On a line-up of couture houses in one of Kigali’s busiest strips stretching between Inkuru Nziza church and what is formerly known as ‘Iposita’ currently occupied by Makuza Peace Plaza in downtown, is one labelled ‘Style Jojo’ that has been there for more than three decades. Style Jojo, or ‘Kwa Jojo’ as many refer to it, has not only dressed people for over three decades, they have also witnessed the rapid evolution of Rwanda’s fashion industry over the years. The founder of this couture house, who it is named after- Jojo- is a Rwandan woman who was famous in the city for her nice designs, at least more than a decade ago. One Brigitte Mukantaganda, 39, who has been part of the fashion house since 2003, started working there when she had just graduated from vocational training. Among the very large team of tailors that were there – predominantly of Congolese origin – her role was to sew buttons and other accessories. She explained to The New Times that at the time, they were known across the city for making perfect styled suits for both men and women that were known as ‘ensemble’ at the time, and kitenge styles known as ‘Ribaya’- although this was mostly for Congolese customers. However, at the time of the interview, there wasn’t a tailor in the workshop, and the clothes on display were mainly pieces of clothes that people buy such as the traditional attire, Imishanana, and party dresses. As the years have gone by, so have the trends unfortunately and this hasn’t left them with the ‘huge clientele’ they used to have. Their once busy couture house is no longer swarming with customers. “Now, people just buy ready clothes with Imigongo or Kitenge designs,” Mukantaganda said. As a result, she has resorted to making flowers out of fabric, and adding beads to wedding tops for brides, which is also not as profitable since Covid-19 stringent measures halted weddings for several months. Right opposite Jojo's is Didas couture, another fashion house which has been in business since 2000. The owner is a 52 year-old, Banji Didace, who came to Rwanda a few years after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. He had graduated from a tailoring school in DR Congo in the 1980’s, but it wasn’t profitable to him until he came to Rwanda. He said he wouldn’t last a day in this business without adapting to the new fashion styles of shirts with Kitenge or Imigongo designs, and dresses. “We used to be very busy, but now a day or two can pass without anyone entering through that door,” Banji said, adding that I was the first client they had at 3:00 PM when we had the interview. But fashion hasn’t always been a part of Rwandan culture. Before, Rwandans only dressed their private parts and were good to go. Before the Arab merchants came to Rwanda in 1650, Rwandans wore skins and hides, and sometimes tree barks, while young children were mostly naked, until they were around eight years old. Teenage girls wore Ishabure, a type of skirt that was made from a calf’s skin, but sometimes a goat’s too. It was measured with a single hand-span and worn right below the waistline only to cover the genitals. It was also that short to make the wearer’s movement easy because it would be difficult for them to walk long distances with the stiff skin deterring their steps, not to forget that domestic animals were also too precious to be slaughtered for just skins to wear. Teenage boys and adult men wore Impuzu, another type of skirt that was made from a famous tree in Rwanda, Umuvumu’s bark. It was made by beating soaking strips of the inner bark of the tree into sheets. Married women wore Inkanda, a longer dress made from a cow’s hide that reached below the knee. Women from wealthy families would decorate their legs with many anklets and leglets that one wouldn’t even see their legs. This was the general style in the country, although in some parts, teenage girls would wear Ikinyita, another skirt made from animal skin, and men would also wear skin. Clothilde Umubyeyi, 81, who is an anthropology researcher, told The New Times that this went on until some wealthy families got their first pieces of cloth in the 1600s at the reign of Yuhi III Mazimpaka, who ruled from 1642 to 1675. “During the reign of Yuhi Mazimpaka is when Arab merchants started bringing clothes to Rwanda. Those who were wealthy at the time started buying one to two metres of cloth to cover themselves (kwitera in Kinyarwanda) because their chests were out most of the time,” Umubyeyi said. She added that over the years, men also started letting go of their tree bark skirts and skins to wear pieces of cloth on their lower part of the body, while wearing necklaces and other ornaments on their chests and arms. But this was still for the wealthy. “There was a time when clothes were for everyone. Then, people would fully dress their body, with Umukenyero and Umwitero, and later, tailoring was introduced in the country and new styles such as dresses, shirts, vests and shorts were introduced,” Umubyeyi said. In her research published in 2003 in a thesis she named ‘Evolution de l’habillement au Rwanda de la fin du 19e siècle à 1960,’ Nadia Uwamariya, a historian and journalist, shows the rapid evolvement of wearing clothes in Rwanda since the late 1900 to the year 1960. She told The New Times her research stopped with the year 1960 because most of what came later in fashion was only a repetition of what was already there. She added that the styles people preferred were highly influenced by the colonialists. “The White Fathers played a big role in the transition from traditional attire made from skin and hides. But the evolution was going to happen either way, because even in countries which had Arabic influence, people were wearing clothes by that time,” Uwamariya noted. From then, tailors played a key role in the lives of Rwandans, until now. But one has to stay updated to make money in this ever creative industry. Dressing the world Since the Made-in-Rwanda policy launch in 2018, which aimed at increasing economic competitiveness by enhancing Rwanda's domestic market through value chain development, several couture houses have proved to the world that the country could boast more than the gorillas and mountains. Moses Turahirwa’s Moshions, which opened in 2014, has dressed powerful people in the world, including the Rwandan presidential family, Louise Mushikiwabo, the Secretary General of La Francophonie, Jidenna, an American rapper, Sophia the robot and Mannekin Pis, the bronze fountain sculpture in Brussels. Moshions has been on several continental and global fashion stages, but so have they in the country. You may find yourself asked if you’re wearing a Moshions if your dress or Kimono have ‘Imigongo’- a Rwandan traditional design. Matthew Rugamba’s House of Tayo which opened in 2011 has also put Rwanda’s fashion industry on the world map, or at least in Hollywood. Junior Nyong'o, the brother of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, attended the world premiere of Black Panther in a three-piece suit designed by House of Tayo. Stars like Davido, Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, Adekunle Gold and Sarkodie, among many others have also rocked House of Tayo styles, not to mention his recently unveiled sportswear shirt that many people in Kigali and all over the world have embraced. This redefinition of Rwanda’s fashion by leading couture houses has made tailoring an even more decent vocation, contrary to when it was recommended for people who have failed in school, or who didn’t get a chance to go to school at all. It is also just recently that traditional Rwandan geometric designs referred to as ‘imigongo’ are resurfacing, and fashion houses that have adjusted are doing well. “Imigongo are really great designs which represent our Rwandan culture. Their patterns, colour combinations, everything about them, is just lovely and eye-catching. As customers have started to shop local, they want to wear something that's really unique and represents their country. They wear them with a lot of pride, I've never seen it before,” Nadine Kanyana, founder of House of Kanyana, a fashion house based in Kigali, said. Who knew that a country where people once wore hides, skins, and tree barks could dress the world?