Ann McCreath

A Scotswoman set on winning over the hearts of Kenyans to African inspired contemporary trends has become one of the most influential fashion designers in East Africa, a far cry from her days of cleaning toilets; today she enjoys international acclaim on the catwalks of the world. Most fashion enthusiasts know Ann McCreath as the force behind KikoRomeo, a Nairobi fashion house that has thrust Kenya onto the global clothing design stage. But few may know that the Scottish-born stylist once cleaned toilets. Young jobseekers jamming urban streets across the country will raise eyebrows at the very thought of the toilets to-catwalk story that belongs to McCreath.

The fun-loving fashion magnate, who has lived her life in the fast lane, loves an active social life and confesses to starting her up – ward climb from the very bottom. Take her seriously when she
tells choosy jobseekers: “No job is too small to show what you are worth. My first job was cleaning toilets. You can use it (such an opportunity) to show that you are hardworking, diligent, honest, easy to get on with, et cetera.” The self-confessed jack-of-all-trades attests to having done many things in her colourful life. She has been a farm hand, a cleaner, a barman (her choice of words), a waitress, a nanny, a tour guide, a tailor, a teacher, a logistician, an administrator… and a country representative for an international non-governmental organisation. McCreath even worked as a human resource consultant and translator before settling on the perch she currently occupies as a top fashion designer.

Today, the twin names Ann McCreath and KikoRomeo have become synonymous with Kenyan fashion, acquiring the status of one of the most influential fashion brands in East Africa. McCreath’s work speaks for itself, and her clothing has been featured on many international catwalks. Diminutive and always stylish, the de – signer is set on winning over the hearts of Kenyans to African inspired contemporary trends. KikoRomeo, a derivative of KikoRomeo – Kiswahili for Adams apple – was founded in 1996 and has grown by leaps and bounds. The designs birthed in the fashion house have earned a double page spread in Vogue Italia, arguably the ultimate fashion recognition. They have also been showcased on international catwalks and dressed local celebrities. Songstress Suzanna Owiyo wore KikoRomeo at South African icon Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert in London.

McCreath’s upward trajectory has come about through sheer grit. That’s what it took to launch the Festival for African Fashion and Art (FAFA) jointly with other professionals in 2008. She was the chairperson, chief net worker and fundraiser for the event dubbed ‘Fashion for Peace’. Through FAFA, her passion for fashion and her love for people gelled. The idea was to spread peace by integrating and bringing together representatives from different cultures through fashion in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The FAFA event was a ‘we- can-do-it’ moment for McCreath. “It was about believing that by harnessing the positive spirit of different people, we could save the country from disaster.”

The fashion designer strongly believes that the war against terrorism in Kenya and around the world will not be won by brute force, and that the more we retaliate, the more new angry youths
are created. “There is need to compare notes in tackling the terrorism menace,” she suggests. “What are we doing to help kids and teens integrate? What are we doing to keep them grounded
and loved? What are we doing to protect them from people who want to lead them astray?” Rather than alienating foreigners, McCreath would like to see how they can be included as productive members of our societies, so they can build their loyalty and allegiance to their new home. “Some people will think this is romantic. I don’t think so. The heavy hand is not working, so it’s time to think of another way.”

FAFA has thus built a reputation as a not-to-be-missed annual event on fashion lovers’ and local designers’ calendars, giving emerging and established talent a platform to showcase and sell their
creations. FAFA debuted in London in November 2013, opening a pop-up shop to showcase and sell clothing from many notable Kenyan designers. McCreath hopes to turn FAFA London into
an annual event with the potential to spring-board Kenyan fashion designers into the global arena and help them scale up their sales locally, in order to meaningfully contribute to Kenya’s GDP.
This would be her way of giving back to the society she has come to call home. One would expect McCreath to have her hands full with KikoRomeo and FAFA. On the contrary, the top designer still volunteers her time to the Kilimani Project Foundation, a community neighbourhood policing organisation.

Born in South West Scotland where she grew up on a farm in the tiny village of Garlieston, McCreath describes her childhood as “easy and happy”; this is the place where she gained her first work experience. The daughter of a South African-born woman who moved to the UK in the late 1950s, and a Scottish farmer who rarely rested except on Sundays, the fashion designer grew up with three younger brothers. Her first family holiday abroad was a visit to Spain. “This is where I gained my earliest exposure to fashion,” she recalls. The vacation gave the 11-year-old a chance to learn how to sew and make handicrafts during the dark winter evenings.

Taking a cue from their father’s strong work ethic, the children helped on the farm in Scotland, with McCreath doubling up as the family cook most of the time. Her mother had grown up surrounded by servants back in South Africa, and therefore had little interest in the kitchen. Now in her 50s, McCreath learned to drive a tractor and turn hay at age 11. “My mother didn’t work, but organised lots of charity events like fundraising for the village sports club to make tennis courts.” She adds that her mother was very artistic, as were her paternal aunts. “I, on the other hand, was a real tomboy and wanted to be a farmer, but my father said a girl couldn’t be a farmer, so I realised I wouldn’t inherit a farm, which meant farming went on my pending list.” McCreath, a single mother, is passing on her strong work ethic and knack for design to her daughter Iona, who has been her mother’s apprentice from birth. She is currently designing her mother’s clothing line Kikoti, targeted at a younger market.

Immersed in fashion as McCreath is now, it’s hard to imagine that the designer had any other ambitions as a child. Yet she confides that she harboured the desire to become a farmer, a pilot and even a doctor. On completing her General Arts degree at the University of Edinburgh, she proceeded to Rome to pursue a Diploma in Fashion Design from the Academia Internazionale d’Alta Moda e d’Arte del Costume Koefia. She went into fashion in the late 1980s. What if she were not a designer? “I may have been, and still am, a jack-of-all-trades, but my principal love became and still is fashion design,” she emphasises. Her early desire to become a doctor had been influenced by her wish to be involved in aid work. McCreath came to Kenya as a relief worker with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the North Eastern region; first as an administrator and then as head of mission in Kenya and Zimbabwe. This was also her break from her fashion job in Barcelona, Spain.

Fascinated by Kenya, she extended her three-month stay to three years, and eventually Kenya became home to her. Not one to be tied to one job, however, McCreath has had her finger in many pies. But with fashion as her first love, she plunged into the Kenyan fashion arena. She brushes aside any suggestion of the challenges she may have encountered as she set up shop in Kenya. ”I have a short memory for bad things. There have been many challenges, no doubt, but I quickly turn them around, learn from them and move on. I’ve been blessed with an exceptionally positive and creative character,” she says. The designer feels that the government has made great strides towards improving the business climate in the country.

“The business realm in Kenya is so much freer and open-minded than it once was, because we can now connect to the world and the world connects to us; entrepreneurship has become a way of thinking, and thankfully, the government is encouraging and supporting the youth to take the self-employment route.” McCreath finds her greatest inspiration in family, friends and people of all walks of life. Nature, culture, art, music and dance also inspire her, as well as sport, her newfound love. She also sits on the board of Lewa Children’s Home Trust.

As Kenya turned 50 in December 2013, McCreath became more determined to get the KikoRomeo brand in shops in key capitals of Africa and the world. She would like to see her creations on the Hollywood red carpet alongside recognised international fashion brands. The designer revels in throwing fabulous parties. Whether it is a birthday, a fashion show or a New Year’s bash, you can be sure that it will be the most talked-about event for a long while. “I have an active social life and I love it,” she confesses. “I also like hosting dinner parties, dancing, travelling, music and watching sports, especially rugby – just so you know yelling is great for releasing tension.” Her advice to the younger generation? Be go-getters.

Words of Wisdom

 “Do what you do with passion and enthusiasm; no job is too small to show what you are worth.”
 “Be willing to put in time to learn all aspects of your trade. If you start at the top, you may never learn.”
 “The media can be your friend; learn how to work with them. They need content and you need them to get your message or products out there.”
 “Always believe you can do anything with determination, persistence and resilience. Don’t give up; just find another way.”
 “Have a clear vision and benchmark; if you’re not attaining it, fix it or change direction.”
 “Have a passionate team, hard work, a great brand identity, networking and talent to back it up.”
 “Don’t do something you don’t love.”
 “The environment can change radically, so always have plans A to Z. A and B alone are not enough.”
 “Don’t be fooled by people’s hype; they usually paint a rosier picture to look good, so do proper research if you don’t have a unique skill.”
 “When times are good, know that it won’t necessarily continue to be all good; it may get worse before it gets better, so save something for a rainy day.”

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