That is not how he had thought he would die. It is not even the place he thought he would be when he finally returned his soul to its owner above. Granted, he had not really thought the entire concept of his death through to such great depths, but still, it was never meant to happen like this. People are supposed to die at home, at the age of 85, when they are so old they have become babies again. A death that does not come as a shock, really – if anything, it is expected. Not when they are at work, at the age of 25, on some beach in Lagos – so far away from where your umbilical cord was buried – at the hands of bandits.
The shoot had barely begun when two trucks appeared from sijui where, carrying men wielding machetes and guns, shouting in a language they could not understand. But some things are universally understood; if a man you do not know comes at you with a weapon, you run. Actually, if anybody comes at you with a machete, you use your legs to put as much distance between the two of you as possible. So everyone scattered. The director, the camera people, the artists he had come all the way from Kenya to style, the models, the assistants…everyone…dropped everything, picked up their lives, and ran.
But not him.
Not ati he did not run, he just did not leave behind the clothes he had sourced for this shoot. He grabbed whatever he could and made for the woods on the other side. In front of him was one of the musicians he had come to style, running. And isn’t it funny how people are so terrible at running when they really need to? Like, when you are just playing or racing your brothers, you run straight, chest outside, pumping at the ground at top-flight; but when you are running for your life, trying to get away from a man holding a panga glistening in the sun, you run like someone who never really learned how to walk. You half run, half stumble and look back way too much, praying. That is how this musician was running. And, if we are being honest, so was our homeboy, Brian.
That is not how Brian Babu had thought he would die. And thankfully, that is not how he did.
Turns out all their assailants wanted was money. Because that side of Lagos is controlled by gangs. If you want to do a video shoot there, you have to pay. Whoever scouted for this location paid off one gang and forgot to grease a rival squad. And they took it as an insult. After the proper permits had been paid for, the attackers laughed off the ‘slight misunderstanding’, got onto their trucks and drove away. The shoot went on as planned, but that video was never really released. Neither was the song.
See, Babu dresses people for a living. The first time he told me that, I remember laughing it off, because who does not know how to dress surely? It is the first thing that you are taught by your mother, even before you learn how to bathe yourself. Yet, when you think of any celebrity you know in this country – most likely, s/he had been dressed by Babu: Sauti Sol, Khaligraph, Janet Mbugua, Amina (the one for The Trend, not the minister), Nameless, Nyashinski, Wahu, Caroline Mutoko. He styles them for events, video shoots, movies, books covers, interviews, office, and even funerals (he used to dress corpses – read on). There are some names he’d rather we leave out of this list because it would fumble the bag, but there are some people who call him to their homes for a wardrobe revamp.
And that is just with the Kenyans. His job takes him everywhere. That is how he almost got killed in Nigeria.
When award season comes around, you will find him in his house watching reruns of the Grammys, Oscars, SAG Awards, Golden Globes – not too interested in the movies or music that won, but in the red carpet. Who wore what and how? You should have seen the way his face wrinkled up when he saw Billy Porter the other day, wearing a hat with shingles that open up like the doors of an Otis elevator.
But, just like everyone in the creative industry, this was not exactly the life Babu was supposed to have led.
Picture a small boy playing by himself in a tailor’s shop in the nineties, and because he is still so young, he is probably not even a centimetre taller than the sewing machines in that room. There are two or three people peddling their cherahanis, stopping occasionally to measure and cut fabric. The floor is a mess with pieces of cloth, but to the little boy playing around that shop, that is the kind of mess he loves. He is not really the kind to play bano or to be pushing cars made of milk boxes or wire and blada. What fascinates him are those pieces of cloth on the floor – he picks them up, runs his fingers through them. Some are coarse, others are soft. When he gets the time in between being sent by pretty much everyone, he even stitches them up with a needle.
That six-year-old boy you are seeing behind your eyelids is Brian Babu. And that shop is called Nelson Tailors – a 5x10m stall in Burma Market. If you go there right now you will not find it. It is now a butchery; a faint shadow of its former glory. It was first owned by his mother’s uncle, and when he retired he sold the business to Mama Babu. Well, not exactly. When Baba Babu heard that the old man was folding his mat to go back to dala, he bought the shop from him for his sweetheart. It was one of his last gestures of love for his mom before death took him away on cruel wings.
People used to call Babu’s mother a fundi, but that’s just because that was the 90s. If she were around today, with an Instagram account, she’d be labelled a Designer and Stylist. She would meet clients, listen to what they want, come up with designs, take it to her tailors at Nelson’s, and then when it was done, take it to those clients and show them how to wear what. Thinking back, Babu remembers figures like Catherine Kasavuli, Mercy Oburu, and Christine Nguku of KTN coming to their place a lot. His mother was dressing celebrities long before it became a trend in this city.
But the thing is, she was not doing this as a full-time job. It was a passion project. She had an eight to five as an administrator at Maji House. Her own father would never have allowed her to drop a government job with good consistent pay and benefits to venture the jua kali world of being a full-time fundi.
And you know what the irony here is? Her mother – Babu’s grandma – used to import clothes from Kampala and sell them in Kisumu. And her dad – Babu’s grandpa – while he worked in the government press at Kenya Literature Bureau, was known to be very particular with clothes. To him, shoes had to be polished until they become black mirrors. A shirt must be tucked in and buttoned up and then worn with a tie. And he’d rather catch a live wire with his bare hands than walk around with wrinkled clothes. His trousers had to be ironed until you see that razor-sharp line slicing across his legs. Babu’s grandfather was a man of nyadhi. Nyadhi has no direct translation to English because English is too inadequate a language, but you could say it means self-worth. A man of nyadhi is a man who knows himself. Like the Le Sapeurs of Congo? Yeah. Now those are men of nyadhi.
But even with this deep connection with clothes, fashion and styling were not considered serious careers. Tailoring was a plan B; that kaside hustle people in his family had and held just in case they got retrenched or something. Which is probably why Babu did not ever think much of it as a viable career option.
Mama Babu died when he was nine. It was TB that took her, and when she went, more than one heart stopped that night. If there is a God, then why doesn’t He do right by the world? Why doesn’t He prove Himself? It shouldn’t be so hard for him to remove the concept of orphanhood. Or at the very least, prevent it.
Nelson’s Tailors was left in the management of his cousins. But even after she was gone, that spark she left in Babu was never extinguished. As these things go, he was separated from his small brother because nobody could take both of them in. He moved in with relas, his brother, with another. There, he was always the one telling his aunties how to dress up for family gatherings and chamas; and when his uncles needed to go for wuoth, he told them what to wear. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; a boy found a home and they found someone to make them glitter.
In high school – Chulaimbo Boys – Babu was one of those dudes. The stylish ones. The ones people went to the night before an outing. While other people wore normal school trousers, homeboy had colombos. Two, actually. One for normal days and newer one for funkies. And we do not have the word count to explain what a colombo is. And then he got himself those apisi. You must know what apisi is? Sharp shooters. The long and pointed shoes.
You get the point.
Of course, he joined KU to study Economics and Finance after high school. Of course, he got an internship at Kenya Pipeline as a Product Accountant. Of course, he was well on track to keeping up with my family’s tradition of putting aside what you actually loved doing, to pursue a proper career. Of course, somewhere along the way things happened. See, while in campus, the only male stylists he knew were Sunny Dolat, Kaveke and Eddie Kirindo. This was a relief because styling is often looked at as a feminine job. One day he jumped into Sunny’s DMS for an opportunity to work together, and Sonny responded two months later. Not to intern but for an actual job. That is how the doors opened. Doors to City Models Africa with Ajuma, Coke Studios and the two years later, Sauti Sol’s Live & Die in Afrika album launch and tour with Annabel Onyango.
Of course, he got a taste of what it is like to have a job of your dreams. Of course he quit his job at Kenya Pipeline. Actually, he walked out one day and just never went back.
To say this is the trajectory his life took would be a gross understatement. That is just a truncated version of his professional life. Somewhere in between leaving high school, and getting that DM from Sunny, Babu swam through the colon that is Nairobi’s hustle life. In between, he sold shoes and dresses, bought them from Gikomba at 200 and sold them to MPESA and mobile shop vendors on Moi Avenue. He waited at a bar in Kaloleni, even though he was a teetotaller. He moved from his uncles house, into a one-room mabati house in Ololoh (oh, that is Kaloleni, for you Strathmore kids). It was not much but it was his.
The most memorable job in this period was dressing corpses. Death is a business. Big business, in fact. He run the biashara with Mama Geti – a tailor in Ololoh, and a friend. One of her friends lost a brother (hang in there), and so she was contracted to dress it up. She delegated the job to Babu. And money is money – whether it comes from a living thing or a dead one. So he went to Ukwala Supermarket on Tom Mboya Street and bought the deceased a blue suit, blue tie and pocket square set, white shirt and white socks.
Word came back after the funeral from the deceased family that they loved the way he looked. And that same word spread wings. Now, if anybody had lost someone, the people to contact for a proper farewell was Babu and Mama Geti. And so they spent their days sourcing for satin and lace from Burma and Eastleigh, and then getting tops from the market at City Stadium.
And you know the best thing about styling corpses? The clothes do not come back. They do not complain that the trouser is squeezing their crotch, or that red does not bring out their eyes, and they do not say ati they wouldn’t be caught dead in white socks. Dead people do not complain. They co-operate and they rest in peace.
It has been ten years since Babu was a ghost whisperer. These days he prefers to deal with living things that give credit on Instagram. Such hard work barely moves silently. That is how by the close of that decade, he was the Stylist of the Year Africa at Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards. Google it, do not pretend you know what that is. And if his life story is to tell you anything it should be that it doesn’t always rain the way it thunders.
Something changed after I left campus. I used to care about how I dressed, and I would actively put in the effort. I loved how my feet felt in new shoes, and I always looked forward to December holidays because, other than there being no school in December, it was the month that gave us Christmas. And Christmas meant new clothes. Clothes that we were not allowed to wear, except on Sundays and when travelling to Nairobi. But then my rebellion years came in 2014 – when I was rejecting things. I rejected going to law school and with that came the rejection of everything that seemed normal. I was a writer, and writers are supposed to be scruffy and unkempt, to keep up with the aura.
I remember after campus, I got a job in an ad agency in which Bikozulu also shared an office. He didn’t own it, he just had an office there because he was friends with the owner. The job was social media manager for some company selling generators. And there is nothing more annoying than selling generators to Kenyans, because Kenyans barely have blackouts. This is not Nigeria. So the idea was to stalk Kenya Power social media accounts to see where there is a power failure and then try and sell generators to the people complaining.
Anyway, Biko dressed well, and you’d know he was around because he left a trail of Tom Ford hanging in the room. Or was it Hugo Boss? I, on the other hand, hated dressing up. I came to the office in open shoes, mostly, and if I bothered, I sprayed Axe. I lost that job. After barely a month – not because of my dressing, though, but because selling generators to Kenyans on Twitter just wasn’t one of my biggest talents.
But my sense of style didn’t exactly change. I wore clothes for the purposes of hiding my nakedness. Until sometime in 2018 – towards the end of that year – when I moved houses and ended up as Brian Babu’s neighbour.
One evening, he came to my house and found me getting ready to leave for an event. They were launching a car, and it was one of those events where they tell you what to wear. I hated those ones. These ones said they wanted us in black and gold. Usually, that is the part of the invite I would ignore. So I tell him ‘there is this thing I was told to go and there is a dress code of sijui black and gold…..and me hata sijui, first of all, what colour is gold even?’
He laughed and told me to meet him at his house. Because of his job, he sources for outfits for people and ends up with clothes in his house. Many that he needs to get rid of. He has a spare room that looks like Gikomba. So he hands me clothes saying, “Go wear this with that and that and then go wear your black suede shoes, not those Safari Boots.” When a picture emerged on the internet, someone said I look like a ripe mango. And I took it to mean I looked delicious.
A month later the same company had a cocktail event. They did not tell me what to wear, but Babu did. I showed up in an all-black suit with a sequined jacket. Vanity drove me to post pictures on the internet, and for the first time in a long time, people’s daughters on the innerwebs looked at a photo of me and went “Mmmmh mmmmh mmmh.” Hell, Biko saw that picture and sent me a WhatsApp with a thumbs up. We had come a long way from my not even wearing shoes, and now this?
Fast forward to September 2019, and I get one of those phone calls. You know the kind that change your life? Yeah, those. It ended with me signing on a dotted line to work with WhiteCap. Part of the job of being a WhiteCap ambassador was that you attend their gigs, brunches and polo. Now, here is the thing, eh? I did not know a lick about polo. Greener than a blade of grass. In fact, I still do not, but it looks like hockey being played on horseback. The other thing I did not know is that there is a certain aesthetic to attending Polo and Brunches. It is not just about the food and the games and the music, as it were.
So on my first day, I put on jeans and a shirt and shoes. At least the shirt was blue, to represent WhiteCap colours. A picture was taken. A picture was put on Instagram. And as soon as Babu heard me get home that evening (he lives on the floor above mine), a phone call was made. Boy, he was furious.
“What is that you were wearing today?” You know, this is not a tough question to answer, until someone asks it. “Nilikuambia, when you are going for these things you tell me I help you. Now see…” he took out his phone and showed me the photo, “what is this now?”
With my hand behind my back, I looked down like a truant schoolboy, and apologized. Apparently, you are not supposed to go to brunch or polo looking like you are just from harvesting sim sim. And since then, I have never committed such atrocity. Mpaka there was this one time somebody on Twitter asked if I got a new stylist girlfriend, because the drip is soaking this city.
I became the people I made fun of when I found out what Babu does for a living. I became one of those people who cannot dress themselves. Those who need a stylist. The only difference is, I no longer think it is an outrageous thing to do. Because when your car breaks down, you call a mech. When you want to change your house, you call an interior designer. When you want to expand your culinary skills beyond onions and salt, you watch Kaluhi. When you were born with hooves for feet, you go to a dance coach. And when you finally notice you cannot see your feet anymore and you’ve started missing them, you get a fitness instructor. Same thing. If you think you need a wardrobe change – because all you have are jeans and promotional t-shirts – you call the descendant of Nelson Tailors.
Ama how is that any different?
There are two WhiteCap brunches coming up. One will be at the Nairobi Polo Club on 8th of February, then another at Machakos on the 15th. Now, I am not saying if you do not have a stylist do not come. Come in your best. Because WhiteCap itself is a drink that was brewed to celebrate who you truly are. I mean, if it does not matter whether you like your beer cold or warm…from a glass or straight from a bottle…in a cocktail or the way it came from the manufacturer…do you really think it matters what you are wearing when you are drinking it? It is not the most important thing.
But it is pretty important to some of us who say everything we need to say with the fabric on our backs. And if fashion really does make statements, then mine speaks rather boldly and colourfully, like everything else I do. It speaks with a voice I once lost but found in the floor above mine.