Maasai Fashion

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Maasai Trend: Fashion Finds Its Way in the African Savannah from afar, a constellation of vivid colors stands out against the scorched grass of the Maasai Mara, a national reserve in South-Western Kenya.

Hundreds of women arrive on foot from various unmarked paths, wrapped in patterned red, green, yellow, orange, and blue sashes—colors and motifs that have, over the years inspired the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Dries Van Noten, Lanvin, and Diane von Furstenberg, among others.

These women gather under the shade of a dramatic acacia tree, forming a folkloric and formidable assembly. Many have been walking for three hours under the scorching sun to reach this meeting place; others are still on their way with a few more hours to go. They sit on the ground and carefully stitch colorful beads to a piece of leather, which will be an essential component of Pikolino’s spring summer 2013 shoe collection.

Sitting among these women is William Kikanae, a tall dark Maasai warrior wrapped in a vivid red shuka, and with an assortment of bright beads around his neck and wrists. The scars on his arms are proof of his warriorship. In preparation for the pain and challenges they expect to endure, Maasai warriors burn their skin. Yet this is only part of the initiation. They also must confront and kill a male lion with a spear and sword. William has proven himself; his community knows he can survive in the bush and protect others. But that’s not the extent of his contributions to the tribe. As he stands among these two hundred women, he smiles broadly at the realization of his dream. A dream he did not expect to be connected to fashion in any way.

Growing up as a Maasai, in a polygamist society where wives did not earn a salary, William realized that women needed to be empowered to benefit the health and education of children. He only attended primary school, a 3-hour walk to and from his home, across the wilderness.

William would talk to tourists who visited his village about his dream to help women and children. These encounters led to a meeting with an NGO in Nairobi, where William stared at congested traffic for hours until someone took his arm to help him navigate the city.

The wait was worth it for William, who about 4 years ago started working on the Maasai project, which is supported by the family-owned Spanish shoe company Pikolinos along with the NGO Adcam.

You've found the one, now I find the dress.

With this project, the Maasai women, skilled with beadwork craftsmanship, are given pieces of leather for shoes and bags, which they hand-embroider with colorful beads. The shoe, an ethnic chic sandal of varying designs and tones, is assembled in Spain and sold worldwide.

The participating Maasai women now earn their own income and, to date, the project has changed the lives of more than 1400 women in Kenya and Tanzania, and supports a new school in the Maasai Mara.

Kalasinga, about 40 years old (the Maasai don’t typically know their exact age) was able to send her daughter to university with her new income. And while their lives are changing in many ways, the Maasai are still embracing their culture.

“Working with beads has always been part of the Maasai tradition,” explains Kalasinga. “The project preserves this tradition.”

Juan Manuel Peran, VP of Pikolinos, believes that while staying competitive, a small portion of a company’s business can be dedicated to projects that will benefit a community as well as the company.

It’s so much more than African design inspirations you see in fashion,” he says, “it gives back to Africa.”

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