There are no better words to describe Joselyne Umutoniwase than ambitious and relentless, which made her unstoppable and a force to reckon with in the fashion industry. In 2012, at the age of 23, Umutoniwase put aside what she studied at the university and a career in filmmaking to embark on her passion, fashion. She has never looked back. Umutoniwase is the founder of Rwanda Clothing, one of the leading fashion brands in the country, also a member of CollectiveRw, an ensemble of leading fashion houses in Rwanda. Born and raised in Kigali and a middle child of six siblings, five girls and one boy, Umutoniwase grew up in a family of creatives, and not even what she studied at school would stop her from tapping into her creativity. At university, the former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), now University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology (UR-CST), Umutoniwase pursued a degree in ICT while at the same time attended film class. “I worked in different organisations and I travelled. I was actually going to be a filmmaker for sure. That’s what I wanted to do as a career,” says Umutoniwase, but the creativity in her wouldn’t let her settle. “I can say that I grew up in a very noisy environment with so many siblings but very creative. This creativity I have now is something that started when I was very young. “I used to collect a lot of pieces of fabric, cutting different types of material at home,” she says, adding that her mum taught her embroidery and knitting at a young age. In 2012, she took a risk to abandon everything she was doing to start Rwanda Clothing, mainly tapping into family resources and means. It is not something that started randomly. Growing up, she had an uncle, a twin of her dad, who was a tailor specialising in suits, based in Nyanza, Southern Province. Every school holiday she would go to stay with her grandparents, who also lived in Nyanza. While there, she would spend time in her uncle’s workshop observing how he and his five tailors went about their work. The art of sewing a suit is something that captivated her. “I would spend my time there just admiring making a suit. It’s really powerful when you see how it’s constructed, it’s almost like a piece of art. “They put threads inside and put different types of material to make it really standard and look the way it looks because it’s one of the most complicated pieces to make,” Umutoniwase recalls. As she observed the tailoring skills of her uncle and dedication, the passion in her grew, driven by curiosity. She was 10 or 12 at the time, and was really fascinated about clothing and fashion in general. In her uncle’s workshop she began to stitch and patch up things and one time in Germany, after completing her film studies, around 2010, she had an opportunity to check out independent designers in the country, big and regular, to learn a few things about fashion. She noticed that for the regular ones, there was a showroom in front and a small workshop behind with three or four tailors. She wondered how they did it. Everything she saw blew her away. “I came back here and I was like how do I start? I want to do the same thing but then it took me another year because I was afraid, I really was afraid to start. “I didn’t see anything similar that time. I was actually one of those first ones to do it that way,” she recalls. She did research and brought in some friends whom she consulted. Driven by talent Through it all, Umutoniwase was driven by talent. All her life she has always been sketching, drawing things, thinking of ideas, which is partly why she chose fashion because fashion is art. It is all about creativity. In fact, if she wasn’t into filmmaking or fashion, she would be an artist because she excelled at art. In high school, she pursued biochemistry and her parents thought she would be a doctor or nurse. People often told her how good she was at sketching. Travelling to different countries through filmmaking gave her the exposure she needed to set out. For the five years she juggled filmmaking and other things, she was saving with the hope of starting something of her own. In February 2012, she followed in her uncle’s footsteps and started her own workshop, with the support of her husband and her sister and maybe two tailors. It was a team of five. They started small, sketching and drawing in the first six months and making sure that the idea grows. It wasn’t about money at this point. They weren’t even making any, anyway. She didn’t even launch the brand officially but there was hope since the government was driving the ‘Made in Rwanda’ agenda. Her idea was to do many good Made in Rwanda pieces and then do it again and again until people appreciate it. Her trick was to customise ideas of clients and the individual style of people, rather than churning out similar pieces. Umutoniwase’s target market were people who really know what they want and she would try to bring it to life, with a touch of originality and quality. It worked like magic. People loved what she was doing. Her clients kept returning for more and recommended others. As they say, the rest is history. Today she still thrives on the same model, doing exactly what people want. But it wasn’t easy. She had to train people to adapt to the model. Dismissing claims that her target market is high-end, Umutoniwase says her target was always the local market but due to quality and effort, the price had to drive the market demand. In fact her first mission was to create a brand that creates jobs. If people love it, they come and buy, especially if they can afford, but it is not for a particular group or type of people. The start wasn’t easy as the materials she needed for quality products were not easy to come by. She would go online to check out fabrics and find a way of getting them to Rwanda but it wasn’t easy for a young fashion start-up. Also, starting out in the murky waters of entrepreneurship for a young woman of 23, in an industry that wasn’t fully developed like fashion, wasn’t for the fainthearted. Starting small wasn’t her choice. “I could have asked for a loan or you know, make it big, but the thing is, the market was not ready in terms of understanding how the whole concept will work. Will it really generate money?” they asked. She even approached some banks but they said come back in two or three years, we will see if the idea can work. It took her a long time to convince people to believe in her dream. Also, at the time, not many people believed in Made in Rwanda because they were frustrated by quality as well as the cost. From the start, they could not even take advance payment from clients, just their orders. Ten years down the road, the dream became reality. Today she has a team of 45 people, including the same family members she started off with, and two showrooms. New customers bring new customers and that is how the brand grew. She is now looking to set up an online shop selling men, women and children’s clothes, specifically to serve the international market where she wants her brand to expand. Umutoniwase’s advice to young girls is for them to have a vision of something they want to be or build because that is what is more important. The income just becomes a result of the brand you have built. Harness your talents, knowledge, networks and versatility and you will make it in whatever you do. It is this kind of resilience that has driven her. Umutoniwase is equally proud of where Made in Rwanda is today, having been among the pioneers who set out to believe in it and today she can look back and say ‘we made it’.