MEET WANDIA GICHURU OF VIVO ACTIVEWEAR

Wandia Gichuru is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of  Vivo Activewear, a retail clothing business that was started in 2011. Initially inspired by a love for dance and fitness, Vivo has grown from focusing on dance and fitness gear, to now offering a full range of clothing styles that include both smart and casual, party items, beachwear, and travel wear. Vivo currently has five stores (with a sixth store planned in 2015) and its own clothing line that is both designed and manufactured in Kenya.
In only three years of operation, Vivo has quickly blossomed into the “go-to” store for stylish yet comfortable and affordable clothing. The brand is known for its bright, versatile, colourful, and edgy styles. Vivo clothes have wide appeal, in particular to anyone who enjoys style and is young at heart. Now that many of the items are produced locally, Vivo is able to offer products in a wide range of sizes that are specifically tailored to flatter and compliment the modern African woman.
Prior to venturing into business, Wandia worked as an international development adviser and held positions with the UK government, the UN, and the World Bank in several different countries. In addition to running Vivo, Wandia is also a certified life coach and is passionate about empowerment and strengthening connections, especially between girls and women. She lives in Nairobi with her two daughters, aged nine and ten. Ayiba’s Joy Mwaniki spoke with Wandia to find out the inspiration behind the brand and her success.

What prompted your shift from international development to the fashion industry?

After having been employed for over twenty years I was looking for a change and wanted to experience self-employment as well as building a business from scratch. I sort of ended up in the fashion industry by chance. My initial plan was to focus much more specifically on fitness and dance apparel. We still carry a small of range fitness and dance products, however, the main focus of the business is now ladies’ fashion.

What skills acquired during your time at the World Bank proved most useful when you started Vivo?

I spent almost fifteen years working for international development organizations, including the World Bank, the UN, and the UK Department for International Development. Although it was a completely different sector, I learned a lot of skills during that time that are really useful to me now. Time management, project management, communication skills, teamwork, financial accountability, and presentation skills are just a few that come to mind. I guess the interesting thing is that almost no experience is without value, and almost everything we learn is in some way preparing us for the next step.

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What is your favorite part of your job?

I love the creative aspects. Getting to start with a blank piece of paper and ended up with an outfit that can be worn. That whole process is very exciting. I also love creating jobs and being an employer.

If you could have given yourself some advice when you first started Vivo Activewear, what would they have been?

I would have advised myself to do more homework and get more advice from experts early on. A lot of our learning has been through trial and error. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are so many people out there with great experience. There is really no need to reinvent the wheel where others have done it before you. But you have to be open to asking and receiving advice.

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Do you have any thoughts on eco-fashion? Is there a future for it in Africa?

I think anything that is eco-friendly has merit. However, there is a cost to eco-fashion that will make the consumer market for it in Africa relatively small. I think initially our focus will be on producing eco-fashion for export. But hopefully as our economies grow we will start to see more of a domestic market for it as well.

What are your thoughts on plus-size fashion and the “skinny models” debate?

To be honest, I have pretty much stayed away from the debate. I think the whole question of “sizes” is very subjective. What is plus size in some parts of the world is a small size in other parts. I think the reality is that we all have different shapes and sizes—and each one comes with its own sense of beauty. Fashion should come in a wide range of sizes to cater for that reality. At Vivo we do not create certain styles specifically for plus sizes. We simply try and offer enough different styles that most people will find something they like. What’s most important as women is that we dress in ways that honor ourselves, that express our individual personalities and that leave us feeling good about who we are.

If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?
I adored Maya Angelou. For me she represented a woman who had seen it all and had come through so strong and wise and loving. Just being around someone like that gets you more in touch with yourself. But I’d also love to hear all her stories from such a rich and diverse life.

Which book has influenced your perspective on life? Why?

I read a lot of spiritual books and so many of them have influenced me, it will hard to choose just one! A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson is one of my favourites as it helped me reconcile some of the disconnect I felt with regard to religion. I also loved The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.

Who is your favorite living clothing designer?

I actually don’t follow any designers that closely—but I’ve always liked the simplicity and elegance of Giorgio Armani’s work. As a fashion brand, I love Zara’s success story.

Where do you see Vivo in the next five years? Do you ever see yourself expanding into men’s wear?

My goal is that Vivo will become a regional / continental brand within the next five years. I would like to see Vivo stores across East Africa and even further into the continent. I am not sure about expanding into men’s wear, but I would like us to offer a wider range of accessories and possibly a children’s range.

What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs in the fashion industry?

My advice is always to start somewhere. Start small if you have to, but never act as though you are too small to matter. Take each opportunity very seriously. Keep your commitments and build your reputation as someone who is reliable. There are lots of people with great ideas but they fall short on implementation. Become known as someone who keeps their word.

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You can see Vivo Activewear’s designs here or follow Wandia Gichuru on Twitter at @wandiagichuru.