Kigali – Matthew Rugamba was aware that his Rwandan fashion label arrived when Junior Nyong’o, the brother to Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, attended the premiere of “Black Panther” wearing a three-piece suit he had made.
The website for Rugamba’s brand House of Tayo was flooded with enquiries from all over the world for his high-end creations hours after the glamorous event in Los Angeles.
The 32-year old told AFP that “it changed the perspective” and was still shocked by the twist of events that led to his “made in Rwanda” label being able to walk the Hollywood red carpet.
Rugamba, who is of dual Rwandan-British nationality, said that fashion has been a constant message to people for so many years.
Although Kigali is yet to surpass the fashion scene of Lagos in Africa, the capital of the 13 million-strong nation hosts its own fashion week. This attracts a loyal clientele of wealthy locals, diaspora members, and tourists.
“I like how they tailor the clothes. The way they design their clothes. I like the simplicity of the thing,” said Emmanuel Safari, a lawyer who frequents the House of Tayo boutique in a upscale Kigali neighborhood.
“The clothes are easy to put on and feel great!” Some Rwandan labels even caught the eye of President Paul Kagame. He was seen wearing a shirt made by Moshions, a bespoke Kigali brand.
“Change the narrative”
What is “Kigali Style”? Jean-Victor Brun, 50-year-old Haitian American who arrived in Rwanda to work on new technologies, says that “it pops, but it’sn’t flashy.” Joselyne Umuniwase, the founder of Rwanda Clothing, says that Rwanda Clothing is modern, ethnic, and deeply rooted in Rwanda’s identity.
Many Rwandan brands are proud to be able to create bespoke clothing, drawing from decades of tailoring history. Umutoniwase employs 45 people and incorporates the geometric patterns of imigongo, a style that uses cowdung and natural colors, into her creations.
Similar beadwork can also be found on royal headdresses or other traditional items. In Rwanda, Uzuri K&Y takes inspiration from Rwanda’s weaving traditions to make braided sandals.
Ysolde Shimwe, the brand’s cofounder, said that young designers like herself were eager to transform Rwanda’s image after the 1994 genocide which killed over 800,000.
She told AFP that ten years ago, when you Googled Rwanda, you saw only machetes and people killing each other. “There were also hungry children in the streets.”
“We, Rwandan designers, are contributing to the change in Rwanda’s narrative and mainly to changing Rwandan perceptions. We are more than just that. We are more than our historical backgrounds.”
Rwanda’s fashion industry also has received support from the government. In 2016-17, the government increased import taxes on secondhand clothing from the US and Europe to encourage local producers.
This move, which saw duties increase more than tenfold in the wake of the decision, effectively placed a moratorium upon trade involving secondhand clothing from West Africa at low prices for East African consumers.
Umutoniwase stated that the government simultaneously allowed designers to import fabric without tax, giving the industry a boost.
Many Rwandans can’t afford to buy these brands, as more than 80 percent live in rural areas. Umutoniwase said that the prices for a shirt range from 70 dollars (60 Euros) to a dress at 80 dollars (70 Euros). This was despite the fact that Rwanda has a small market.
Designer Shimwe said that the genocide’s devastation has led to a severe shortage of skills in the country. She said that eight years ago, when we tried to establish a shoemaking company, we couldn’t find skilled labour. “There was literally no one who had any experience in shoemaking,” she explained. She said that some of the 1,100 employees she trained have gone on to start their own labels as a sign of the industry’s optimistic growth prospects. “It’s an amazing cycle that we were able to create.”