Esther Kalekye Ngatia is the founder of the fashion line House of Kaji, which she started together with her brother in their mother’s living room in 2015.
‘House of Kaji’ has since featured in fashion shows such as East Africa Fashion Week, Masquerade Runway Ball, Fashion Night Out, and others.
The 34-year-old fashionista spoke to People Daily about her journey in fashion.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a 34-year-old lady who loves life, lives it to the fullest, and always has an attitude of gratitude.
Growing up was magical, but it would change at some point after my father who was then a banker got retrenched.
My mum had a salon and so helped pick up the slack when it came to bills.
I’m extremely grateful that they managed to put the four of us through school, even though with difficulties.
To be honest, my family has taught me great values that I carry and impose in everything I do, touch, and say.
I can proudly say I’m who I am because of the strength of my family and the love bestowed upon us.
I completed high school in 2005 at Nembu Girls High School, and right away I got a job in a cyber café where I learnt computer.
I started saving and after two years I was able to enroll myself at the East Africa School of Media Studies, majoring in broadcast journalism.
Life is quite interesting because after all that, I’m doing something completely off from my majors.
What sparked the fire for your journey in the fashion world?
Poverty! Imagine going to school and getting diplomas, sending out CVs, left right and centre, and still nothing.
Just a whole lot of disappointments and empty promises. I have worked at a pizza joint, law firm (as a receptionist), promotions for companies, and telemarketing.
At some point, I remember getting depressed wondering if life would ever be better. One crucial lesson my mum taught us is never to look like your problems.
She would dress, look like a million bucks yet her purse would sometimes be carrying loose change.
I carry the same exact energy, and so I would always get compliments on my dressing.
Sometimes I would buy an item, then alter it to fit my style. I purely believe without prejudice that style is inborn and fashion is acquired.
How was House of Kaji born?
House of Kaji was born in 2015 in our mum’s living room. I say ‘our’ because we were partners with my brother James Mwoni.
‘Kaji’ is a combination of our names Kalekye and Jimmy. It sounded unique and so we rolled with it, went ahead and registered the company and we were ready to introduce our briefcase design company to the world.
We sourced for different tailors for specific needs. At that time we could not afford machines, so we basically outsourced.
We set up social media accounts and the first post was of a pair of Ankara loafers that we had made for ourselves for the purpose of marketing. I used this formula with the outfits too.
We sourced the fabrics, created designs, had them made at the tailors, wore, and took pics to post.
I genuinely believe in the power of social media, because we started getting orders after a while and as they say, the rest is history.
How did it take off?
In 2018, I opened my first store on Ngong Road, Nairobi, with savings accumulated over the years.
I had already parted ways with my brother, as he was ready to start his own design company and I was proud and happy for him. His company is called Mwoni Satorials.
Within a year, we had to look for a bigger space. In 2019, we moved to APA Arcade where space was bigger.
The store did well, but in 2020 when Covid-19 hit, I couldn’t maintain the store for long. There were no weddings or events, and clubs were closed.
Dressing people is our core business, and so when nothing is taking place, we are basically stranded.
But in May 2020, we (my hubby, myself, and Jimmy) relocated to Diani, Kwale county, and we’re happy with our decision.
How many runways have you taken part in thus far?
So far we’ve participated in five fashion shows namely East Africa Fashion Week, Masquerade Runway Ball, Fashion Night Out, Miss Attitude East Africa and Laikipa Fashion Weekend.
Is there a fashion rule you live by?
If you’re exposing the upper area of your body, cover the bottom area and vice versa. Never both at the same time.
You recently won a Metta grant to empower women through fashion. Tell us more about it?
First of all, I’m humbled and grateful to be among the top six chosen out of 800 applicants for the programme.
The end goal for House of Kaji is to provide employment opportunities and create a sustainable source of income to the underprivileged in the society.
So far, I’m working with two ladies scouted from Diani, and my hope is to be able to help them create their own fashion lines by the end of the programme.
This in turn should be able to create a source of income and God willing if we’re able to make good sales, my plan is to buy them their own sewing machines.
Basically, we are teaching them how to fish instead of giving them the fish. It’s an awesome experience and feeling.
What plans does House of Kaji have going forward?
Well, right now, we are focusing on building our brand in Diani. My team consisting of James (lead tailor) and Embukane Liboso (marketer) and I intend to change the fashion and design spectrum in Diani.
This place is mostly known for tourism yet there’s so much talent here. Today you can find House of Kaji merchandise at Swahili Boutique inside the Swahili Beach Resort.
Our main goal is to create employment through a sustainable source of income. My wish is to empower a girl somewhere, feeling lost.
We intend to continue providing programmes that will empower the underprivileged in society by teaching them design skills, which in turn will create a source of income.