful bags.”

Source: BBC