Vivienne Taa: From Airline to Fashion Runways

Little did Vivienne Taa know that losing her coveted job would be a blessing. At the time, her world was turned on its head and the marketing pro had no idea what her next steps would be. But as the expression goes, when one door closes, another opens. In Vivienne’s case, that second door led surprisingly to the launch of an edgy ready-to-wear fashion label.

“Although I didn’t think it at the time, losing that job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. There was many a sleepless night where I lay awake trying to figure out what I would do. But if I hadn’t been laid off, I’d still be content working in a secure corporate position and all that has come to pass in the last year would never have been. I can’t even begin to imagine that!” she laughs.

As a child, Vivienne was a self-confessed geek. A member of her high school’s science club, she dreamed of chemistry sets and Bunsen burners. But there was an important influence in her life that pulled her in another direction.

“Mum was a very talented seamstress. She basically had a designer’s studio in the house, littered with sketches, patterns and fabrics of all types and colours and a sewing machine that seemed to run day and night. I didn’t ever imagine I would become a fashion designer, but from a very tender age I developed an interest and love for fashion that would serve me well when times got tough,” she recalls.

Vivienne’s foray into fashion was through modeling. Seeing her potential, her mother enrolled her in a models’ training program after high school. Fashion and modeling remained nothing more than a hobby as Vivienne enrolled in Moi University to study tourism and travel, after which she directly went to Kenya Airways as a customer service agent. She spent the next 11 years with the airline moving into marketing and up the ladder until the day in 2016 when they announced job cuts as part of rationalization strategy.

TV host Kambua in Vivienne Taa

Vivienne was devastated but, with the support of her friends and family she was able to cope. Her plan was to look for another marketing gig, but her hobby – turning out to be an unexpected gift – upset that plan.

Three years earlier, while working for the airline, Vivienne had enrolled in the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts to study fashion design mostly for enjoyment and to improve her dressmaking skills. Soon after, she started making clothes for herself using bold and vibrant Ankara prints for fun. Her self-made wardrobe proved very popular with friends who kept asking her to make similar designs. Once she was laid off, she finally had the time to fulfill these requests while looking for a job.

“I was always flattered by the positive compliments about my designs but felt my friends were just indulging me. I never took it seriously until the day one brought some fabric, paid a deposit, and asked me to make her a dress. After that, the demand just kept growing to a point where I had to enlist help and realized this had real potential as a business.”

Within one short year, Vivienne Taa Fashion House has grown to a team of seven. Drawing inspiration from African culture, music and art, the fashion label designs both women and men’s wear and accessories, with a focus on custom-design, workmanship and attention to detail. Vivienne has been strict with the budget and pumps all profits back into the business. Ever cautious, she’s not seeking an investor yet as she believes in progressive growth. The team is still working out of her workshop but currently looking for a larger space following a spate of recent successes.

Collins Injera in Vivienne Taa blazer

“Our greatest achievement so far has been the opportunity to dress Kenya’s most celebrated sports men and women during the annual Kenya Sports Person of the Year Awards – SOYA. Vivienne Taa was the first fashion partner of the event where we dressed world marathon legend Paul Tergat, Olympic 800m gold medalist David Rudisha, Olympic 5000m gold medalist Vivian Cheruiyot, Olympic marathon gold medalist Jemima Sumgong and Rugby 7’s greatest try scorer Collins Injera just to name a few,” Vivienne says with undisguised glee, adding: “And our debut collection was showcased at the Nairobi Fashion Week last year where we headlined the show on the first day of the event, which was a huge honour.”

Quite an achievement for a relative newcomer to the fashion scene. But none of this is by chance. With her marketing background, Vivienne is working the beat to raise the labels’ profile. She’s been developing partnerships with brand ambassadors, such as gospel musician and TV host Kambua and TV personality Robert Burale. She also had the opportunity to design a dress for Christian celebrity, Heather Lindsey, during her recent visit to Nairobi. Vivienne Taa’s sponsorship of the Sportsperson of the Year awards was the icing on the cake. In all of its 12 years in existence, SOYA had never had anyone approach it to dress the athletes as a form of sponsorship, and the Secretariat was keen to give it a try.

Vivienne with Paul Tergat

“The creative economy is booming in Kenya. Lots of people are in the arts so its hard to stand out in a crowded market. Investing in brand ambassadors doesn’t require a fortune and you get great personal engagement in return. It was just a bonus for me to see my athletic heroes wearing my designs!” she remarks.

On the less positive side, Vivienne currently faces two daunting challenges.

“My biggest issue right now is managing cash flow. We implemented a 50% deposit requirement on all orders with balance paid on delivery to cover our overheads in advance. It’s also been difficult to get really skilled workers who are dedicated, committed and can deliver on time. We’re still small so I can’t offer as much as I’d like so I have to sell the vision to get them on board.”

But that vision looks bright as Vivienne Taa grows and sets its sights on becoming a leading fashion house with a footprint in Kenya and beyond. The label will collaborate with online shopping platform, Kilimall, to target the retail market. It also recently launched a new bridal wear line at Samantha’s Bridal Fair, an exclusive 3-day wedding industry biannual event held in Nairobi.

Vivienne’s mother never lived long enough to see her daughter’s success, but the 35-year-old founder is confident she would be proud not only for what she has achieved but the message this sends to other young Africans who struggle to pursue their dreams and be successful.

“Not having a job does not mean you’re a failure,” Vivienne says. “You can still rise above the odds and excel in other fields such as sports, entertainment, the arts, agriculture, technology, real-estate, manufacturing and so on. You just need to find your talent and invest in it. When my season in the corporate world came to an end, I channeled all my energy and focus into creating a new opportunity for myself and look where I’ve arrived. If I can do it, anyone can. Just have faith in yourself and move forward.”

Vivienne Taa’s startup tips:

• Coming from corporate, I always thought we had long hours! But having your own business requires much more work and longer hours. It takes a toll physically, so stay grounded and look after yourself.
• You need to have a solid support system: family and friends who believe in your vision and will urge you to soldier on and stand by you even when things get tough.
• Have faith in God, pray, trust, and live in obedience. It sounds cliché but it’s the truth. This is an absolute journey of faith.
• Maintain perseverance and grit through the tough times.
• Learn from your mistakes. Find the lessons in every challenge, difficulty or perceived failure that you experience.