A growing number of Kenyan labels are embracing gender-neutral fashion, as a younger, more vocal generation seeks more inclusion and creativity in clothing designs.
In July, fashion brand Vivo and Bold Network Africa released Zoya X Bold, a bold, gender-inclusive collection. It is one of the new collaborative products that showcase androgynous fashion. Nairobi designer Jamie Bryan Kimani launched his brand Sevaria in 2018 to exclusively create gender-neutral clothing.
Chris “Makena” Njeri Muriiti, CEO of Bold Network Africa, which describes itself as a storytelling platform, says fashion needs to be more inclusive. “For a long time, I had to go to the men’s department to even buy a shirt,” says Murthy, who is non-binary.
Cross-dressing is common practice in Kenyan comedy, but those who step outside of that sphere face severe backlash.
“I used to get bullied on social media for my clothes just because they didn’t conform to what society has determined to be normal for people,” Murthy said.
The Zoya x Dara collection features stunning fabrics, colors and prints designed to work with all body types.
“Clothing on the market imagines a very binary world,” said Wandia Gichuru, CEO of Vivo. Many businesses are hesitant to take a stand on gender and gender inclusion for fear of losing their culture, she says. But times are changing, she added, and businesses have room to take more risks.
Zoya targets a young, bold and unapologetic demographic, which Gichuru believes is more inclusive and self-expressive than previous generations. “The younger generation is more values-based than my generation,” she says, noting the growing demand for locally made and environmentally sustainable products. “Being exclusive or prejudiced can hurt you in the long run.”
Ashton Lawrence, 23, who models the new line, says it undermines the traditional creative binary. “When I was growing up, it was boring to see how men dressed on red carpets on TV. It will be the same thing – black tux, white shirt – but women will have a lot of difference [clothing] Statements”
Kenya’s queer community has been on the rise in the past few years, with several prominent Kenyans coming out publicly. Celebrities like Willis Chimano of the Afro band South Soul challenge traditional gender dress with crop tops, low V-necks, bare backs and bodysuits. Popular lifestyle YouTuber Jayson Wamae also embraces the fluidity of fashion, wearing everything from crop tops and silk jumpsuits to neck scarves.
“People should be able to be who they are without being afraid,” says Murthy.
But LGBTQ+ people face systematic discrimination and violence in Kenya, and gender non-conforming people face heightened threats. In April, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian was killed in an alleged hate crime. The following month, a 50-year-old woman who had sex with him was raped and killed. Figures from the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission suggest these are not isolated incidents.
Lawrence is harassed every day, but he doesn’t hesitate to grow his hair. Wearing an eyepatch and mesh. He describes it as a girl to his younger self.
“I don’t see many people like me in Nairobi, so I want to be that person for others,” says Lauren.
“Men shouldn’t be asked what their gender preference is,” says Lauren. Zoya X’s bold collection often experiments with feminine fabrics like silk in its designs. “This kind of visibility in fashion is changing the game,” he says.
“There’s still very little visibility for gender-nonconforming people,” says Letoya Johnston, a transgender fashion icon who has worked in the industry for a decade. When she started out, designers wouldn’t take her as a model.
“People ask why I can’t dress like a man,” says Johnston, who quit after a designer tried to force her to do so.
If there were more gender-neutral fashion lines, Johnstone says the start of her career might have been easier. I wouldn’t have needed to create so much hostility as I was kicking down doors.
But fashion’s moves can ring a bell for transgender women like Johnston, who are often targeted and face a high risk of violence no matter what they wear.
“Genderless fashion isn’t always put in the context of other people who aren’t cisgender,” says Johnston, who has been attacked for her clothing. “It’s easy for a woman to dress like a man, but it’s very difficult for a different woman,” she said. Police are unaware of gender fluidity in fashion.
Internationally, such lines have been criticized for failing to accommodate trans people in their capacities and practices.
New Kenyan President William Ruto has previously spoken out against homosexuality, saying there is “no place for homosexuality” in a “God-fearing country”, although outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta was considered more tolerant of the LGBTQ issue in 2015.
“We’re making some progress, but we have a ways to go,” Johnstone said.
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