When Jeff Kimathi came to New York eight years ago, the native of Nairobi, Kenya, knew little about fashion. Today, celebrities like Jay-Z and Akon wear the designs he creates for Jamhuri Wear, a company that Kimathi launched in 2003.
Jamhuri Wear specializes in African-inspired street clothing, particularly a line of striking, original T-shirts and hoodies for both men and women. One popular T-shirt, called I Africa NY, replaces the heart of the famous I Love NY logo with a drawing of the African continent, while several of the hooded sweatshirts bear the names of African nations across the front.
For Kimathi, 32, who lives and works in Harlem and considers himself "married to the city," making his way to New York was the fulfillment of a life-long ambition fostered through viewing American films back home in Kenya.
At first, after arriving from Africa, he settled in Dallas but, he says, "That was not for me. New York gave me more of a sense of open-mindedness. You can see as many movies as you want, but you have to experience New York up close and feel New York."
Although he had no background in fashion design, Kimathi "could always draw," he says, while seated in the showroom of Bébénoir, a boutique on W. 116th St. that sells the Jamhuri Wear line (jamhuriwear.com), as well as clothing and jewelry created by other designers from Africa.
"I didn't know what kind of medium I was going to put my ideas in," says Kimathi. "I never went to design school; I just picked up fashion by myself. I saw that it was my calling, but I didn't know where it came from. I just kept cultivating it and ideas kept popping up. That was the most amazing thing, and the city kept inspiring me and challenging me. And it still does today."
Kimathi started Jamhuri Wear after working first as a stylist for MTV and then at the design house Ecko Unlimited.
"It started as a hobby," he says, "just printing a few shirts here and there and trying to find out how to handle things. From there it grew, and I started taking it seriously maybe two years later and decided to take the plunge. My mantra is live it, love it and learn it."
Kimathi found inspiration not only in the culture and visual imagery of Africa but from his adopted city as well.
"I saw the individual sense of style that everybody was not afraid to express," he says. "That's one thing I love about New York more than any other city in the world is that people just go with what they feel. And I believe that's what fashion is: Fashion is expressing yourself."
Jamhuri Wear's profile received a major boost when two rappers discovered the company's products.
"Akon wore one of our T-shirts in a music video. People started calling me, and I started realizing there's something there. Then Jay-Z wore it on the Live 8 concert in front of billions of people."
MTV programming manager Tuma Basa, a friend of Kimathi, has worn his designs on the MTV program "Hottest MCs in the Game."
"I don't feel like I'm wearing a T-shirt when I wear Jamhuri Wear. I feel like I'm wearing a statement," says Basa. "All of their clothing says something. I've had people comment from all over the world. For me, when I put on the I Africa NY shirt or the Mandela shirt, I'm making a connection with like-minded people. And people always remember these shirts."
Kimathi believes that African pride is one reason Jamhuri Wear's designs have caught on. But another, he says, is simply because "African-influenced fashion brings a lot of realism. It's bold in the nature of color, and there's a lot of originality. It's very unique. I believe it's inspired a lot of people, even Picasso. You can tell from his cubism."
Kimathi, who serves as both a designer (the company currently has two others) and marketing manager for Jamhuri Wear, believes that fashion is about more than looking good. What a person wears, he suggests, says something about that person's beliefs and lifestyle.
"Fashion should have a message, like art does. We're just using our T-shirts as a canvas. I feel we should be more responsible for what we put out there."
But, says Kimathi, who considers design icon Ralph Lauren his greatest influence, Jamhuri Wear fashions not only say something about the person wearing the clothing, but about Africa itself. Helping to give the continent a more positive image is foremost in the designers' minds.
"Someone once said Africa needs good PR," he says. "It doesn't really have a balanced image. You see a lot of the bad part of Africa, and there's more to it. There are more things Africa can share with the world.
"Our I Africa NY shirt is about two cultures meeting. We say through our clothes that we are all very much the same," he continues. "I feel mountains will never move, but cultures will collide and meet. We build those bridges."