I always feel thankful every time I think about the way Rakhee and me encountered, which was at her African-Inspired fashion high tea back in spring this year, and since then, she has become an inspiration in my life, and a friend. Maisha Concept is a fashion brand that drawns upon the rich African heritage and culture, expressed through its vibrant, colourful and signature designs. The unique fabrics Rakhee uses are 100% made in Kenya which has become one of the trademarks for Maisha Concept. “Maisha” means “life” in Swahili, and you can really feel its vibrant spirit when you touch or wear their clothes. I’m inspired and touched by Maisha Concept, and the soul of this distinguishing fashion brand is Rakhee Shah who has been on the top of my list of interviewees, so I’m very grateful that I was lucky to catch up with her for our interview.Cynthia Lo: Hi Rakhee, to start our interview, could you tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from; where did you grow up? And your educational and professional background?
Rakhee Shah: I am third generation Kenyan of Indian origin. I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. I did my undergraduate studies and masters in Finance in the UK, and worked in the financial industry for around 8 years. I left Kenya for Hong Kong around 5 years ago and worked in asset management, until I decided to follow my dream and start my own business 2.5 years ago. That’s when Maisha Concept was launched.Cynthia Lo: I understand you were in finance before; when and why did you realize that you wanted to be a fashion designer?
Rakhee Shah: Working in finance was great, however I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. My family has been in the fabrics industry in Kenya for generations and just growing up within an entrepreneurial family, I always felt I had it in me to start something of my own. Growing up in Kenya, we never had high street stores or huge shopping mall. I would normally get a tailor to make items for me from the local Kenyan fabrics. Living in HK, I realized that there is a lot of appreciation of others cultures and fashion is at the forefront. Whilst I didn’t have a designer background, I believe I am fortunate to have an eye for design, and from the encouragement of my friends and family, I decided to launch my first collection.Cynthia Lo: How would you define your personal style? Where do you get inspiration? As a fashion designer, do you have a favourite designer? Who is s/he and why?
Rakhee Shah: I get my inspiration from travelling. From a young age I have been encouraged to travel and see the world. I am fortunate enough to have travelled to fivecontinents and to locations which are so rich in culture and tradition. I am not one of those who wear big luxury labels…my style is more simplistic where I like wearing items which have cool detailing, a pop of colour and from an upcoming designer. I have a lot of designers who inspire me…one of them is an Indian designer called Sabyasachi. He is understated as a designer, but creates the most amazing jaw dropping pieces which carry a lot of history and art in each item. The way he works, his personality and his work truly inspires me.Cynthia Lo: Every brand has a story behind it; such as your fashion brand Maisha Concept. Could you share the story with us, in terms of when did you start it and why, and what’s the inspiration behind Maisha Concept?
Rakhee Shah: Maisha was launched 2.5 years ago. Although I am Indian by origin, I have been raised in Kenya…as a result I have been surrounded by two very strong and rich cultures. Maisha means ‘life’ in Swahili and the whole reason behind starting my brand is to promote local African fabrics and the local manufacturers of these fabrics. All the fabrics I use are genuine 100% African fabrics. I travel around Africa and work with local tribes and local manufacturers and bring something genuine and authentic to my label. My inspiration is the surroundings I have been brought up in, the people I have been surrounded by, my parents and family who I have always been close to, and seeing a part of the world that is untouched by many, but bursting with colour, culture and tradition.Cynthia Lo: You use African and Indian fabrics as a trademark in all designs, which makes Maisha Concept stand out and distinguishes it from other fashion brands. What made you choose such fabrics? Anything special? And also, how does it work when it comes to real production, I mean the process of designing and finding the suitable fabrics?
Rakhee Shah: As I come from Africa I have been exposed to these stunning fabrics. They all have a story to them, they all carry history and culture in their designs, and until date are used by locals/tribes for clothing or home furnishing. I normally travel to different regions in Africa and find my fabrics during my travels. There could be a tribe that interests me, or a particular fabric which catches my eye; it could be anything that brings some form of inspiration to me and where I feel it will interest my buyers, and I choose the fabrics accordingly.Cynthia Lo: The reason why I love Maisha Concept is because it expresses African heritage, culture and history through its colourful, vibrant, and unique designs. However, do you worry about the market since the trend seems to be getting more modern and minimal? How do you balance them?
Rakhee Shah: My whole concept is promoting African fabrics and culture through my collection. Some of our items are tastefully vibrant and we are always trying to follow trend but with a Maisha touch. We have our own identity and look which is unique and everchanging.Cynthia Lo: As the designer and director behind Maisha Concept, tell us about your daily working day, especially between designing and making business strategies, and other stuff relative to your business?
Rakhee Shah: Currently I am literally a one woman show. I get a lot of support from my husband and my father who is based in Kenya. However, I am in charge of the design, marketing, production, sales, and the finances. They are months where it is quite intense and deadline driven. I try to go to my factory weekly to keep track with production and quality, and my mind is always juggling with new design ideas. Also, I travel around Africa a lot to see what fabrics are new, what would work and what inspires me for the next collection. I am not as active as would like to be in terms of PR and marketing, but in time I will get someone to help me in that end.Cynthia Lo: You’ve been organising some amazing fashion events Rakhee, like Fashion High Tea in Feb, which was how we met. And also your new collection fashion show in May. Currently you just finished another fashion pop-up and an upcoming shop event back in your hometown Kenya; how did that go? Could you share your future plans with us, and any upcoming events?
Rakhee Shah: The pop-up scene is definitely great for me as not only do I meet new customers but it gives my existing customers a chance to shop. As HK has extremely high rents, its very difficult to have your own space, so the pop up scene is very popular and creates more marketing opportunities. The yearly events I do in Kenya is always a success where I collaborate with a group of talented Kenyan designers. We have some exciting pop-ups coming up at the Fringle Club and at the Strand before the Christmas holidays. For 2015 we have some new collaborations and projects to come including a mens collection and a launch of our new SS2015 collection.Cynthia Lo: You’ve been living in Hong Kong for several years. How do you find this city so far? Is there anything about Hong Kong that attracts you the most? Which city or country would you like to move to if one day you decide to leave here?
Rakhee Shah: I love HK. Its so different from where I came from. It’s a buzzing city that never sleeps, very cosmopolitan, safe and full of culture. I love the diversity in the buildings, the outdoor markets, the old vs. new, the temples in the middle of the city, the beaches, the mountains…it’s a city where you get a little bit of everything and a place that never sleeps. I know I will still be in HK for awhile, but one city that I would love to move to next is Cape Town. It is similar to HK in a way with the cosmopolitan vibe, but at the end of the day my heart will always be in Africa and that’s where I would love to end up.Cynthia Lo: Rakhee, you inspire me and there are so many things I can learn from you. What goals do you have in your life? Would you say that fashion is your calling?
Rakhee Shah: My goal is to try give back and promote others through Maisha Concept. Globally, there are so many people who lack the opportunity to grow their knowledge and their skills…in the world I grew up in, I was surrounded by smart, motivated and enthusiastic individuals who didn’t have the opportunity to grow due to a lack of funds. Maisha not only aims to create a name in the international fashion scene as an African label, but through Maisha I hope to give more opportunities in terms of employment, education and hope to so many individuals who deserve it. I believe that wherever you come from and however high you aim to go, you should never forget the people who helped you get there. I strongly believe in being simple, giving back and appreciating the little and beautiful things in life that we all take for granted.Rakhee, is such an educated, determined and powerful woman in my eye but whose personality simultaneously exudes a surprisingly kind, caring and optimistic gratitude, which combined make for a mysterious mix. I love and couldn’t agree with more the words she said at the end of our interview: “I believe that wherever you come from and however high you aim to go, you should never forget the people who helped you get there. I strongly believe in being simple, giving back and appreciating the little and beautiful things in life that we all take for granted.” This perfectly expresses my thoughts, leaving me inspired by her kindness, never ending.
Called: Rakhee Shah
Location: Hong Kong
Occupation: Entrepreneur/ Designer
Set: Sheung Wan H.K.