Finding inspiration in new and unexpected places is one of the forces that drives the fashion industry forward. The willingness to see and use clothes in different ways can take a checked flannel shirt and transform it from a practical garment for outdoor workers, to a favourite accessory of the 90’s grunge movement, to a modern hipster’s style staple. Similarly, “jua kali”, long associated with moderate prices and outdoor labour is on the cusp of having a fashion renaissance.
Jua Kali is a Swahili phrase that literally translates to “fierce sun”. The term refers to the informal sector of small-scale traders and craftsmen who deal in handmade, hand-repaired items created out in the open, under the sun. They are usually found by the side of the road working out of ramshackle kiosks and workshops across the East African region. The soul of jua kali is in making things work, in the literal sense; jua kali entrepreneurs are famous for being able to fix everything from bicycles to cell phones, and use seemingly worthless odds and ends to make things that actually function. Jua kali vendors don’t just fix things, they make things too; kitchen items, house wares, electronics, bags and purses, jewellry, scarves, and much more.
Because of the focus on low costs and never letting anything go to waste, in the past some have failed to see the value of jua kali products. Urban dictionary’s two-year-old entry for the term says it means “something very roughly made or ineffective”. But that definition will need to be updated soon. Today more and more people prize handmade items and jua kali clothes and accessories are catching the eyes of savvy fashionistas who want unique artisanal pieces. Jua kali is now becoming about making things work in the sense of using skill, hard work, and style to create something beautiful and one of a kind.
This isn’t surprising to anyone who has been tracking recent fashion, cultural, and lifestyle trends. The demand for artisanal, hand crafted, and bespoke everything has skyrocketed in recent years. However, not everyone who wants unique, skillfully crafted accessories can afford to pay couture type prices. Jua kali artisans are perfectly positioned to meet this demand as many have artistic flair, craftsmanship, and down to earth pricing which results in beautiful hand bags, jewellery and accessories that are accessible to style seekers on all kinds of budgets.
For years people who patronize the outdoor vendors in Kenya have been cultivating a new appreciation for all that jua kali has to offer. Now jua kali’s transition from local secret to internationally renowned fashion movement is picking up steam. In 2016 the Nairobi Design Week celebrated jua kali, and showcased a number of local designers who came from the homegrown outdoor economy. And these artisans are getting attention in the fashion world far from home as well. stocked in high end boutiques such as Anthropologie and Nordstrom.
With the perception of jua kali evolving and more people understanding the true value of these products it’s likely that more jua kali designers, crafts people, and entrepreneurs will find wide recognition through online sales and big name distributors. While others may simply benefit from increased local appreciation of the work they do and the unique products they create. Either way, for jua kali artisans and those who love their work, the fashion is fierce and the future looks bright.