In conversation with Deepa Dosaja

Has the pandemic made us understand slow fashion?

Deepa Dosaja’s boutique in Nairobi tailor for luxury. Using only natural fabrics made from silk, bamboo, cotton, wool and linen, she’s always looking out for fabrics which fit her ethic of environmental consciousness. How they drape, their folds and colors, inspire her creations, and her tailor-made approach means nothing goes to waste. But is slow fashion really sustainable as a retail model in Kenya? We asked Deepa for her thoughts on how resilient the model is to the impact of COVID-19 within Nairobi’s fashion scene, and whether it’s here to stay.

CE: What’s your idea of slow fashion and what fascinates you about it?

Dosaja: As a designer, what slow fashion means to me is that we don’t overproduce. We never have excess stock and we produce on demand, which is I think is the best way of promoting the sustainable fashion movement. We also have to think environmentally and socially. And when it comes to production, sustainability is about also creating employment, about knowing the person who made your clothes, about skilling people and understanding natural fabrics and how they fall. There are so many elements involved. Where technology and robotics are taking over, my biggest concern is that clothes are not produced by hand: you can thread a machine, punch in the measurements and a garment comes out. I have to ask myself: what happens to the machinist, the pattern drafter, the embroiderers?

CE: How is this applied practically in your shop?

Dosaja: We don’t produce large amounts of stock sold off-the-rack. Slow fashion is about satisfying your clients; designing and making a garment that will last years and years. For me, it also comes down to creating very classic designs. Fashion is really not meant to be disposable. We make our first samples and supply them in our boutique. If people like them, we’ll measure them up and tailor-make a piece for them. Trends are great, but they’re not sustainable.

CE: Where did your interest in sustainable fashion start out?

Dosaja: I was 13 when I got my first sewing machine, and as I always say to my kids, think back to what your first passions where when you were young, because they are usually a good indicator of what you really love doing in life. Now I’ve been making sustainable fashion for 30 years and nature is my inspiration. For me, fashion is not about speed and people tied to a machine, but about beauty, the people who curate and who are behind it. It That’s what we love doing in my shop: mentoring young designers and working with people to make new cuts and pass on multiple skills. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never used synthetic fabrics. I just never found them workable or attractive, I didn’t like the feel or the drape of them so I’ve never worked with them - not even in our linings.

CE: Do you think the pandemic has made people think twice about where their clothes have come from? 

Dosaja: I’m just really hoping that people now understand the impact of the fashion industry on the planet, as the second biggest polluter. I hope that we are now sitting back and looking at the linings and fabrics in our clothes, and asking ourselves: is this synthetic and how will that impact the environment? Even recycled nylon pollutes the water with microfibers. What is the impact of the disposable masks we are wearing? We have to ask these questions. We’ve also seen our clients and the industry embrace digital events and online ordering. At times no travel has been challenging, for example when ordering new fabrics. But also for us as a company, it’s been the most amazing time to see how my clients have come forth to support the company.

CE: Have you noticed any trends as a result of the pandemic?  

Dosaja: From a design perspective, we’ve noticed people embracing more casual, light and comfortable garments for their wardrobes instead of the usual gowns for example. But it’s also been amazing to see that we were so resilient, especially because we’re very studio-centric. When the pandemic hit our machinists made masks from home to donate around Nairobi; our clients ordered online. I hope the pandemic has at least made people ask where their clothes have come from, and who has made them.

CE: What can customers and designers do to better embrace sustainable fashion?

Dosaja: The first thing is to know where your fabric is coming from. Producing good natural fabrics in-house is something I hope we can do more of in Kenya, instead of having to travel.

It’s a very difficult thing, but knowing where fabrics come from is the only way to be really sure that they are sustainable and this way, you don’t need to order minimum quantities which encourage over production. The ultimate dream of young designers is to design large quantities, but is it really sustainable and is it really important? We have to ask ourselves why we’re making clothes, and for me, it’s to give comfort and beauty to my clients, and for them to get to know us. In future, I’m really hoping that we can source our fabrics locally, and bring younger designers together, share our resources and ideas, and create a vibrant, local fashion industry.