Catherine Mahugu

She put the work of African artisans on the covers of American magazines.

San FranciscoCA 
Fashion Forward
Gwendolyn Floyd, Ella Peinovich
 Photo Credit: Courtesy subject

Look away from Michelle Obama’s dazzling smile on the cover of December’s Essence magazine and you might notice a graceful brass ring and necklace—both from Soko. That photo “was such a validation of what we do,” says Catherine Mahugu, who co-founded the business with Gwendolyn Floyd and Ella Peinovich. After Obama’s cover, Oprah Winfrey flashed a Soko bracelet and earrings on the cover of April’s O magazine— and fashion pace-setters like Reformation, Zolando, Amour Vert, and Nordstrom’s have taken up the brand. But what’s more important to Soko’s co-founders is the income provided for the 2,300 artisans in Mahugu’s native Kenya. To advantage African workers, Mahugu also just launched Chiswara, a company trying to digitize the agricultural supply chain, first by partnering with small farmers in Kenya to sell their coffee internationally. “In the U.S., we pay $5 for a cup of coffee, but the lives of the farmers don’t reflect that,” says Mahugu, whose parents grew up on coffee farms. “We are giving farmers a seat at the table.” --Leigh Buchanan