The bitter-sweet ride for Rwanda’s fashion industry

TEN years ago, Rwanda’s fashion industry had nothing to write home about. There were hardly any fashion shows, models or local designers. A handful of individuals were struggling to start a career in modeling. What most Rwandans knew about fashion then was what they saw on catwalk TV shows or what they read in exotic fashion magazines.  However fast forward 2014; the fashion industry is vibrant and seems to be headed for better times. In the last few weeks, over four new fashion houses have opened shop in Kigali to join the already established names like Inzuki Designs and Accessories, Rwanda Clothing, House of Marion and Christine Creative Collections among others. 
Models display designs on the runway during the Kigali Fashion Week 2012. (File)
Models display designs on the runway during the Kigali Fashion Week 2012. (File)

TEN years ago, Rwanda’s fashion industry had nothing to write home about. There were hardly any fashion shows, models or local designers. A handful of individuals were struggling to start a career in modeling. What most Rwandans knew about fashion then was what they saw on catwalk TV shows or what they read in exotic fashion magazines. 

However fast forward 2014; the fashion industry is vibrant and seems to be headed for better times. In the last few weeks, over four new fashion houses have opened shop in Kigali to join the already established names like Inzuki Designs and Accessories, Rwanda Clothing, House of Marion and Christine Creative Collections among others. 

23-year-old Christine Mbabazi, the proprietor of Christine Creative Collections has been in the industry for more than 10 years. 

Mbabazi joined fashion when she was still in high school. 

“I started by changing my clothes, cutting them and making funny things from pieces of cloth. With time, people noticed how different my dressing was,” the designer says.

Today she serves customers from within Rwanda and far across borders. 

“My customers are mostly the youth and men who like to dress differently. Some customers, especially those from abroad like my African fabric designs, but most of my female customers love jewelry that is designed with beads on it.”   

However, despite the success stories of people like Mbabazi, the industry has treaded a slippery ground over the years. 

Due to cultural influence and perception, society is yet to fully embrace the fashion and modeling industry. Parents are not eager to let their children join the fashion world as models.  It’s seen as an avenue for ‘spoilt’ girls while others say many models are paid peanuts and sometimes are sexually exploited.

50-year-old James Mugabe, an accountant says he can’t advise anyone to take up a modeling career because in his opinion, they will never earn enough. Mugabe adds that in the face of moralists allowing his daughter to take to the cat walk is a taboo.

However, Mugabe’s 17-year-old daughter, Erinah Urwibutso, disagrees with him. She cites big names in the industry like Tyra Banks and Alek Wek who rose from nothing to the acme of success in the fashion and modeling. She says these models sometimes, have the best moral standing in society and many go on to become Goodwill ambassadors and the faces of great global campaigns. 

Alexia Uwera Mupende, one of Rwanda’s most successful models says modeling is a fulfilling career. Mupende, whose career spans over a decade, is a model, dancer and an actress and has built a reputation amongst top local designers and fashion houses in Rwanda and the region as a whole. She has worked with local design houses like House of Marion, Ikanzu Designs and Accessories, Inzuki Designs, Rwanda Clothing, Afrikana Exquisiteness and BASO fashion house among others.

The model says that creative arts can broaden ones opportunities even outside the conventional education career path. She juggles modeling with an Information and Technology (ICT) career. She says this has boosted her income and broadened her social and professional network.

Challenges 

Both male and female models have their challenges although when it comes to sexual harassment, the ladies might be in the boat alone. However, their male counterparts also complain of under payment, among other things.  

“Modeling is not about ‘bad behaviour’ like most Rwandans think. Most parents regard models as ‘black sheep’ with no morals and values,” male model, Jean-Claude Ndayishimiye said in an earlier interview.

Fashion observers say, it takes a lot of courage and will to keep afloat in the industry. 

“Unless one is prudent, an average model can’t survive on modeling as the only source of income. It is just a way to supplement one’s income,” says Mupende, who takes modeling more as a passion and is not in it for money.

“There is also little local exposure since the industry isn’t as big compared to other already established ones like the New York fashion industry,” she says. 

This has prompted Mupende to delve into other means of enlisting awareness about what she does through social media platforms. She also runs a website about what she does. 

But it’s not as rosy for some people. Rachel, a Kigali based model has no kind words for some players in the industry. “The exploitation in the industry is sickening,” Rachael who claims she has been a victim says before revealing more shocking details.  

“Some clients stalk you after a fashion show and demand for sex. Many look at us as sex objects. It takes a lot of confidence and attitude to stomach such hazards that come with our work,” Rachael reveals.

Rachel says models are labeled all sorts of names bordering on insults. They have been called everything from school drop outs to airheads.

But Charlotte Umulisa, a renowned model decries this kind of behavior: “I am a student at Mount Kenya University doing my Bachelors’ degree and many other models are students too.  Some have graduated already. So we are not school drop outs,” Umulisa says.

She however takes a swipe at some fashion designers who treat models like school dropouts and exploit them either by paying very little or nothing at all after a very hard day’s work.

Umulisa started her career back in 2010 and has worked with different fashion houses, both locally and internationally. She says alot has improved in the fashion industry and the future looks promising.

She notes that although many people believe that modeling goes against the Rwandan culture, it is not true, but it is how some models dress that makes the difference. 

“Dressing models in very tiny, provocative and revealing outfit is the problem, not modeling itself.  Even foreign designers who come to showcase their work in Rwanda, the first thing they are told is to respect the Rwandan culture and how their models should dress.”

Umulisa advises those with a passion for modeling to chase their dream. 

Believe in yourself and the potential you have. Never let anyone undermine you as long as you’re confident. Also, the fashion designers should mentor models instead of exploiting them, tips Umulisa.

Even with the uncertainties, the good and the bad, the industry has the potential to grow bigger. For example, many local fashion houses and models are making it on the international stage. Fashion houses are show casing their work at international fashion shows. This is something that has boosted the industry. 

Francis Iraguha, a designer and owner of Zahabu fashions says through concerted efforts and hard work, the industry has grown over time. But he says the local market is yet to appreciate their effort. 

“Rwandans don’t purchase our locally made fashion products which are almost as expensive as imported brands since the material we use is equally expensive.” 

Mbabazi echoes similar views. She says Rwandans should drop the obsession with imported stuff, especially second hand clothes. 

“We like and promote other people’s creations yet we have designers who can make office wear, casual clothes and any other attire.” 

But like many other observers, Mbabazi thinks the fashion industry is on the move and no one can stop it. 

“Give it another five years, and Rwanda will be known for having the most talented designers. People’s mentality about the industry will have changed and designers will be getting positive attention,” Mbabazi hopes.

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YOUR VIEWS: WOULD YOU LET YOU CHILD PURSUE A MODELING CAREER?

Gisa Shyaka
Why not? Modeling is a professional career, which in most cases is even a talent so I do not see any problem with my child pursuing it. We have great people who have made it big in the profession.

I believe that the misconceptions related to the modeling profession would be the reasons that would make me stop my child from pursuing it. I would first of all as a parent support him or her by helping them know how to deal with the misconceptions involved.

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Frank Mutabazi
I think I am old fashioned and conservative, I believe modeling that involves revealing lingerie in front of millions of people is religiously and traditionally wrong and therefore I would not allow my child to take up a career in modeling. The Christian faith or the Muslim faith requires less revealing clothing. Even the Rwandan culture discourages nudity of any kind and this is what modeling involves sometimes.

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Anderson Tessa
If my child shows the desire to purse modeling as a career, as a parent I will support them. But it would depend on the brand they are fronting. If it’s a cheap brand then I would not allow them. As parent I need to protect my child’s interest and protect him or her from being exploited.
 

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Joys Chegz
If they are above 18, I would let them pursue the modeling career because they have a say at the time. Below the age of 18, I would not let them. For instance, if they went into a contest and they don’t qualify or don’t win, this would greatly affect their self esteem.

I have seen a 15-year-old starve herself because she was told she didn’t have the right body for modeling. Even the nudity which is sometimes portrayed in the profession is not good for underage girls.  

 

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