My name is Akoth Otieno and I’m the Creative Director and Founder of Olisa Kenya, a knitwear brand that caters to women who care about individuality and originality. My favorite thing about fashion is that I can walk in and out of identities as I please and that influences my designing a great deal.
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The name Akoth is from the Luo ethnic community. It means born during the rain. Most Luo girls born when it’s raining are called Akoth.
A form of self-expression.
I’d like to say there’s a glamorous back story but to be honest there isn’t.
For as long as I can remember I’d always wanted to work in the arts. I come from a long line of generational talent. My dad was a carpenter, my mum a weaver and a home science teacher (she was rather disappointed when I dropped it as a subject in high school but I was young and that was my political statement lol), my grandmother is a knitter as well. Making almost came naturally. I mean, I already had the resources and the people I needed to help make that happen.
I started designing almost by luck. While in 4th year of Law School, my roommate at the time suggested I needed to get better at expressing myself. At the time, I’d stopped writing and was looking for other avenues of story telling, so to speak. That’s when when I bought my first hook and yarn, that I used to teach myself to crochet. I was privileged to have had a wealth of resources and various platforms to source knowledge and information from. The internet, such magic. I made my first baby beanie a week later and everything sort of just grew from there.
After law school I ventured into Social Behavioral Change Communications, which is what I do when I’m not designing.
Purpose fuels passion.
I’ve always been passionate about fashion. The first wearable item I designed was a colorful crop top and I remember getting such positive feedback. I got a couple of orders when I wore it to a festival. That was the nudge I needed to do it professionally. However, the first time I put pencil to paper to create the brand was 2017. It started out as an experiment because I still wasn’t quite sure of the media I wanted to use. To be honest I’m still amazed by the reception I get from clients and people generally.
All names mean something.
Where I come from Elizabeth (which is my first name) automatically translates to Olisa. I had a love-hate relationship with the name but there’s just a way my grandma says it! My mum says the name means Queen or Goddess.
On a personal level Olisa Kenya is my daily reminder of home: the comfortable, the simple, the everyday. But largely Olisa Kenya as a brand is quintessential fashion; comfortable, chic, an elevation of the everyday. I design knitwear that elevates the daily- effortless statement and transitional clothing.
My mum is a brilliant weaver and she used to work from a community workshop in Ahero, Kisumu that had been established by Cotton Rehabilitation and Management- a Charity Based Organization that looks to empower weavers and cotton farmers in Nyando and the larger Kisumu area.
When I was 12, my mum was taking her spinning classes at the workshop. I can’t quite remember what I was doing there because my presence there was prohibited but I remember walking in and thinking.. such magic. The sound from the hand looms was almost musical. That was the first time I sat behind a spinning wheel.
However, I learnt how to spin at a workshop in 2015. And yes, I still do spin. When I’m not sourcing yarn from local small businesses I spin and dye my own. Moreover, I weave and occasionally, pretend to be a painter. I don’t do any of them as frequently as I’d like though I still go back to the workshop once every couple of months- mostly to conduct trainings on natural dyeing processes.
My mum doesn’t weave much at all these days. But when she does she does beautiful throws and rugs.
Though I live and design through emotion and colour, I’m mostly influenced by film and music. I’m pro everything that introduces me to a world of ‘something else’.
Ambition is the path to success.
My goal for the year 2020 is to get at least 2 stockists. I know, the year is almost over but I love living dangerously ?.
In addition, I plan to build a lifestyle brand and I’m currently working on an Olisa Home Section; something I’m super excited about!
My uncle is a great traditional dancer and I grew up watching him dance kondo (a traditional dance) and chanting. I’d always loved the costumes he wore. I believe fashion is art that you live in. The Luo culture is vibrant and in more ways than one it taught me to always make sure my eyes are open, lest I miss beauty.
The Luo have unique traditional music that plays a functional role in their lives. Traditional musical instruments include drums, rattles, horns, the Abu and stringed instruments like the Nyatiti. They play music at all important events.
Source: Arts and Culture.
Life is a transition.
If there’s anything that the Covid Pandemic did it was to point out the areas of my business that were lacking. I’ve had to change the business model. Of course there are challenges that have come with the transition, but I still hope to achieve what I’ve set out to do.
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Disclaimer: All photos provided for the purposes of graphics & illustrations for this article, are from Akoth Otieno of Olisa Kenya.