Before she'd turned twelve, a young girl in a small Kenyan village made an ambitious list of life goals. Becoming a fashion designer was only number two.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Most of the clothing in odAOMO (839 Chartres Street) marries traditional Kenyan styles with contemporary American wardrobe essentials. The garments dazzle the eye with intrepid cuts and bold, natural-fiber fabrics. The detailing on each speaks of careful tailoring. The jewelry brings to mind ancient kingdoms, with beadwork and polished edges revealing an artisan’s pride.
Dr. Omoro (“Call me Sophie, please!”) works with a small and seasoned team of professionals who handcraft each of her designs in Nairobi. Over the years, they’ve become accustomed to her exacting standards of quality, learned from her mother, a professional seamstress.
To save money, Sophie’s mother would buy enormous bolts of fabric and make clothes for all eight children out of the same cloth. The children would draw what they wanted their mother to sew. Early on, Sophie determined that if her dresses must be made from the same cloth as her siblings, at least the styles would be distinctive.
At first, the young girl relied mostly on catalogs of sewing patterns, because even fashion magazines were luxury items in the family’s remote village near the shores of Lake Victoria. But when an older sister, Rose, began working for British Airways, Sophie finally had a hard-wired connection to the world of high fashion.
“I wanted to be like Rose!” Sophie says. “She worked at the airport and wore one of those old-school flight attendant uniforms, and it was amazing! So chic. She was my idol.”
Rose began to travel internationally on occasion, bringing home more ideas for her little sister. Sophie made working as a fashion designer Life Goal #2. By that point, Life Goal #1 was already firmly established. She was determined to become a physician.
Her healing instincts first manifested when one of the family’s chickens broke a leg. Sophie pled with her mother to save it instead of throwing it into the stew pot. The young girl splinted the leg and healed the hen.
Later, a village couple came to Sophie’s father, begging him to take their sick child to the hospital 20 miles away. Her father’s car, a “rickety” vehicle, was the only one available. Twelve-year-old Sophie climbed into the makeshift ambulance to ride along.
“The child did not make it to the hospital,” she recalls.
Her eyes grow serious with the memory of that night. “I knew it wasn’t right. I knew then I wanted the knowledge to help, to change that terrible outcome. I didn’t know how I’d become a doctor, but I understood then it was my calling.”
Sophie’s father, a stalwart proponent of education, worked extra hours to send his children to school in Nairobi. The mantra repeated to all his children was “You must be first. No exceptions.”
The young girl took his encouragement to heart and excelled in every class. In 1990, a national call went out for applications for an extraordinary scholarship in the International Baccalaureate program. Only one student in Kenya would be chosen. Sophie was only 15, but she applied.
The teenager had never been on an airplane before nor traveled out of the country. Sophie’s father and his friends pooled their available funds before she left for the prep school in Canada, giving her $500 for spending money to last the year.
“After I’d been at school for about a month, my father called me from Kenya on the single dorm phone,” she says. “We only talked for a few minutes, because of the expense. He asked how I was and told me to do well. I promised I would.”
Two months later, Sophie’s father was killed in a car accident in Kenya. He was 51.
Sophie stayed true to her word, finishing the baccalaureate program, then moving to the states for undergraduate study at Oakwood University and Pierson College. She chose New Orleans and Tulane for medical school, then spent four years of residency in Seattle.
Specializing in head and neck surgery, the otolaryngologist moved back to the New Orleans area and practiced at Ochsner for eight years.
She believes her training as a surgeon actually fertilized her love for fashion.
Sophie explains. “It’s hard to be taken seriously as a female surgeon in a field that’s mostly men. Especially since I’m a girly-girl and love clothes. I wanted to break the mold, so continued designing my own things and having them made when I went home to Kenya.”
odAOMO (pronounced odd-ah-o-mo) took flight when a friend and fan of Sophie’s design sensibilities helped throw a house party in Covington to showcase her clothing and jewelry designs. A hundred people showed up and in two hours spent more than $8,000.
“And they wanted more,” said Sophie, laughing.
“Afterward, starting my own fashion company seemed like a way to kill a lot of birds with one stone. I’d feed my own soul with creativity, support artisans in Kenya, and put Kenya on a positive world stage.”
World stage, indeed. odAOMO opened a second showroom in Nairobi last year – 8,500 miles from the original store on Chartres Street. Sales have outpaced all predictions. Recently, the brand was invited to participate in a prestigious global fashion event in New York City this September – COTERIE.
Sophie’s design lines run the gamut between casual and extravagant show-stoppers, with lots of full skirts and strong silhouettes. Many of the garments feature pockets. Her team of tailors has been instructed to add them whenever possible because, “in Kenya, you need as many spaces as possible to hold things. Pockets free up your space.”
Eventually, Sophie will design odAOMO’s fabrics, but for now, she and two Kenyan associates curate them from around the world. They seek out luxury fabrics made from natural fibers, many of which are made in Italy. When the designer falls for a fabric, she says it speaks to her. She returns to her sketchbooks and one “star” piece emerges; additional pieces in a collection revolve around that stellar core.
To balance her life as a physician and designer, Sophie now works as a surgeon three days a week in Ohio, then flies home to New Orleans, her husband and her fashion business. She also oversees Life Goal #3 during her days home – a charitable foundation called Blooming Lily. Named after a sister who never “blossomed” and passed away too young, the foundation’s programs work to help young women find their purpose early, in both Kenya and Louisiana.
Goal #4 has yet to be manifested, Sophie says. She wants to tell stories of inspirational people, perhaps in documentary form. She’s still casting about for a medium that feels like the right fit.
“I find the globe so small and know at the core, we’re all so similar,” she says. “Maybe - just maybe - if we know more stories, we won’t fear each other or try to put ourselves above one another.
“I’m not extraordinary. Mine is just one story. People with amazing stories walk by every day and we never see.”