FASHION BUILDING BLOCKS: As a former model, Siamanda Chege understands the global scope of fashion and is trying to use that knowledge to help orphaned children in her homeland of Kenya.
Her nine-year-old label Bebe Ravi is sold in select specialty stores with more than 10 percent of all purchases benefiting the Patrick Chege Memorial Orphanage that she started in impoverished Nakuru, Kenya. The area has an unemployment rate as high as 40 percent and many of the women are widows due to the AIDS epidemic. Bebe Ravi pays its workers a living wage and provides them with free meals. In addition to helping these sole breadwinners with access to income, the company’s strategy aims to help propel the community forward.
Based in New York, she travels back to Kenya seven to 10 times a year. Nine years into the primarily knitwear business, the founder has added a cut-and-sewn woven division, which are being made by younger women between the ages of 18 and their early 30s. Many of them are young mothers whose education stopped after attending secondary schools, Chege said. Guided by her and her design team, the new recruits have learned to cut patterns and other skills necessary for production. The company is also looking to expand its school uniform business beyond Takomo Academy in Washington, D.C.
One-hundred women in Nakura work for Bebe Ravi and more will be trained this summer, due to new partnerships with Kate Quinn Organics. Bebe Ravi also does private label, having worked with companies like Oscar de la Renta, Lemlem and Zulily. Women’s, children’s and home are its three areas, with beading being among the craftswomen’s specialties. Ten to 15 percent of sales are donated to the Orphanage, and clients can also earmark however much of their sales will be donated on their own.
Thursday night Chege was among the well-wishers at photographer Brian Otieno’s New York debut. Just off the plane from Nairobi for his first trip to the U.S., the photographer’s work was on display in an unfinished Midtown office space. Growing up in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, Otieno started out shooting the more uplifting moments of his day rather than the extreme poverty that surrounded him. The stylist and designer “Ondivour” is among his subjects. (Otieno has also shot for East Africa Fashion Week.) Posting those images as “Kibera Stories” on Instagram and Facebook helped him to attract attention, win a camera and earn a spot at a World Press Photo workshop. With plans to build a school for the orphanage, Chege is eager to speak with Otieno who is committed to helping children in Kenya.
Noting how one of her daughters, who attends Chapin, will be part of a trip to the school’s sister school in Kibera, Chege is eager to get Otieno involved in some capacity. “We would love for the kids to meet Brian there to try to figure out how they can help. We’d like to have a fund-raiser with his work to help our school,” she said.