Subira James Kiuruwi, fashion designer, stylist, Dj and owner of Jamani Clothing Co is realizing his vision as an independent fashion house. As a fashion stylist for Nordstroms and Pan African studies graduate from Cal State L.A. he is uniquely experienced and situated to authentically create fashion which recognize historic value in the origins of textiles and speak to the African Diaspora. Merging his Tanzanian heritage and African culture with streetwear reflective of his fresh aesthetic and drawing from his youth growing up in Los Angeles in the nineties; he and his brand are a must watch, as well as learn from, connect with and support.
By LaMar Anderson | April 15, 2021 | 6:00am
Please tell us your name and the name of your business.
Sure, my name is Subira James Kiuruwi, and my business is Jamani Clothing Co.
What does Jamani Clothing Co. specialize in or offer?
We specialize in clothing that is manufactured in Tanzania. I was born in Tanzania and raised here in the United States. It’s a fashion mix of the two cultures of Los Angeles, California, particularly where I was raised, and East Africa for the fabrics themselves, but the styling is from the US.
In relation to fashion and entrepreneurship, is Jamani Clothing Co a part of your upbringing? Are you first generation designer and entrepreneur?
I think it all connects. As far as within my family, I am the first generation, but as far as selling goods and things like that from Tanzania itself is nothing far from my family; we’ve done that for a long time with Ebony wood and certain things like that since the nineties. I went to Cal State LA and graduated with a Pan African studies degree, which has nothing to do with fashion, but I was always fashionable. And had a sense of that, which is something you don’t particularly need to study, so I decided to merge the two—in my understanding of fashion and a sense of culture, mending the two as a blend, so that’s where I am now. As far as starting a company which is JamaniClothingCo.com, I’ve softly been toying with the idea for maybe six to eight years. But the last two years, I have been official and had a website and had full-on photoshoots with notable models and things like that.
What was the impetus for you, over the six to eight years, to say -this is the moment when I start?
I think like everybody, I was constantly working, and within working, you get lost. So it’s always -I’ll start tomorrow, or I am funding an idea tomorrow, but you never really start. Prior to Covid, I was taking the idea a little more seriously or the idea of being less serious at my job and committing one hundred percent to them and committing more to myself. I worked as a fashion stylist for Nordstrom and worked with all the brands I potentially wore as a kid and thought were high-end. In my small kid brain: Nike, Polo, Adidas, you know, Eddie Bauer; a lot of these brands I would look at the magazines and say -ok you know, I don’t want to particularly emulate it, but I am going to buy the clothing I got to actually make the image for, but after a while of noticing that I was making the image for other people I realized I could make it for myself.
So I took a fast rail, you know, about a year before I [could] quit a blessing Covid happened, you know, I got laid off, and it gave me a bit of money, the seed, and the idea to continue to go forward. Within the next year, I am planning on moving back to Tanzania and working a little bit more on textiles, and being a little more serious on that end. I do have my clothing in Sole Folks now and currently getting in other shops around LA. My main focus is to make Africa or Afro-centric fabrics in a fashionable sense where everybody can understand it, and it’s just in a different tune.
What about Tanzania as the foundation for Jamani Clothing Co informs its style of colors, possibly patterns for your designs?
Well, I think in a fashion sense, I grew up in the nineties, so I have that kind of aesthetic where I guess “high-end” meant street or there was like a merging. I think that whole kind of culture or that whole idea has always shifted. I’ve always worn something that’s Afro-centric with something very current and had that kind of blend of the two if that makes sense.
From an Afro-centric standpoint, you know denim can be sorted in Tanzania. A lot of the fabrics that I work with, particularly in Tanzania -have the Kitenge. They also have the Masai clothe, which is known as the Kikuyu clothe, so those two particular clothes are home to Tanzania, where I am from, but as I start to grow, I want to use a lot of fabrics from different areas, and that’s the beauty of Africa.
Each region has a certain fabric that is honed to it. So the Masai region, the Kikuyu is popular. In certain regions where it is cold, the Kitenge is popular because it’s thicker. The Congo, which is more tropical it’s used and a little bit thinner. Using that sense of knowing and having a brand that is here in the states, how can I use fabrics or layers and make them different.
I am trying to constantly use fabrics or stay embedded in the fabrics while staying with current trends. The trends could be from a tropical standpoint like the Sahara or Africa, or it could be the kind of fast forward pace they have in South Africa. They like to rock a lot of new school things with old-school flair. I am using all these mixtures and taking all these fabrics from particular places. Whenever I do a line and a design, it will be expressed and honed to where the fabric is taken. I think that’s where I can bring my Pan African studies degree and merge the two as making the historical value of the clothing in itself.
I think a lot of fashion houses like Rick Owens and stuff, they number their things and try to take exclusivity, but I think my exclusivity is more in the history or the full understanding of the fabric not like – I like the color of it- but specifically, I like the history behind the fabric where it’s from whether it be East Africa whether it be North Africa whether it be a tribe who is dominant, less dominant or whether it be a marriage piece or whether it be a mating piece.
Whatever the historical content is to that, that’s where I bring the value. The serial number, as opposed to the way that these fashion houses have limited things or use satire fashion where it’s ‘over the top’, the runway fashion is more a costume. My costume is more the fabric and the history of what it is, so people know exactly what they’re wearing and how it reflects.
Can you tell us about what you’re offering in the fashion pieces themselves?
I am not a particular trend hunter or something like that. There’s always going to be slack, baggy pants, trousers, pleated pants; those things are always in, but there’s always tweaks and things like that. So I think that using what’s current and in the now as far as 2020 or 2013; whatever the time we’re in and kind of blending that with the African fabrics, that’s always going to be my thing—the current with the historic and the old value.
Seeing that Louis Vuitton released their latest collection, infusing Kente clothe in its line, can you speak to us as consumers of fashion about the importance of understanding the history, culture, and heritage that goes into these fabrics that seem to be about more than just color?
I think the importance of that with something like Louis Vuitton; there’s no diss. I know a lot of the art directors, and they are African Americans, so it makes sense that these colors speak to them, and they’re putting it in a trend. So, I think that’s beautiful, and it’s a dope thing. In the mainstream, we can’t put too much culture in. Kendrick Lamar, I think, is a good merging of being very educated and kind of a hometown hero. It’s like everybody liked him but -he’s too wordy- you know, some people are like -he’s on point, or he’s too much.
I think when you’re on the mainstream like a Louis Vuitton, it’s only so much you can do to speak to the African heritage. I feel like that’s more my job as it is them. I worked for Nordstrom, and I was always the creative genius behind the images, but they never put my African butt at the forefront. It’s always been this way in Hollywood or the projection of creativity. They always try to hide who the true creator is, and a lot of movies with an African American star don’t usually portray the artists themselves. They put some type of cartoon or maybe a muppet or something.
There’s always a lot of jabs that you have to realize, so I don’t look at fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and expect them to explain stuff like that because I know whoever brought it forth, it was just a blessing for them to get it to the table. Real heads will know and acknowledge that, but that’s my job or as an African American designer to do that. Louis Vuitton made suitcases back in the day for Africa, but it wasn’t an African brand.
No matter how embedded or culturally tied to us, Ralph Lauren, a lot of the fabrics he gets are merged in American culture, African culture all types of culture, but he doesn’t specifically have to speak to that. Sometimes, within fashion, you just have to realize that they more than appreciate, adore us, but they are not going to particularly give us the praises. Even if they wanted to, the masses are not going to let them say that, and I am not even saying that they want to; that’s not my stance.
But even if they want to, do you think that someone is going to be like -hey, this is an African fabric it’s from the Masai, the Masai’s look like this, they do this, they created this? It’s not going to be that deep. It can only be surface-based. And it happens with a lot of Asian cultures as well. We just have to understand where we sit and how we are supposed to do it. I think it’s my job as an African designer who has an African fashion house or someone like Max Hosa, who’s in South Africa who does knits specifically, sticks to the knits where there from and how they correlate to South African tribes.
It’s our job to do that and also use the reference like you said -hey, you know I am not the first it’s been beautified by Louis Vuitton and these other fashion houses. We know it’s beautiful; it’s only how much do you let out? So I think now at the time, you have Virgil [Abloh], and Virgil is a very brilliant man; he has a lot of other African Americans around him who are smart and intelligent who don’t dress anything like his particular aesthetic. They are allowed to give out inklings of Africa, subculture, counter-culture, whatever you want to call it, it’s my culture, but whatever the masses my consider it to be odd or awkward.
I think it’s our time to put “streetwear” forward, and all these things we grow up with are thought of as exotic to make it more understandable for them. Maybe if Off-White does it, they should mention it because it’s Virgil’s shit, and he could speak to it, but when it’s Louis Vuitton or these fashion houses their as racist as they can be, you know what I mean. I worked within it, and that’s why I am trying to work without it because within, I’ll never be able to speak to the tone that I am speaking now.
As a creative and African man living today and considering all the things that have happened over the last couple of years, is being independent an empowering position in fashion? Do you see obstacles or barriers shattered?
I think there are all levels. There are always going to be barriers. I think it’s better for me to operate without. Really intelligent cats like David Chapelle says -never undersell yourself. When you work with a company, you are already putting a fixed [value] on yourself, so you’re underselling yourself at the door. Even on the creative end, I’ve worked there and gotten to certain levels and realized that it’s extremely hard as an African American male.
Like being a female lawyer, it’s not really common, it’s going to be difficult your going to have to deal with the good old boys club you’re going to have to deal with all these things, and you realize -I could be as good as I am, but a lot of my ability doesn’t matter with it. A lot of it is who I know. I am the only person who looks like this, so even if it’s culturally wrong or something, I want to speak up; it’s a bit of faux pas. I just realized if I were working for myself, it’s a bit different; I have that freedom.
As far as the whole cultural tone, you know, beginning to speak for Africa or African American designers, and people doing it incorrectly. I’ve always had this dream; I’ve always rocked a dashiki or pull a tone of Africa. The time is always now. Yeah, it’s a great time for African American designers and people speaking up and a lot of people “wanting to support” these things, but I’ve always supported because it’s always been within me. It almost doesn’t matter the time. I was always going to be pushing value because I’ve been working on it for the last ten years. When you get to a certain experience level, you’re like -alright, let me do it.
What are you excited about in 2021 for yourself creatively and professionally?
Just the ability to create. I think with business and everything like that, if you focus too much on business, it kind of dries it out. I know fashion is finicky. I’ve had to work for people I don’t particularly like, now when I work with a vision, I think will be likable for everybody whether I want it to be likable. I have that complete freedom in my creativity. I was getting a bit dried out and almost over fashion and move towards something else a bit more lucrative, but I just like the ability to still do fashion, and it’s going to be completely on my terms.
I’ll be in Africa and call the shots; if I want to use American fabric, I’ll have that ability and such a wide range. I don’t have to really piece anything. I am not making millions of dollars right now, so I don’t have a particular market that I need to fulfill. The sky’s the limit for me right now; I am at a birthplace, and I think certain brands, Gap had a time where they were the biggest thing, LRG had its time when they were super cool, the biggest thing.
Before their time of being big, they were very forward and groundbreaking, so I am happy that I have that window to be forward and groundbreaking and not be dried up or question being bought out. I just like the fact I can just create. I’ve known people who were small and their bigger now and “successful” or whatever in the industry, and that’s what they appreciate most is when it was fresh.
What advice do you have for designers wanting to make that leap of faith and invest in themselves to put their ideas forward?
It’s hard, honestly. I got laid-off, they [Nordstrom] gave me money, I had 401k and all these options to do things, but one thing I will say that was different, I wasn’t on the defense. When I was working, I was always trying to prove myself to somebody. It was always like -don’t do a small run, you have to do a big run- and never would save up enough money. People just have to have that clarity; I was lucky to have time off due to Covid to think about myself and what I really wanted to do. Within Babylon, you have to meditate and really focus and realize that you have to be your biggest fan and honest about what you’re doing. If it’s for a dollar, then it’s for a dollar, and that’s what you’re doing. If you believe in it, do it.
How can we connect with Subira and support Jamani Clothing Co?
I have a website; By Subira within that website, you can have all my links. I Dj, I am a fashion stylist, and I also have a clothing brand, so they are all tied to that, so you can get all of my mixtapes and everything. If you are particularly interested in the clothing which we have been speaking to during this conversation JamaniClothingCo.com. I do also have an Instagram which is @jamaniclothingco
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