Denim jeans are one of the most popular clothing items across the world, with leading global brands such as Levi’s and Diesel generating billions of dollars every year.
In Kenya, the importation and sale of second-hand jeans is big business. But some Kenyans struggle to find the perfect fit, partly because the imported jeans are often designed for consumers in the West, who have different body types.
Kio began producing jeans informally about a decade ago while he was an actor and college student. The idea was sparked after he asked a tailor to make him jeans with his name embroidered on them. When Kio’s classmates saw the jeans, they too placed orders for a pair of their own, bearing their names.
Spotting an opportunity, Kio taught himself how to design, while outsourcing the actual stitching to a tailor. Blacjack Jeans was born. Soon he was earning more money selling jeans than he made from his acting jobs.
In 2007, after completing college, Kio decided to set up a proper manufacturing facility. Today he produces on average 1,000 pairs of jeans a month.
“There are people who can’t find the perfect pair of jeans in the second-hand market and don’t want to spend too much money on expensive designer brands. For instance, African women who are curvaceous struggle to get the right fit. We get customers who are too slim or plus size or too tall,” he says.
From bespoke jeans to bulk orders
Initially Kio sold to individual customers only. He would take people’s measurements and design bespoke jeans to meet their taste. He started selling in bulk after American fast-food chain KFC placed an order for its staff. Several other restaurants also started ordering jeans for their employees from Blacjack, and today restaurants are Kio’s single biggest client base.
“[One big restaurant chain] orders 1,000 pieces every year,” says Kio.
Blacjack is also breaking into the mass market. The company has three stores in Nairobi, and sells through online e-commerce platform Jumia. In the future, Kio hopes to retail his clothing at supermarkets across Kenya.
“We have developed an African size for sale in the mass market. After all these years, I know the way to cut and design jeans for the different body types of the African woman.
“For the coast of Kenya, I would design shorts or light jeans [to suit the hot climate]; in Central Kenya I would make slim jeans; and [in the lake city of] Kisumu I would distribute more curvaceous jeans,” says Kio.
Growing small opportunities into big business
Kio advises aspiring entrepreneurs to invest in what may be perceived as small opportunities and grow their businesses gradually.
“For example, we import handkerchiefs in our market. On average, everyone owns a handkerchief. If every year you just sold one handkerchief to 10% of the urban population you will make good money. There are many opportunities around us,” he says.
He admits that there was a time when he was “torn between doing jeans full time or just concentrating on acting”.
“Sometimes jeans would bring me losses. One time I made a huge order for someone who was supposed to go sell in Mombasa and he disappeared after giving me just a small deposit. There were times when we would make the jeans but something goes wrong and it doesn’t fit the customer. But I learned from my mistake.”
Last year, Blacjack was crowned one of the best at a mentorship academy and awarded $10,000.
“That was when even my family realised this is a serious business,” says Kio. “It was validating to see that other people now get what I have been trying to do all along. I also decided to stop the acting and concentrate on this; I will go back to acting after I have built my business.
“The jeans market in East Africa is worth several billions of shillings. I only need to get 10% of that market.”