“I think the one thing people remember about a wedding is how the bride looked,” Wairimu Mwai, the founder of Sidai Brides, says.

“Yet I find it interesting that one of the toughest challenges for a bride is to justify how much she spends on her dress and accessories because we’re culturally brought up to put our guests’ interests before our own. But this shouldn’t apply on our wedding day.”

The 32-year-old dresses brides of all body types, and believes the wedding gown is such an emblem and representation of the woman wearing it that it should be crafted at the highest level by the most talented designers.

It’s for this reason that Wairimu formed Sidai Brides in 2014. “We stock international designers – Maggie Sottero for our dresses and Badgley Mischka for our shoes. We’re the official retail outlet for these brands in Kenya,” she says.

Getting started

Wairimu started her journey into the wedding business when her sister was getting married in 2011. They struggled to find something unique and exclusive in Nairobi.

After her sister’s wedding, Wairimu decided to try and make things simpler for future brides looking for high-end designs. Your opinion is valuable.

“I did my research on wedding dresses, particularly in the West. I loved Maggie Sottero because of her 25-year experience in wedding dress design, and she had many collections that complimented the African body.”

She emailed the designers on her interest in becoming their licensed retailer in Kenya. “Many people don’t realise what the difference is between being a licensed outlet and just stocking designs,” Wairimu says.

“A licensed outlet is acknowledged by the designer and appears in their portfolio as an affiliate. A non-licensed retailer simply shops for merchandise and stocks them, usually without the designer’s knowledge.” Wairimu was interested in the former because she wanted to be sure the designs she got were authentic and of exemplary quality. “Unfortunately, they declined my request, saying they weren’t ready to move into the African space yet.

Though I was disappointed, I kept the faith that somehow I’d get into the market.” Two years later, Wairimu received an email from the designers asking her if she was still interested in working with them. She took up the offer immediately and spent the next year in negotiations and ensuring she met the requirements for partnership. The costs Sidai Brides was officially founded in 2015.

To launch her career as a wedding dress supplier, Wairimu spent at least Sh2 million to buy stock of 15 dresses. “I find it ironic that one of my sisters got me interested in wedding dresses in 2011 and the other became my first customer in 2015 when she got married.” Her company sold only one dress that year, but Wairimu wasn’t discouraged, appreciating that designer wedding dresses weren’t the norm in Kenya just yet.

“We were not the cheapest company – but we weren’t going for cheap, we were going for affordable exclusivity.” Even so, after selling just four dresses the following year, Wairimu realised her business would have to put more effort into its marketing strategy. In early 2017, she hired a social media expert to help Sidai Brides tap into the online market. “It cost us quite some money because we had to invest in a photoshoot, models, a website and so on. The total amount came to approximately Sh300,000.”

Wairimu admits it was daunting since she had no idea if the investment would pay off. But after dressing one bride who posted her wedding pictures on social media, inquiries started coming in. Growing sales Bolstered by the interested brides-to-be and encouraged by a Maggie Sottero representative who was coming to visit the business, Wairimu decided to host a showcase event.

“It was a challenging few months because on top of putting the event together, we had to get a physical shop before the representative arrived.”  Wairimu’s father offered her the garage in his home which, with the help of her sisters, she transformed into a shop. “It would have cost us Sh600,000 if we’d gone with a professional designer. My sisters convinced me we could do it alone. The total came to Sh250,000. That was a huge saving.”

To pull off the event, Wairimu approached different sponsors. “I consider the entire affair a blessing from God. So many doors opened to us even though we were an unknown entity.” Wairimu got a venue from Sankara Hotels, décor from Aura event planners, hair styling from Ashley’s, make-up from Lintons Beauty World, photography from Clement Kiragu, drinks from Barcadi and Wines of the World, and tents from Evensis Décor. They paid a minimal amount for lighting and sound from Main Switch.

“The show was incredible; I couldn’t believe we’d pulled it off. We got more than 100 brides coming to see our dresses.” Following the show and the online marketing, Sidai Brides sold nearly 30 dresses. Their selection retails at between Sh100,000 and Sh300,000. “It all depends on what a bride wants. The average bride spends around Sh120,000. We offer a payment plan because we know how strenuous this can be, given all the other wedding expenses.”

The trick, Wairimu says, is for the brides to start planning early, with the wedding dress the first thing considered, not the last. “I’ve had brides coming in wanting to spend Sh80,000 on their dress while they spend Sh200,000 on the venue. I think that’s having it backwards. Any venue can be tweaked to make a wedding beautiful, but not any dress is right for a bride.”

In the Den Sidai Brides offers end-to-end service for its customers, from initial consultation where the bride is advised on what dress would best suit her personality and body type, to dressing her on her wedding day at no extra cost. “If a bride doesn’t find a dress she likes on our shelves, we order it from the designer. The bride has the option to change dresses even after it has landed if it doesn’t fit her the way she envisioned.”

Wairimu’s dream for Sidai Brides is to be a renowned outlet for any bride. “I want a young girl to say, ‘when I grow up, I will be a Sidai Bride’. I want a mother to say, ‘my daughter will wear a Sidai gown.” It’s for this vision that Wairimu pitched her company on the show, KCB Lions’ Den, currently airing on KTN. She was asking for Sh4 million in exchange for 10 per cent equity. She landed a deal with investors Kris Senanu and Joan Mwangi, giving away 20 per cent of her company. “It was more than I wanted to give away, but I didn’t just go there for capital, I went there for mentors and business connections. I know Kris and Joan will give me both.”

Wairimu’s next venture is to create a YouTube channel educating and advising brides on their dresses and their wedding day. She hopes to launch the channel this month.