I Started A Luxury Sustainable Womens Fashion Brand
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Kahindo Mateene, I am the Founder and Chief Creative Director of KAHINDO, my luxury sustainable namesake fashion brand. KAHINDO is a luxury womenswear brand created with original prints and exuberant colors that celebrates the legacy of African fashion with a modern twist. A socially responsible brand, we are dedicated to ensuring ethical work practices for the women who create our brand in Africa.
We sell directly to consumers on our e-commerce website as well as on several other marketplaces including Verishop and Wolf & Badger. We also sell wholesale to retailers such as Rent The Runway, our largest client.
I am a current 2021 Tory Burch Fellow and Graduate of the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. I was born in Uganda, educated in Kenya, and have called Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Niger home. I was selected in 2011 to take part in Macy's prestigious Chicago Fashion Incubator program and was also a contestant on Project Runway season twelve in 2013.
For me, fashion is only as beautiful as the way I treat the female artisans and workers who help me create my line. That means focusing on sustainability and ethical work environments for my global partners and using the KAHINDO brand as a vehicle to create equity and job opportunities for women. Together, we share the heart and soul of Africa with the rest of the world through fashion.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2014 under a previous brand Modanik, I launched a Kickstarter whereby I repurposed the scrap fabric from creating previous collections into clutches that were ethically made by women in my hometown of Goma, in The Democratic Republic of Congo. I knew that they needed jobs and work and didn’t want a handout, so I thought I could help them out. The Kickstarter was a huge success and all the proceeds went back to the women who sewed the clutches. That sparked an idea of how I could make an impact through Fashion.
When I rebranded in 2017 one of the reasons was, I started designing my prints. This was great because now I could tell my own stories. I used my brand as a vehicle to tell positive and authentic stories about the African continent and to educate people about its diversity and beauty. It’s exclusive, but also I’m telling a story, about the culture but also about who made the piece. So that’s how I tackled it, every print, every color, there’s a specific story behind it.
It’s all a learning process, I have made many mistakes and keep learning and growing from them.
For one of my collections from 2 years ago, I collaborated with a Nigerian artist named Dipo Doherty. I used one of his paintings to create a print. It’s bold, it’s colorful, it’s African inspired, and it’s telling a Nigerian story through the fabrics.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My Pan-African upbringing has given me a love and appreciation of different African cultures that I constantly pull inspiration from. I am especially proud of my Congolese heritage which I often reference in my designs. We have such a rich culture from music, to dance, to the green landscape of my hometown of Goma to fashion. Les Sapeurs is a movement that beautifully encompasses this. I grew up going to buy African print in the market in Goma and then to the local tailor who would make a custom fit outfit for me for a special occasion, and I have always wanted to share this experience with the world.
Everything always starts with a color, that is the essence of KAHINDO. I look at trend reports to get an idea of what colors will be in the next season. The next step is coming up with the print. We started developing prints in-house, which is very exciting, as they are always unique to the brand. We love to collaborate with different artists to interpret their work into textiles.
Once the fabric is selected we come up with styles that always include our staples and a couple of new looks that our customer craves. Samples are made to perfect the fit, then manufacturing begins. For Spring Summer 2020, we sourced hand-dyed fabric that was made in Kenya, and worked with female artisans in DR Congo who sewed the garments to perfection.
There are a lot of tailors and seamstresses in Congo who are skilled but don’t have jobs, so I wanted to create jobs. I’m constantly looking for artists in different countries that have traditional skill sets. For example, for my upcoming collection, the fabric was sourced in Nigeria, and hand-dyed by traditional dyeing techniques, a tradition in Nigeria called Adire. The fabric was shipped to Congo and to Kenya where seamstresses cut it and sew it into the styles and then I import it to the US and sell it to retailers or directly on my website.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I launched or re-launched KAHINDO from a previous brand that I had in Chicago called Modahnik, in 2017 when I moved to New York. I wanted it to be more authentic and to reflect me, hence the name change.
I financed my business through a full-time day job as an HR Technology Consultant and did that until April 2020 when I was laid off. I worked at Rent The Runway at my day job and was able to show the buyers there my collection. It took a couple of seasons, and I had completed the project by then, but they finally placed my 1st large wholesale order. I sought out a Kiva loan to finance the PO, as well as a small SBA microloan, PPP, and EIDL loan.
Cash flow has always been a significant challenge. Our business has to purchase materials, have goods manufactured, deliver them to clients and then wait for
payment, which is typically net-30 days. Like many small business owners, I had self-funded the business and that’s gotten us through the earliest stages, but there are limits to what we could do without additional funding.
Having a community is also extremely important, especially as a solo founder, because it can sometimes get lonely.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have tried a bit of everything, and as a solo founder with a limited budget, I think the key is to experiment until you find something that works. For us, it is a mix of email, social media, and influencer marketing.
Paid ads haven’t worked for us because of our small limited budget. We are currently updating our website and working on SEO, something that we have never done before.
We have also experimented with traditional press, and it has been a hit or miss and also a bit costly.
Pop-up shops have also been great, our customers love to touch and feel the clothes and try them on in person, so during Covid that has been problematic, but with things slowly opening back up, we are doing more of those. We did one during New York Fashion Week and one in London during fashion week as well, we have a big one in Atlanta as part of The Black Fashion Movement from October 21-24.
We also do giveaways with similar brands to grow our email list for email marketing.
Analytics are also crucial, and after taking a webinar about Google Analytics we are better versed in it, and use that along with Shopify analytics to make decisions.
Our retailers have also driven customers to us. Rent The Runway has exposed our brand to so many women across the U.S., and some have become customers and brand ambassadors. Wolf and Badger have done the same exposing our brand to a very International clientele, through them we have shipped to customers in Singapore, Australia, Germany, and the U.K. to name a few.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are profitable and on our way to doubling our sales revenue from last year. 20% of our sales are DTC through e-commerce and other marketplaces. We are distributed on 3 marketplaces and 5 stores and hope to double that by early next year and reach 40 stores by the end of 2022.
We just participated in a tradeshow in Paris this week and I work with a wholesale Showroom here in New York, who helps get KAHINDO into stores. I give them the samples and they have meetings with stores to get sales because to make an impact the way I want I need large orders, from the likes of Rent The Runway, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks. The more orders I can get, the more sustainable jobs I can create and the more women I can help out of poverty in Africa.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It’s all a learning process, I have made many mistakes and keep learning and growing from them. Earlier this year I had a consignment agreement with a store in Brooklyn, and quickly found out that it wasn’t a good fit, so I had to end that relationship. I have also worked with some PR companies that haven’t yielded any results and just couldn’t justify the monthly retainer. I try to keep my overhead costs low. However I also realize I need to grow my team, so I am looking to hire a Production manager in Africa to handle production as well as a Patternmaker and Social Media Manager.
Having a community is also extremely important, especially as a solo founder because it can sometimes get lonely. So being selected as a Tory Burch Fellow this summer was incredible, and I am part of Luminary, a women's co-working space that has a lot of online programming, through which I have met some incredible fellow business owners.
I also recently did a fashion show, which I shouldn’t have done. My first instinct was not to do it, but I proceeded because of other factors, and in the end, I realise I should have listened to my instincts. I took it as a learning lesson and looked at the positive because I was able to make some sales and meet new customers as well as network with fellow business owners.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My Google calendar is my best friend. I have to schedule everything, even lunch, so I remember to take a break, and it keeps me organized, even though I sometimes deviate from it. I also love Google docs, especially my favorite ad which is called YAMM (Yet Another Mail Merge). I found out about it from the Get Sh!t Done Accelerator which I was part of last year.
I use Klaviyo for email marketing and will also start using it for SMS marketing.
Yotpo for product reviews. Canva to create assets. Moo for some collateral, because they can be a bit pricey, but I love their printfinity tool where you can print the same card with several different images. I use Uprinting for all other printing collateral from stickers, to posters.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t give up, work hard and be passionate about your business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes. Urgently looking for a Social Media Intern as well as a Freelance Social Media Manager. Email at [email protected].
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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