A Young Fashion Designer's Runway Line Is Made By Kenyan Widows
The name of Anna Taylor’s company, Judith + James, says everything about her inspirations. Judith is a seamstress in Kenya who works closely with Taylor on her fashion line, and James refers to a Biblical verse that admonishes us to care for widows and orphans.
Judith + James' clothing, jewelry and bags are made by Kenyan women, mostly widows, from impoverished parts of Nairobi. Beyond its mission, the line is notable for its fresh use of African prints, its fast rise, and it founder's age: Taylor is now 26. And she recently appeared in a documentary, Little Stones, which follows four women using the arts to improve the lives of women and girls.
The seed for the company Taylor launched in 2013 was planted years before when she moved with her parents, who are missionaries, to live and work in an orphanage in Kenya. The challenges the children faced deeply moved her. "They even had to grow their own food," she says. "It was so unfair."
Taylor headed to the University of Arkansas, and during her freshman year returned to Kenya during winter break. A pastor her family had known for years urged her to manage a sewing program at the church to help widows earn validation and certification in the African sovereign state. Taylor agreed, and it was through that program she met Judith.
While in Kenya, Taylor had internships with two fashion companies. One was a high-end, London based company whose business model Taylor saw wasn’t scalable, and the other a non-profit whose products she felt weren’t high quality. “I wanted to start a business in the middle, one that was sustainable and would make beautiful, quality designs,” she says.
She returned to school to finish her degree, and made her first forays into designing products to sell. The start was a bit rocky. Taylor asked Judith to sew laptop cases, but the ones she made were the size of pillowcases. “I had just assumed she knew the right size," says Taylor. “I realized how much about their lives I still didn’t know.” The pastor who'd brought her into the training program stole its funding. Taylor says the incident opened her eyes to the realities of corruption in the country.
But her path had been set. Inspired by fashion trend reports she accessed at school, Taylor drew rough designs for styles and silhouettes for tops and dresses and sent them to Judith, who would tweak them and produce the garments using African prints. “Judith is amazing at working with fabrics that can be difficult to match, and refining the designs,” Taylor says. “There’s no way I could have done this without her.”
Taylor committed full-time to the company after graduating. While in Nairobi, she worked to win people’s trust, taking public transportation and spending time where the women she worked with lived. “It was hard, and sometimes scary,” she says, recalling days when her feet would bleed from walking long distances in the heat. "But I wanted to know them and for them to see I wasn't some white woman who wasn't serious about the business." The training program is now run by a non-profit affiliated with the company.
Soon after launching her first collection, Taylor was invited to participate in New York’s Fashion Week. Shows in Dubai and Los Angeles followed. Judith + James began selling in boutiques in Little Rock, where Taylor lives, and across the south, as well as online.
The brand has expanded, selling its colorful cover-ups at stores in Omni Hotels in resort areas and its jewelry line at Dillard’s. Taylor expects to add more retailers by fall. “I think people respond to our story,” she says, “and to the fact that I was so young when I started.”
Taylor continues to oversee design, and spends much time on the road, traveling to Africa or meeting with buyers--and this spring, attending film festivals to promote Little Stones. Success is coming quickly, but she says she is most gratified seeing the impact the business is having on the lives of women who had few options to earn money before. A son of one of the women who works with her recently had a medical crisis, and Taylor says she was able to handle the extra expense. “I realized that she not only could live on her wages but she’d been able to save some money for emergencies," says Taylor.
Photos courtesy of Cottonwood Studios Worldwide.