By Mukurima Muriuki
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. – Harriet Tubman
No one was prepared for the life-altering virus, Covid-19, which would bring the world to its knees! Kenyan fashion designer, Victoria Kageni was barely beginning to enjoy success with her women’s ready-to-wear clothing line, Gusa by Victoria, established in 2016. Now she had to deal with the realization that her business would need to pivot in order to survive this terrible blow! Face masks were mandatory! She began to think about masks as an addition to her fashion wear. Initially, she was concerned that others would label her an opportunist; however, she felt compelled to fill the needs of healthcare workers, essential workers, and daycare workers. Since there was a shortage of face masks, she was certain she could manufacture them by using her design and sewing skills. It was primarily for the love of her family and her community that she chose to assist them during this crisis. But she also knew it could save her business. She enlisted her children to help her by cutting out materials to be used in making the masks. As a result of her decision to help during this pandemic, Victoria now markets face masks, made from African fabrics, on her website
Before Covid-19 ravaged the planet, Victoria was using her innovative talents in many different venues. She is the creative director of an annual two-day music festival titled, Gusa World Music Festival. She also offered diners the ability to experience many different cultures using their palates through Gusa Dining Excursions. “Unfortunately, all of these events, fueled by the supportive community who wanted to learn about my heritage, came to a screeching halt because of the social distancing measures imposed on all of us,” Victoria explained.”
This last year has taught me the power of reimagining your life. When everybody was losing their jobs, businesses folding and family dynamics changing as a result, a sewing machine held and sustained my lifestyle. I almost didn’t take the chance, because it was a chance. I am glad I flexed that muscle and made things happen for my community and myself,” she said.
Victoria’s early years were spent in a Mombasa household where, like many of her peers, she enjoyed the privilege of having household help to assist her busy parents. Many of her school holidays were spent surrounded by relatives. She believes that those in the Diaspora are at a disadvantage because they do not have those experiences. “I was fortunate enough to meet and nurture a lasting relationship with an older woman who became my children’s adopted grandmother. She helped me raise my children when I became a mother. She remains a very big part of our lives to this day,” she said.
Her creativity was born out of watching her “serial” entrepreneurial parents. Victoria explained that their creative spirit gave her the desire to become the successful business woman that she is today. She further explained, “I am reminded that sewing was a talent/gift passed on to me by my maternal grandmother from Kiambu,who was an amazing seamstress.I never met her, but I am told that I am as creative as she. My coastal upbringing naturally led me to choose a company name that reflected a community that touched me, hence Gusa By Victoria. It is a women’s clothing line that celebrates cultural diversity through fashion. Not only do we design and create women’s wear, we also facilitate sewing workshops and Swahili workshops in addition to the music festival and dining excursions that I mentioned earlier.”
Every business has its challenges, and when Victoria was asked about the ones that she has experienced, she mentioned the difficulty in reimagining clothing for individuals who had formerly worked in business offices. Her focus has been on creating clothing that will keep her clients comfortable yet fashionable, whether they are working from home or in an office setting. Her pieces include practical loungewear that has a professional look for Zoom conference calls and/or in-person meetings.
Victoria, however, hasn’t always been a fashion designer. Before her deep dive into the fashion industry, she worked in the construction industry for the International Union of Operating Engineers. Her job was to keep the infrastructure of a natural gas pipeline safe. After a decade, she decided the job had served its purpose. Her advice to anyone interested in pursuing fashion design as a career is simply to learn all you can and remain a perpetual student of your craft. “Be so good that your name is synonymous with your chosen career,” she stated.
Coming to Savannah, GA, USA from Mombasa was “as exciting as it was frightening.” “My story of how I ended up in the United States of America is not any different from every other student who came to pursue an education. My first stop was in Georgia at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I then moved to the Northeast to be closer to my siblings and extended family members. Although I had traveled far from home when I went to Chogoria Girls for my A levels, this trip was different because I traveled unaccompanied. It was also a trip that would bring me to a strange land where I knew no one,” she confided.
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Her final destination was in York, PA, a small city located in south central Pennsylvania. She explained that in many ways York is similar to Tiwi sub location because almost everyone knows one another. Although York made national news several times for being racially insensitive towards people of color, she feels it is an ideal city for individuals who are undaunted by the curiosity of the locals who want to get to know an “outsider,” “York, PA will be as difficult a place as you allow it to be. It’s small enough to cause you to stand out as an anomaly, which you could capitalize on, or you can let the racially insensitive individuals make your life miserable. The choice is always ours to make. My biggest client base is the Caucasian family,” she replied.
In her leisure time, Victoria reads business related material in order to better understand the world in which she works. “In the age of Covid where everyone is desperately working to reinvent themselves, the importance of standing out takes center stage. For that reason, I am currently reading Story Brand by Donald Miller. Clarity is important for any business person, and even more importantly is the power to share your story with the masses. People buy you, the individual, before they buy your product,” she explained.
When she isn’t working or reading business material, she enjoys listening to jazz music. “I am rather conservative, so you will never catch me dancing. It is not because I cannot bust a move. To be clear, I can get down with the best of them. I’m just modest like that. But when I do, in the shower, I dance to Dobet Gnahore. I am more of a mellow/jazz loving individual,” she confided.
As a woman of color, Victoria understands the “racial reckoning” that is being experienced worldwide, and the doors that are opening to accommodate marginalized people. She believes that minorities should “take up space.” “There have been quite a few organizations that have sprouted from the age of Covid. I would encourage others to seek out these organizations that offer amazing opportunities. This is a time to take up space, position yourself, surround yourself with people within the industry in which you want to grow, and then lean all the way in. Nobody is coming to bang on your door to give you a chance at anything. Be bold; be brave enough to dream big and then act on those dreams. I belong to a number of them. Harlem’s Fashion Row is just one of the many organizations that cater to designers of color. I am grateful for them,” she added.
Finally, it is important to her that her children understand their heritage. For this reason, she teaches them that being African is richer than the land in which they were born. “Mwacha mila ni mtumwa.”
Victoria is the embodiment of what can be achieved through hard work and determination. In the face of challenges beyond her control, she has proven that she can turn them into successes for herself and others. She is a role model to all and represents the main reason immigrants come to America – for the American dream. That dream is hers now, and her motto further defines why she is successful: “The pie is big enough for everyone to eat from and with plenty left over.”