‘People should be who they are’: Kenyans embrace genderless fashion | Global development

A growing number of Kenyan labels are embracing genderless fashion as a younger and more vocal generation demands greater inclusivity and creativity in clothing designs.

In July, fashion brand Vivo and Bold Network Africa released a vibrant gender-inclusive collection called Zoya X Bold. It is one of the new crop of collaborations that showcases androgynous fashion. Nairobi designer Jamie Bryan Kimani, who launched his Sevaria brand in 2018, creates exclusively gender-specific clothing.

LGBTQ+ activist Chris “Makena” Njeri Muriithi, CEO of Bold Network Africa, which describes itself as a queer storytelling platform, says fashion needs to be more inclusive. “For the longest time, I had to go to the men’s section to buy a shirt,” says Muriithi, who is non-binary.

Colorful fashion from Bold Network Africa and Vivo. Photo: Shop Zetu Production Team

Cross-dressing is common practice in Kenyan comedy, but those who do so outside the realm face severe backlash.

“I was bullied on social media for the way I dressed just because it didn’t fit what society has shown people to be the norm,” says Muriithi.

The Zoya x Bold collection features stunning fabrics, colors and prints designed to work with all body types.

“The wearables that are available in the market assume a very binary world,” says Wandia Gichuru, CEO of Vivo. Many businesses are reluctant to take a stand on sexual and gender inclusiveness for fear of losing the habit, she says. But times are changing, she adds, and businesses have room to take more risks.

Zoya targets a younger, bolder and less apologetic demographic, which Gichuru believes leans more towards inclusion and self-expression than previous generations. “The younger generation is more value-driven than my generation,” she says, pointing to the growing interest in locally produced and environmentally sustainable products. “Being exclusive or completely biased can hurt you in the long run.”

Ashton Laurence, 23, who designed the new line, says traditional binaries stifle creativity. “Growing up, I was so sick of watching men dress for the red carpet on TV. It would be the same – black tux, white shirt – and yet the women would have very different [clothing] expressions.”

Chris Muriithi
Chris Muriithi: ‘For the longest time, I had to go to the men’s section to buy another shirt.’ Photo: Shop Zetu Production Team

Kenya’s queer community has been increasingly visible in recent years, as a number of prominent Kenyans have come out publicly. Celebrities such as Willis Chimano of Afropop group Sauti Sol challenge traditional gender dress with T-shirts, low V-necks, bare backs and bodysuits. Popular lifestyle YouTuber Jayson Wamae also embraces the fluidity of fashion, wearing everything from sheer tops and silk suits to neck scarves.

Muriithi says: “People should be able to be who they are without having to be afraid.”

But LGBTQ+ people face systemic discrimination and violence in Kenya, and gender non-conforming people face increased threats. In April, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian was killed in a suspected hate crime. The following month, a 50-year-old intersex man was raped and killed. Figures from the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission suggest these are not isolated incidents.

Laurence faces harassment every day, but she doesn’t shy away from growing her hair, wearing goggles and fishnet vests. It’s an ode to his younger self, which he describes as an effeminate boy.

“I didn’t see many people like me growing up in Nairobi, so I want to be that person for others,” says Laurence.

“Guys should be able to rock hot pink and not be questioned about what their sexual preferences are,” says Laurence. The Zoya X Bold collection experiments with fabrics often associated with women, such as silk, in its designs. “This kind of fashion visibility is changing the game,” he says.

Ashton Laurence wearing clothes from a genderless fashion range
Ashton Laurence: “I didn’t see many people like me growing up in Nairobi.” Photo: Shop Zetu Production Team

“There’s still very little visibility for those people who don’t conform to the dominant gender,” says Letoya Johnstone, a transgender fashion icon who has worked in the industry for nearly a decade. When she started, designers wouldn’t make her a model.

“People would ask why I couldn’t just dress like a man,” says Johnstone, who quit after a stylist tried to force her to do so.

If there were more gender-neutral fashion lines, Johnstone says starting her career might have been easier. “I shouldn’t have had so much hostility since I was knocking down doors.”

But fashion moves can ring a little hollow for transgender women like Johnstone, who are often targeted and face a high risk of violence no matter what they wear.

“Genderless fashion is not always put in the context of other people who are not cisgender,” says Johnstone, who has come under fire for the way she dresses. “It’s easier for a woman to dress as a man, but it would be much more difficult for a transgender woman,” she says. “Police don’t know about gender fluidity in fashion.”

Globally, such lines have been criticized for failing to accommodate trans people in their fit and function.

Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, has made homophobic statements in the past, saying there is “no place for homosexuality” in a “God-fearing nation” and outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, while considered more tolerant, called LGBTQ+ issues a “non-issue” in 2015.

“We are making some progress, but we still have a way to go,” says Johnstone.

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