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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Blacjack Jeans: From Jericho Market to global arena

Made to measure: Blacjack Jeans staff at work in Buru Buru, Nairobi.
Made to measure: Blacjack Jeans staff at work in Buru Buru, Nairobi.

ANY woman will tell you, finding a right-fitting jeans trouser is not easy. It gets more complicated if you are an African woman. Jeans, a garment that never goes out of fashion, was invented in the USA in 1871 and is mostly manufactured out of the continent. Hence the reason why many designers and fashion houses have never quite been able to produce well-fitting jeans trousers for African women.

Enter Andrew Kio and his label Blacjack Jeans. "There are no standard sizes for Africans like the way people walk into shops abroad and you are asked whether you are a size 12 or 14 and such like things. Here we are uniquely made, for example, most South Sudanese people are very tall and slender. Some of them would never get jeans in the shops to fit them well," Kio says.

For such a client, Kio adds, the jeans trouser can be customised so well to fit their waist properly and still be long enough to "sit on the shoe" as desired.

Kio, 34, started Blacjack Jeans in 2008 driven only by faith in his ability to learn things fast. He had no cloth designing or tailoring skills. All he had was business management training from college.

Still, he was determined to make it work. "When I started this business I gave myself 10 years to grow," Kio says.

"I thought making jeans was easy but when I got into it, I found it so complex."

Kio, who says his main sacrifice for the business was his youth, took time to learn design and tailoring.

"I got it wrong so many times!" he reveals. "For cutting and design, the basic math learnt in school helped a lot."

He contacted a tailor to help him learn how to sew as he prepared to foray into the Sh50 billion trouser market in East Africa.

Kio then started doing basic market research to help him carve out a niche for himself in the market given that most people then still had a preference for imported jeans, despite the fact that they did not fit properly.

It is then that through his friends and relatives, he learnt that women have a lot of problems getting a right-size jeans trouser.

He had found his entry point. Kio then went and bought some pairs of women's jeans, ripped them apart and studied their designs carefully.

Through this, he identified a key problem that helped him solve the African versus Caucasian size trouser puzzle.

"Women's jeans are usually bigger at the back with a curved waist band, which takes up slightly more material," the self-made designer explains.

"Most designers do not want to put the curved waist band for a perfect fit perhaps because of using more material. But I do not care about the extra material, I care about a perfect fit for my clients."

For African women, most of whom have a rounder bottom than Caucasian ones, the material used for the waist band is even more.

After making a few clients happy with his first products, Kio's work spoke for itself. Blacjack had started to taxi on the runway ready for take-off.

Repeat clients were many, new clients even more. Through word of mouth, he moved from making the trousers at home and rented a stall at Jericho Market in Nairobi. Months later as demand for his trousers grew, he expanded his work base to four adjacent stalls at Jericho. Kio even bought more sophisticated sewing machines to ensure that the trousers had a neat finish akin to those that are imported or bought at clothing stores.

Blacjack now has six full-time employees and will soon grow to 10 as Kio has recently expanded to Buru Buru Shopping Centre and bought new machines to keep up with demand.

His client list keeps growing and has even roped in fast-food chain KFC. Blacjack dresses KFC and Kengeles staff and has recently signed a deal with French retailer Carrefour, which has debuted in Kenya.

To improve his product line, Kio has started importing woodin material from Ghana to make 'African Jeans' – trousers that resemble a kitenge but are made of jeans.

Despite his success, he – like many other budding and small entrepreneurs – was shunned by several banks when he sought a loan to buy new machines.

With no financial aid coming his way, Kio ploughed back almost 70 per cent.

"I bank with Equity but when I told them I need Sh5 million they said I cannot get...the loan officer did not even look at my business plan or ask me how I intended to pay, he just turned me away," he laments.

But not all lenders lost the opportunity to partner with Blacjack. As Kio's fame caught the attention of the media, so it did two banks – Chase and Jamii Bora - who sought him out.

"I have not taken a loan yet but I like the way they have confidence in me and are willing to help," he adds.

Kio makes an average of Sh300,000 net profit monthly and is keen on growing this further by partnering with retailers like Nakumatt or Tuskys to sell his jeans.

He has also started distributing his jeans via the online shopping platform Jumia. Despite the growing fashion trend of denim jeans shirts, Kio says he will stick to trousers where he already has a good footing.

"Even Keroche and Coca Cola started with one product as point of entry into the market, Radio Africa started with Kiss FM and has grown gradually to launch many more media channels. So my point is if you do too much too soon you will fail. For now, I will stick with jeans trousers," he happily asserts.

Blacjack Jeans trousers retail at between Sh800 and Sh1,400 for children, and Sh1,200 and Sh2,000 for adults depending on the design.

Kio is now pursuing approvals to export his products to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The quality of his products have already been assessed and approved as good enough for the American market. He currently sells jeans to hundreds of clients outside the country through special orders.


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