It’s hot and humid at the covered fabric market in Kigali’s commercial quarter. Women push past people and piles of waxed fabric, called kitenge, folded neatly and stacked high. The bright, colourful material in vivid geometric, and other prints has been used to make clothing in Rwanda and other parts of Africa for over a century. This is where Sonia Mugabo, a 25-year old Rwandan, buys fabric for ready to wear and bespoke garments produced in her small workshop. Mugabo is a designer, one of at least a dozen pioneers. Rwanda’s emerging fashion industry even has its own annual fashion week and festival, open to the public, which is renowned in the region.
Mugabo wears an Anglo-African outfit – a collared, blue button down shirt, tucked into a pleated bright yellow and white skirt. It’s full, and hangs below her knees. The shirt signals Mugabo’s time abroad. “I interned at Vogue in New York,” she says. Her time at Vogue is what makes Mugabo stand out among her peers. Most of them are propelled by a passion for design, rather than any formal training or education. They hire tailors who excel at copying designs, rather than inventing and interpreting them.
Rwanda’s emerging fashion industry
Rwanda doesn’t have a history of fashion, nor are there design schools yet. Far from cutting edge, Rwanda is known for it’s conservative culture. But, Mugabo, and others in their 20 and 30s are part of a new Rwanda, blossoming in a way no one could have anticipated. They are the first post-conflict generation – the first who can afford to pursue futures that give them pleasure, rather than sticking to pragmatic vocations that provide stability and decent pay.
“I was 4 years old during the conflict. This is part of the reawakening of Rwanda. The time is now for us to follow our passion and our careers,” Mugabo explains.
Many fled the country, living in exile for years before coming home. The Diaspora returned with a we-can-do-anything outlook. They’re establishing a creative community supportive of one another. Mugabo is part of a collective that includes a handful of fashion, jewelry and menswear designers. They even host their own fashion show every autumn, and participate in pop-up shops.
Mugabo says an expanding local market is an indication of the country’s growth.
“Rwanda’s economy is becoming stable. People can afford these luxury goods. Ten years ago there were other things they had to focus on. Now, they have jobs, they want to look good.”
Her customers are between 22 and 35 years old. They choose Mugabo’s designs for their feminine cuts, and day to night versatility. And it’s not just women getting into the fashion scene.
At 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, a tall, slender man in his late twenties waits to withdraw cash from a machine before entering the nightclub nearby, where the sound of local hip hop escapes through the doorway. The young Rwandan is cloaked in finery: a crisp white, button-down shirt underneath a Scottish tweed blazer with elbow patches, and a small, bright, cotton bowtie in primary colours – typical attire for a night out in Kigali. Bowtie designer Matthew Tayo has helped advance the trend.
“My customers might work in a bank, but whenever they can they want to express themselves. Bowties are safer than say a full print jacket or shirt.”
Others are more adventurous. Take Patrick, my 44-year old guide and driver. During a visit to the showroom at Made in Kigali, I spot a floor-length gown made from kitenge and bejewelled with Swarovski crystals. Patrick spots a dark purple men’s jacket with swirls of golden yellow. He’s so taken with it he makes an impulse buy, handing over $50 in cash. Where will Patrick wear his new duds? “Out clubbing with my wife,” he answers. The women who tend to the career women and entrepreneurs at Made in Kigali wear high-waisted, pencil skirts to the knee, made from kitenge. It’s a smart look, one that designer Linda Mukangoga of Haute Baso, says locals want. “They want something African but not something in your face, not full kitenge.” Mukangoga and others focus on modern styles using kitenge for trimming, hemlines or even handbags as an accent.
Accessories are finding a home among Rwanda’s stylish set for the first time, too.
31-year old Teta Isibo watches as half a dozen older women browse her jewellery shop, trying on big bangles wrapped in silk threads of hot pink, turquoise and gold. She moved back to Rwanda in 1996.
“When we moved home it was all about the basics. It shows how far Rwanda has come. The country is like a blank slate. We don’t have a history of fashion, so we are forging our own way.”
It’s not only the country that’s a blank slate. Isibo and others are discovering they can choose their own futures. Isibo used to be an urban planner.
“We are the last generation where our parents say be a doctor, a lawyer. There was a government program teaching women how to weave baskets, so I asked one of the women to make a pair of earrings. I loved them, my friends loved them and then people started placing orders.”
For Rwanda’s young designers, Isibo says, the attraction is their role in a bigger movement. “It’s about building a brand. Africa is trending, so made in Africa has a certain cache.”
Rwanda’s designers are slowly weaving their country’s new narrative from a blank piece of cloth, into a sophisticated, stylish, richly textured story.
Feature image: Vue de l’Inema Art Center. Photo by Florian Renaux, own work. CC BY-SA 4.0