Kaunda Suits may no longer be a big fashion statement but they were a must-have piece for the wardrobe of every classy man in the 1980s and ’90s. They were pretty much closet gems for African nationalists and fashionistas who prided themselves on African fabrics in the years and decades that followed the independence of many African countries.
Kaunda Suits were particularly made popular by Kenneth Kaunda, the founding president of Zambia, who passed away at a military hospital in Lusaka last week. He was 97.
Indeed, Kenneth Kaunda’s fondness for the style saw the outfit named after him in many parts of Africa. Prior to this, the outfit was mostly known as Safari Suits or Mao Suits.
Kenyans were the first to name Safari Suits after Kenneth Kaunda because of the way he promoted them, the former Zambian leader told CNN in 2014.
“It’s a distinct identity, when you think of iconic figures you also think of what they wore,” said Rwandan top stylist Mathew Rugamba, the owner of clothing brand House of Tayo. “It was a fashion statement for iconic African leaders, like Kenneth Kaunda.”
Kaunda Suits, he says, “were mostly synonymous with the fathers of pan-Africanism, which is why people still love them, they are a symbol of African solidarity and patriotism.”
“People view Kaunda Suits as one of the sources of African fashion,” he says, adding that the late president Kaunda, fondly known as KK, refused to wear ties and instead embraced a stylish African fabric.
Ryan Olivier, a Kigali-based fashion designer, says: “Kaunda Suits remain an important piece in the closet even in this era. It has transcended generations.”
“We should continue to wear the fabric, not just for its stylish look, but also as a tribute to the legacy of the heroes of Africa’s independence.”
Solomon Mukama, a Rwandan historian, praised Kenneth Kaunda for promoting the style, which he says was a signature fabric for pan-Africanists.
“They were mostly short-sleeved, and the shirt had four pockets. Kaunda Suits, along with the Kitenge shirts from Zimbabwe, Zaire (present-day DR Congo) and Ghana, had virtually become the dress code of every African nationalist,” he says.
Mukama adds: “KK rejected the imperialistic cultural hegemony of Europeans and promoted a brand that reminded people of the Africanisation agenda that people like Robert Mugabe, Nkwame Nkurumah and Julius Nyerere were spearheading.”
John Gatera, a senior citizen, explains what it felt like to wear a Kaunda Suit back in the day.
“I regularly wore a Kaunda Suit during the late 80s through mid-90s,” he recalls. “They were common among the working class. I personally liked them because they were soft and mostly short-sleeved. The fabric represented the uniqueness of Africans and differentiated us from the colonisers,” Gatera says.
“Wearing a Kaunda Suit back then felt like an achievement. KK had elevated the style to a dress code for the African elite and pan-Africanists. Everyone looked forward to owning the piece and worked hard for it,” he recollects.
Many notable post-independence African leaders, including Sam Nujoma (Namibia), Samora Machel (Mozambique) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), were also known for their fondness of the Kaunda Suit.
Many of these iconic figures generally disliked wearing neckties as they identified them with European colonial rulers and western imperialists.