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

Young generation calls for inclusivity as LGBTQ+ people still face discrimination and violence

A growing number of Kenyan labels are embracing genderless fashion, as a younger, more vocal generation calls for 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 a new crop of collaborations showcasing androgynous fashion. Nairobi designer Jamie Bryan Kimani, who launched his brand Sevaria in 2018, exclusively creates genderfluid clothing.

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

Models and designers wear clothing from Bold Network Africa and Vivo.
Colourful fashion from Bold Network Africa and Vivo. Photograph: Shop Zetu Production Team

Dressing across genders is common practice in Kenyan comedy, but those who do so outside that sphere face severe backlash.

“I was bullied on social media for how I used to dress just because it did not conform with what society has shown people to be the norm,” says Muriithi.

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

“The clothing that’s available on the market assumes a very binary world,” says Wandia Gichuru, CEO of Vivo. Many businesses are hesitant to take a stand on sexual and gender inclusivity for fear of losing custom, she says. But times are changing, she adds, and businesses have room to take more risk.

Zoya targets a younger, daring and less apologetic demographic, which Gichuru believes leans more towards inclusivity and self-expression than previous generations. “The younger generation is more values-driven than my generation was,” she says, pointing to the growing interest in locally made and environmentally sustainable products. “Being exclusive or outrightly prejudiced might hurt you in the long run.”

Ashton Laurence, 23, who modelled the new line, says traditional binaries stifle creativity. “Growing up, I was very bored seeing how men would dress for red carpets on TV. It would be the same thing – black tux, white shirt – and yet women would have so many different [clothing] expressions.”

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

Kenya’s queer community has been increasingly visible over the past few years, after a number of prominent Kenyans came out publicly. Celebrities such as Willis Chimano of Afropop band Sauti Sol, challenge traditional gender dressing with crop tops, low V-necks, bare backs and bodysuits. Popular lifestyle YouTuber Jayson Wamae also embraces fashion fluidity, dressing in anything from sheer tops and silk jumpsuits to neck scarves.

Muriithi says: “People need to 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 heightened threats. In April, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian was murdered in a suspected hate crime. The following month, a 50-year-old intersex person was raped and killed. Figures by the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission suggest that these are not isolated incidents.

Laurence faces harassment daily but does not shy away from growing out his hair, wearing eyeliner and mesh vests. It is an ode to his younger self, who he describes as a feminine boy.

“I didn’t see a lot of 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. “That kind of visibility in fashion is changing the game,” he says.

Ashton Laurence wearing clothes from a genderless fashion range
Ashton Laurence: ‘I didn’t see a lot of people like me growing up in Nairobi.’ Photograph: Shop Zetu Production Team

“There is still very little visibility for those people that do not 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 cast her as a model.

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

If there were more genderless fashion lines, Johnstone says the start to her career might have been easier. “I wouldn’t have had to make so much enmity, as I was kicking doors down.”

But fashion movements can ring a bit hollow for transgender women like Johnstone, who are often targeted and face a high risk of violence regardless of what they wear.

“Genderless fashion is not always put in the context of other people who are not cisgender,” says Johnstone, who has been attacked for the way she dresses. “It is easier for a woman to dress like a man, but would be much harder for a transgender woman,” she says. “The police don’t know about gender fluidity in fashion.”

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

Kenya’s new president William Ruto recently termed LGBTQ+ issues a non-issue, giving a nod to similar sentiments by his predecessor, president Uhuru Kenyatta.

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

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Caroline Kimeu

The GuardianTramp

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